On Thursday, October 2, 2008, undertakers at a small cemetery in Rednal, Worcestershire, England, attempted to dig out a 119-year-old coffin containing the Venerable John Henry Newman. The plan, approved by the Vatican and the British government, was to exhume the remains of the great Victorian cardinal and transport them 10 miles down the road to the Birmingham Oratory in Edgbaston, where they would be re-incarcerated into a grand marble sarcophagus.
The unveiling of this new shrine, it was hoped, would coincide neatly with Newman’s long-awaited formal beatification, the announcement of which was expected any day from Rome. Further, English Catholics dared to believe that, after his beatification, Newman—arguably the greatest Catholic intellectual of the last two centuries—would soon be recognized as England’s first post- Reformation saint. Newman’s supporters also looked forward to seeing him named a Doctor of the Church. Such an outcome would represent a major landmark for Catholicism across the English-speaking world.
But the grave was empty. The cardinal had vanished. Inspectors quickly discovered why: more than a century of damp—of the uniquely potent English variety—had rotted Newman’s cadaver into nothingness. Even his bones and teeth were gone. All that was left were the two brass handles once attached to the casket, some chards of wood, a few dirty tassels from the cardinal’s hat, and a plaque declaring (in Latin): “The Most Eminent and Most Reverend John Henry Newman Cardinal Deacon of St George in Velabro Died 11 August 1890 RIP.”
In more pious times, such a complete bodily decomposition might have imperiled Newman’s cause. Even today there are mystically-minded Catholics inclined to support the Orthodox Church in upholding the ancient association of sanctity with incorruptibility of the flesh. Happily for those who support Newman’s claims, however, the Roman Catholic Church does not demand that its saints should have oxygen- proof corpses. After all, even the body of “the Little Flower,” St. Thérèse of Lisieux, speedily wilted after her death in 1897.
So, while one can be quite certain that, had Newman’s corpse been found in a perfect state of preservation, much would have been made of the fact, his corporal evanescence did not greatly trouble his admirers. “The absence of physical remains in the grave does not affect the progress of Cardinal Newman’s cause in Rome,” insisted Father Paul Chavasse, provost of the Birmingham Oratory and the postulator of Newman’s cause. “The Birmingham Oratory has always been in possession of some actual physical remains of Cardinal Newman. These consist of some locks of hair.”
Most observers saw the funny side. Father Chavasse jokingly referred to a passage from Newman’s poem “The Dream of Gerontius,” in which the cardinal described the “inexpressive lightness” of death. And an editorial in Britain’s Catholic Herald remarked: “The fact that they found not even a trace of his mortal remains might have appealed to the cardinal’s understated English sense of humor.”
England’s Catholics were equally unfazed—though somewhat less amused—by an earlier news story surrounding the intended exhumation. The attention grabbing gay activist Peter Tatchell had denounced the Church’s decision to move Newman’s body as “an act of grave-robbing, sacrilege, and desecration.”
The plan to remove the cardinal’s body, Tatchell claimed, was “contrary to Newman’s own repeatedly expressed wishes to remain buried in the same grave as the man he loved.” He suggested that Newman’s 30-year friendship with Father Ambrose St. John, the priest with whom the cardinal lived and was buried, proved that he was a homosexual. “Allowing the Catholic Church to override Newman’s explicit instructions to his executors is truly shameful,” he added. “The pope does not have the right to violate the cardinal’s wishes.”
Father Ian Ker, Newman’s biographer and a leading authority on the cardinal, dismissed Tatchell’s remarks as “absolute rubbish.” “Nowadays there is no concept of friendship,” he said. “In those days they had a concept of a loving friendship we have lost today…. You no longer can say you love your friend…. Is this going to get to the point when fathers no longer can say they love their daughters? It is quite horrendous, the implications of this nonsense.”
Father Chavasse added that Cardinal Newman would have happily accepted the will of the Vatican on this matter. “As a great man of the Church and devoted to the saints himself, Cardinal Newman would have been the first to insist on obeying a request of the Holy See and the last to insist that his own personal wishes be regarded as immutable,” he said in a statement.
At any rate, neither Tatchell’s attempt to stir controversy, nor the failed exhumation, appears to have slowed the progress of Newman’s cause. Quite the opposite. In July, Cardinal Newman’s imminent beatification was announced after Vatican investigators finally approved the inexplicable healing of Jack Sullivan as a miracle. Sullivan, a deacon in Boston who suffered from a severe spinal problem, began praying to Newman after he had watched a documentary about the 19th-century cardinal on EWTN. His condition rapidly improved, and he eventually achieved a full recovery.
A date for Newman’s beatification ceremony has still not been set. Yet in September, leading news agencies reported that next year Benedict XVI would make a papal pilgrimage to Britain— the first by a pope since John Paul II’s trip to the United Kingdom in 1982. The news, unconfirmed by the Vatican at the time of writing, has prompted excited speculation among Catholics that the Pontiff’s intention is to mark Newman’s beatification on English soil. “I am sure the beatification will now take place while the Pope is here,” said Father Ker. “I suspect the reason why no date or place has yet been announced for the beatification is precisely because it will be made to dovetail with the Pope’s program while he is here.”
