"He had every opportunity to be feted and admired, but he chose a quiet life of pastoral work," according to Christopher Blum.
There are two aspects of the life of soon-to-be-Saint John Henry Newman that stand out for Christopher Blum, professor of history and theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver. One is his life of charity in living a “hidden life” as a priest.
Pope Francis will canonize Newman this coming Sunday, October 13, at the Vatican.
Newman was a high profile convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in the mid-19th century, and he could have enjoyed a life of prominence in the Church. He chose a different path, said Blum.
“There are a couple of headliner moments for Newman after his conversion: certainly the publication of the Apologia Pro Vita Sua in 1854, certainly his being made a cardinal in 1859,” said Blum, who also serves as the Augustine Institute’s Academic Dean. “These are moments when he’s brought before the public.
“But most of what he’s doing is pastoral work in the confessional, many hours a week; he’s saying Mass and preaching ordinary, sort of catechetical homilies to, for the most part, Irish immigrants in Birmingham,” Blum continued. “He had every opportunity to be in London, to be feted and admired, and he did not take those opportunities, but chose a quiet life of pastoral work.”
The other aspect of Newman that Blum admires is his dedication to the truth, in spite of suffering for it.
“Like every great saint, he suffered well,” Blum said. “In his case, his conversion was a wrenching change in his life. He took several years for him to take the plunge. He pretty much knew by 1841 he needed to convert, to save his soul, but he wasn’t able to take the step until 1845. And we can see in retrospect why it was so difficult for him. His mother and his sisters basically didn’t speak to him for the rest of his life. … His closest friends at Oxford and the Church of England did not convert, and in most cases he didn’t engage them for 20 years or more. So it was an extraordinary loss for him.”
Through it all, Newman retained his faith, hope and charity, Blum said.
It may be difficult for 21st century Americans, so accustomed to ecumenical diplomacy on the one hand and religious apathy on the other, to appreciate how a person’s family wouldn’t speak to him because of simply changing from one Church to another.
“From an English perspective in the mid-19th century, to be Catholic would be to be Spanish or French or Italian, which seemed very foreign—not English at all,” Blum explained. “The Catholic Church is just off-shore.”
In addition, there was the bad relations between the English and the Irish, the latter of whom were largely Catholic. “It’s pretty much impossible for Americans today to recapture the relations between the English and Irish in the mid-19th century,” the professor noted. “The Irish were criminally mistreated. The potato famine, which started in the year that Newman converted, was pretty much forced starvation at a certain level. It is the case that England welcomed lots of Irish immigrants—it would have been impossible to keep them out—but that contributed to the problem because in the 19th century, as we know from our American experience here, massive numbers of immigrants coming into an inner city area, a lot like Birmingham or the Eastern part of London, resulted in a political and cultural destabilization, on that local level. So the Irish immigrant is this lower class ‘other,’ and in the political cartoons of the 19th century, the Irish were frequently portrayed as apes.”
Blum doesn’t ascribe these sentiments to Newman’s mother and sisters, but is “simply trying to point out that joining the Catholic Church is turning your back on England, and it was just inconceivable in polite society.”
Newman’s situation might be compared to an Ivy League university in the early 21st century, where, out of upwards of 900 faculty members, a dozen or so might be practicing Catholics. “You don’t become a Catholic if you’re a professor at Princeton,” he said.
Blum is the editor of Waiting for Christ: Meditations for Advent and Christmas, a compact compilation of Newman’s sermons meditating on the coming of Christ and the Christian life.