Though he might be a Doctor of the Church some day, this saint has plenty to say to kids, too
John Henry Newman is the most recent man to be declared a Catholic saint. He was born in London in 1801 and died in Birmingham in 1890. He has many things to teach regarding theology and education of interest to certain people, but here are six equally important lessons for all people living an ordinary life, especially children growing up.
1Family and family life are very important
Today when many families are small in size, and the extended family spread out, often for work reasons, the new saint has lessons to teach us about the importance of a family in any circumstance: the care of others, the affection shared, and lessons learned.
John Henry was the oldest of six children. He grew up with two brothers and three sisters and good parents. He learned a lot from his parents, and from one grandmother and aunt. As he grew up, he was a good older brother to his siblings, helping them in their studies and with material needs.
Despite hard work, his father went bankrupt and died relatively young. Since he was the oldest, John Henry helped his mother with her living arrangements after his father’s death and often visited her. John Henry shows that it’s important to help one’s parents and siblings at all times, and even more when tragedy arises.
2Saints grow up as normal children; they are fun and always learning
When he was a boy John Henry played in the backyard of his house, and kept a notebook with drawings. Childhood is a time to play with siblings and friends, and to learn reading and writing. The new saint liked to write stories, and at his elementary school he started two magazines. He continued writing stories and books all his life.
As a child he also liked to read about the Greek heroes in Homer’s stories. He thought of their adventures and courage. Children learn to play musical instruments more easily than adults do. At this time young Newman began to learn to play the violin. It is important to be well rounded in early education, to cultivate hobbies that will last a lifetime. Newman enjoyed music his whole life.
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3Being outdoors, seeing animals, riding horses, and so on, opens the world for us
When Newman was born, cars did not exist, and the use of trains and railroads was only about to begin. People went about on foot, or on horseback if they could afford it. As a young man, when Newman went to study at Oxford University, he began riding horses. A long horse ride was a good way to exercise and to get fresh air. During those rides he would think and pray. At other times he rode with friends and had good conversations.
Other saints have also enjoyed the outdoors. In a letter addressed to the Youth of the World, St. John Paul II told the young people that contact with nature is very important. Through the natural world, they will discover the beauty and order of the created world and experience God’s love. As a young man and later as priest, St John Paul II had sought this contact with God in the mountains and valleys of Poland.
4Doing schoolwork well helps children make good use of talents and prepares them to be future citizens
When he was a child, video games did not exist, but had he been born today, it is very unlikely that he would have spent his time on these games. St. John Henry teaches children and youth to take seriously their schoolwork, using the talents they have received from God. Young Newman was a good student. He read and studied a lot. He studied Latin, the language spoken by the Romans and later used by Christians for saying Mass. Latin was also the written language for books for over 1,000 years. Newman won prizes in Latin composition, and became an excellent writer. With this personal experience he was later able to teach others how the study of grammar and definitions forms a person’s mind and the capacity to reason well.
5Love for God should come first in our lives
Newman learned to pray from his parents, and to read the Bible from his grandmother. As a teenager he had a greater awareness of God as a real, personal Being and Maker who speaks to each one of his creatures — his children. This relationship with God increased through his reading and meditation of the Bible and practice of the virtues. Gradually his love for God grew and he would spend more time in prayer. Later he discovered the beauty of the recitation of the psalms and prayers of the liturgy. Finally he discovered the Catholic Mass, the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary offered in Catholic churches. In the Holy Eucharist he would find Jesus and experience a calm and joyful peace. During the Mass he prayed for people, especially for his family members and friends.
6Love of neighbor is a natural consequence of love for God
Every saint shows us by his or her example how to treat others with a love and respect that follows from our love for God. John Henry lived with charity for his family members and friends, a love that was not showy and lived out in concrete ways. As an Anglican clergyman, and later a Catholic priest, he visited persons who were sick, taught and encouraged students, and prayed for them. He helped some find jobs, and coached many in their writing skills.
A story that happened in the last year of his life shows how much he thought of others’ needs. In a factory owned by Quakers, some Catholic working girls were obliged to say Quaker prayers organized by the factory owners. Upon hearing this, Newman went to the factory on a cold winter’s day and convinced the management to allow the girls to say their own prayers. This anecdote describes who saints are: men and women who love God as their children, and who use the talents received to love and serve others. John Henry Newman was just that: a very good son and loyal brother, a dedicated teacher, a prayerful priest, a man who loved God and neighbor with all his heart and mind — and now he is a saint. Saints are good family members; they are hardworking, have fun, and know how to love.
~ Fr. Juan R. Vélez, is author of Brave Leader, Big Hearts: St. John Henry Newman’s Adventures (Scepter Publishers, 2020) and other books on Cardinal Newman.