Father C. John McCloskey, a fellow at the Faith and Research Institute in Washington, DC, currently resides in Chicago. In 2000, he hosted a television series on EWTN about Cardinal John Henry Newman, which played a role in the miracle necessary for his elevation from venerable to blessed. Deacon John Sullivan, whose miraculous recovery from chronic back pain has been attributed to Newman, credits the show with prompting his intercessory prayers to the 19th-century English cardinal. CWR spoke to Father McCloskey about Cardinal Newman.
Why did you host a television series on Cardinal Newman?
Father McCloskey: I wanted to help viewers appreciate the greatness of this seminal figure of English-speaking Catholicism, a man who was, simply put, a religious genius. So the series consisted of interviews and discussions with Newman experts about various facets of his life as well as his work.
Newman wasn’t a new subject of interest for you, isn’t that right?
Father McCloskey: Not by a long shot. He’s like a dear friend whom I want to introduce to others. I’d written my doctoral thesis and other scholarly works on the Venerable John Henry. But my aim in the series wasn’t merely to inform viewers. I also wanted to inspire devotion to Newman by encouraging viewers to go to his intercession for their particular needs with the hope that he might also be raised to the altars. At the end of every episode, I placed a prayer card on-screen and encouraged viewers to pray to him for his intercession.
So the end of a show was the beginning of a beatification. When did you learn about the miracle attributed to the intercession you encouraged?
Father McCloskey: Sometime in 2002-2003, I received a letter at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC, where I was then the director, from a Mr. Jack Sullivan, a deacon from the South Shore of Boston. He told me he’d been cured of a chronic spinal illness due to having watched my series and having recourse to the intercession of Venerable John Henry. He asked me what the next step was. As I remember, I wrote back encouraging him to contact the Very Reverend Paul Chavasse, the head of the Birmingham Oratory and postulator of the cause of Cardinal Newman’s canonization.
How did Deacon Sullivan’s response strike you at the time?
Father McCloskey: I initially dismissed it. Many people believe they have received a miracle, but it is not that easy! Today many people mistake medicine for a miracle. I then put it out of my mind, assuming that nothing had come of it until a year or two later when my friend, Father Ian Ker, perhaps the greatest expert on Cardinal Newman of our time and a guest of mine on the EWTN series, contacted me from England saying that the Birmingham Oratory was sending the Sullivan “cure” to Rome for examination by the Congregation of the Saints. The miracle was approved as unexplainable by a group of doctors. Hopefully a group of theologians will concur. The rest has already been reported as we wait the announcement of the beatification itself this fall.
Wait and pray, of course.
Father McCloskey: Indeed. And we have a new special intention: to pray for a second miracle so that Blessed John Henry may be canonized. And can we not also hope that he might be a declared a Doctor of the Church—for his preaching, great works of theology, and the profound influence he’s had on the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and so many souls? Yes, we can and we will.
It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable intention. After all, in 1990, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that Cardinal Newman had the chief characteristic of a Doctor of a Church: i.e., one who taught not only by word and thought but by the totality of his life. Before I learned much about Cardinal Newman, however, I held a common misapprehension about him that dated from his own day: namely, that this brilliant intellectual lived in an Ivy Tower—profound to theologians, no doubt, but not a man most could identify with. I know better now, but would you please dispel this misapprehension by telling readers what Venerable John Henry was like?
Father McCloskey: Well, no one would describe Newman as an extrovert. He had a shy, retiring nature, but he was not at all monastic. Like all devout Christians, he was not of the world, but he lived fully within it. He had this uniquely English joie de vivre, characterized by an extraordinary gift for friendship. Just consider the many volumes of his letters and diaries or glance at the index in his autobiographical works.
Yes, friendship. I think the key to understanding Newman is realizing how wonderfully well he lived that vocation God calls all of his children to: the apostolate of friendship. Friendship is one of the most effective means by which we can share our love of God with our fellow human beings. This is true of clergy as well as laymen, for whom it’s perhaps the most effective means.
What made him such a good friend, and so good at making friends?
Father McCloskey: Consider the phrase he chose as his personal motto, Cor ad cor loquitur: “Heart speaking to heart.” Newman understood the centrality of the need to make a sincere gift of self to others. To reach out in love. To share one’s faith through friendship. Friendship is such a powerful means of evangelization precisely because it’s so personal. And this personal form of evangelization complemented Newman’s more public means of outreach—his writing, most obviously, but also the preaching for which he was famous.
