Monday 9 October 2023

St John Henry Newman: Theologian, Oratorian

It is apt that this year our Cardinal’s feast day falls on the first working day of Michaelmas Term, given that a considerable part of St John Henry’s life was spent in the University of this city, as a student and as a don. He was an immensely influential figure while he was a Fellow at Oriel: hordes of undergraduates piled into the University Church to hear him preach, and the Tractarian movement of which he was a central part changed the face of the Church of England forever. Even after he had become a Catholic and left Oxford, he continued producing significant academic works, especially in the areas of conscience and the philosophy of faith. His contributions to Catholic theology were so significant that he was made cardinal by Pope Leo XIII, and his theological legacy is still being examined to this day, amid suggestions that he ought to be made a Doctor of the Church.

This is often how Newman is remembered: a theologian, a cardinal, and not much else. If one were to have asked the elderly Cardinal Newman what his life was about, however, he would surely have named something else entirely. The Apologia, his spiritual autobiography and defence of his religious convictions, ends:

I have closed this history of myself with St Philip’s name upon St Philip’s feast-day; and, having done so, to whom can I more suitably offer it, as a memorial of affection and gratitude, than to St Philip’s sons, my dearest brothers of this House, the Priests of the Birmingham Oratory?

Newman was not just a theologian with a red hat: the real axis on which his life revolved was being a son of our Holy Father St Philip. When he and his group of fellow-converts were looking for an order to join, he saw in the Oratory a place where active pastoral ministry was combined with more room for prayer and contemplation and for time spent studying than would normally be available to the average secular priest, and it is clear from his extensive corpus of writings produced while he was an Oratorian that he put that time to good use. However, what is so often forgotten is that his time was mostly spent doing his best to be a devoted son of St Philip, not merely by his detailed research into the origins of Oratorian life in an effort to mimic as closely as possible St Philip’s methods and intentions, but above all in his practical work. His life was spent hearing confessions, preaching in that straightforward and engaging manner encouraged by St Philip — cor ad cor loquitur — and following St Philip in practical work to assist the poor, trading washing the feet of pilgrims to Rome for providing an education to the poor of Victorian Birmingham. St John Henry was certainly a great theologian, but it is impossible to understand him properly if we forget that he was, first and foremost, a son of St Philip.