Grazie Pozo Christie on Why John Newman, the Newest Catholic Saint, is a Model of Making Reason Our Path to God

A portrait of Cardinal John Henry Newman made by Sir John Everett Millais in 1881. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Grazie Pozo Christie is a physician and is a policy adviser for The Catholic Association. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

On Sunday (Oct. 13), Pope Francis will canonize Cardinal John Newman, the first Englishman to be made a saint since Pope Paul VI canonized the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, who were killed for their Catholic faith during the Protestant Reformation.

Unlike his compatriots, who endured savage execution and ignoble burial, Newman died quietly in his bed in 1890 at the advanced age of 89. Like those earlier martyrs, however, Newman courageously followed where truth led him, even when it led through ignominy and exile from everything he held dear. His countrymen appreciated him for it: Thousands lined the streets of Birmingham to watch his funeral cortege go by.

Yet Newman is not a figure who readily captures the popular imagination or easily inspires fervent devotion. Newman’s holiness is understated; his life’s work a glassy lake of extraordinary spiritual depths. In those depths, however, are the elements that make him a pivotal figure in modern church history — a man whose versatility of mind, elegant rhetoric and robust defense of both conscience and fidelity exert a profound influence on the church today.

More than 120 years after his death he inspires theologians to seek more confidently for the truth, and the church to engage modernity vigorously.

These are heady achievements that are not always easy to fully grasp, but on the occasion of his canonization, the question for Catholics is: How to make St. John Newman ours?

I can tell you how I made him mine.

Literature was at a high water mark in Newman’s Victorian England, and the period’s classics still speak to universal human aspirations just as deeply today. My reading of Victorian literature led me eventually to Newman. He is considered a minor author — unjustly so, for his writing is luminously adorned and deeply moving, at times savage like Swift and grotesque like Dickens. His work includes poetry, novels and, most famously, his spiritual autobiography, “Apologia pro Vita Sua.” It is in this “Defense of His Life” that we can find a sure way into the very heart of Newman.

The book is a fascinating account of the movements of one of the finest and most independent of human minds in the search for truth. A convert to evangelical Christianity as a teen, he began to move away from his early Calvinist beliefs while at Oxford University. At age 24 he was ordained in the Church of England, and by the 1830s, his close reading of the early church fathers inspired him to establish a more definite doctrinal foundation for the Church of England, believing that it needed a stronger sacramental and emotional core to survive.

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Source: Religion News Service