Newman was like all men with a remarkable gift for friendship in that he had a wholly integrated personality—a union of heart and mind with the emotional balance necessary to allow one to exhibit the virtues most brilliantly and, hence, attractively. So it’s not surprising that the saints Newman most admired could all be described as humanly attractive: saints such as his own spiritual father St. Philip Neri, St. Paul, St. Francis de Sales, and the early Church Fathers, the study of whom so influenced his decision to enter the Church in middle age.
Newman was such a great friend because he realized the transcendent purpose of friendship. He recognized that, without faith and grace, the human virtues which make true friendship possible count for nothing toward one’s salvation. Newman enjoyed faith and grace in abundance, and he encouraged them in his friends—and this includes the many people who sought him out for spiritual direction. How can a Christian love a friend and not work to promote his salvation? Impossible.
Like Newman before his conversion, the poet T.S. Eliot was a High-Church Anglican. He also esteemed Newman, though obviously not well enough in the religious sense to follow him to Rome. The poet said, “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” Is this true of Newman?
Father McCloskey: Yes, I suppose so. Friendship with Newman remains a very real possibility, though obviously it requires more faith on our part than if we had the blessing to meet him in person. When you think about it, it doesn’t take a medical miracle to prove that his influence continues to produce wonderful fruit. Consider the millions of people who have delved into his works and allowed themselves to be hypnotized by his spell and effected change in their own lives.
Father McCloskey: Yes, Newman does cast a spell. He was arguably the greatest English prose stylist ever, certainly of the Victorian era, and it’s hard to think of an author who expresses his own views more clearly. And such views! To read Newman is to encounter a holy soul and a powerful mind providing deep theological and psychological insights. It’s rare for an intellectual convert to Catholicism not to give Newman a large share of the credit for his conversion. I speak from plenty of personal experience as a spiritual director.
Newman is widely accepted as the “invisible peritus” (i.e., expert) behind the Second Vatican Council’s reconsideration of the role of the laity in the Church. Please explain.
Father McCloskey: Well, when he was alive, some people in the Church misinterpreted Newman as a dangerous liberal because of his insistence on the role of the laity in the Church. But remember that there’s one vocation we’re all called to: the vocation of friendship by which we influence others, thus bringing them closer to Christ and his Church. Because it’s universal, that role isn’t restricted to the clergy. That was Newman’s view. It doesn’t strike us as odd today, but it was in dramatic contrast with the clericalism of his day, which tended to see all matters of the faith as the domain of the clergy, with the laity serving the completely subservient role of obedient followers.
Newman’s desire—what the thrust of his ministry sought to effect—was an “intelligent, well-instructed laity.” Newman realized that the laity always have been the measure of the Catholic spirit in every day and age. So his ideal of an educated, well-formed layman—a layman who knows his faith and, ipso facto, is completely loyal to the Magisterium of the Church—this ideal of his prefigured the renewed emphasis on the laity in the Second Vatican Council. It also prefigured Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s call for a new evangelization, with laymen and clergy working together to advance Christ’s Church.
Thanks for bringing us to John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Both held Newman in high regard, recognizing not only his timeless sanctity, but also his uniquely modern-day relevance: in particular, his perspicacious recognition of the dangers inherent in a “spirit of liberalism in religion.” Why was he so keen on this issue?
Father McCloskey: At the heart of Newman’s belief was the dogmatic principle. For that, one needs an authority that teaches indefectibly in matters of faith and morals what is necessary to believe to be saved. Liberalism, for Newman, was religious indifferentism: that one religion is as good as another. His beatification at this time will help all Christians, as moved by the Spirit, to come “home” to the Catholic Church and put an end to schism and “reformation.”
If one is interested in knowing more about Venerable John Henry, where is a good place to start?
Father McCloskey: Read his Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Father Ian Ker’s excellent biography, then tackle any of his many works that attract your interest. Once hooked, you will never stop reading and re-reading them. If you like, you can also browse my website, which contains my own articles about Newman, and my doctoral dissertation about him, too. It’s www.fathermccloskey.com.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!