It has often been said that Benedict XVI is a longstanding admirer of Newman. The Pope has cited repeatedly the importance of Newman in his own intellectual and spiritual development. In 1990, for instance, then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave a talk to a symposium organized by the International Center of Newman Friends to mark the centenary of the English cardinal’s death.
“The characteristic of the great doctor of the Church,” said the future Pontiff, “is that he teaches not only through his thought and speech, but also by his life, because within him thought and life are interpenetrated and defined. If this is so, then Newman belongs to the great teachers of the Church, because he both touches our hearts and enlightens our thinking.”
For Benedict, Newman’s concept of magisterial “development”— an argument that Newman meticulously explained as he made his spiritual journey from Evangelicalism to Anglicanism and finally to Catholicism—holds a particular and personal resonance. Ratzinger once described Newman as “a spiritual father and an inspiring master on the way to holiness and a secure guide in the search for truth.” Or as he later put it to the journalist Peter Seewald in Salt of the Earth (1997), “I don’t deny that there has been development and change in my life, but I hold firmly that it is a development and change within a fundamental identity and that I, precisely in changing, have tried to remain faithful to what I have always had at heart. Here I agree with Cardinal Newman, who says that to live is to change and that the one who was capable of changing has lived much.”
In Newman, it seems, the Pope sees a thinker who grasped intuitively— perhaps miraculously— the spiritual problems of western modernity. Newman’s genius was his ability to develop a rigorous theological defense of Catholicism that was both pertinent to and ahead of its time, most famously in Apologia Pro Vita Sua, his dazzling and triumphant defense of his own conversion.
Newman is thus often described as the “Father of Vatican II.” In his copious writings, he provided insights into the nature of revelation, religious freedom, the Church’s role in the modern world, and ecumenism—all topics of major concern to the Second Vatican Council.
“Where Newman anticipated the council in his theology, he was always careful not to exaggerate, not to lose his balance,” explains Father Ker. “It is well known, for example, that Newman championed the cause of the laity, but he never conceived of some kind of lay-as-opposed-to-clerical Church.”
It is fitting, then, that Newman’s cause—so long delayed, compared to other “fast-tracked” modern causes— should have made such remarkable strides under the supervision of Benedict XVI, a pope for whom a well-balanced understanding of the Second Vatican Council is so crucial.
Like Newman, the Pope has tried to emphasize the idea of renewal through tradition—what some Catholics call the hermeneutic of continuity. Benedict XVI has repeatedly stressed that Vatican II must be recognized within the context of this organic evolution. The council, Benedict argues, was “essential and fundamental,” but should never be viewed as a moment when the Church broke from the intellectual anchors of its past.
This interpretive nuance puts Pope Benedict at odds with the radical progressivism of some post-conciliar thought, as well as with the absolute anti-conciliarism of more hardened traditionalists. Yet Benedict’s view of modern Church history finds strong echoes in Newman. “Looking at early history,” Newman wrote, reflecting on the importance of Church councils, “it would seem as if the Church moved on to the perfect truth by successive declarations, alternatively in contrary directions… perfecting, completing, supplying each other.”
Newman’s admirers have predicted that Pope Benedict XVI will not only formally recognize Newman as a saint, but further declare him a Doctor of the post-Conciliar Church—the first since St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Papal support and intellectual brilliance do not suffice to make a saint, however. It should be noted that John Paul II was also strongly influenced by Newman’s thought, yet although he canonized 482 saints during his papacy— far more than any other pope— Newman’s cause under him only advanced to the “venerable” stage.
Miracles are needed. Yet, for all the enthusiasm for Newman that exists in the English-speaking world, instances of healing through Cardinal Newman’s supernatural influence have hardly been abundant. The notorious rake and lothario Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Newman’s contemporary, once reported the “small miracle” of being instantly cured, through the intercession of the cardinal’s handshake, of a bad toothache. Somehow, though, that particular event has never been recognized by Rome.
THE ENGLISH AND MIRACLES
Maybe a problem here is that the English are not inclined to embrace the miraculous. “The English are not very good at miracles,” as Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, archbishop of Westminster, tried to explain to Pope John Paul II. “It is not that we are not pious, but the English tend to think of God as a gentleman who should not be bullied.” Indeed, this was a characteristic that Newman had deplored. “It would be a gain to this country,” he had written while still an Anglican, “were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more…fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself.”
Newman himself was always determined to keep open the possibility of miracles. In the realm of faith, he believed, it was better to accept too much rather than too little. According to his biographer Owen Chadwick, “Cold complacency seemed to Newman a worse sin than bigotry, which at least is hot for truth even if its eyes are blinkered.” Especially in his first years as a Catholic, Newman declined to reject even the most incredible miracles—for example, that Jesus’ home in Nazareth had been moved by angels to Loreto in northern Italy.
Today, it is thanks to American Catholics—who seem to be more receptive to the supernatural than their English-speaking counterparts—that Newman’s cause is progressing. After accepting the inexplicability of Mr. Sullivan’s recovery, the Vatican is expected to examine the case of Andrew Munroe, a 16 year-old in New Hampshire who awoke from a vegetative state after a lock of Newman’s hair was flown over from Britain and placed at his bedside.
Even if the Munroe case does not pass muster, Catholics remain confident that Newman’s beatification next year will prompt reports of further miracles. “There is a high chance that Cardinal Newman will be canonized within a decade,” says Luke Coppen, editor of the Catholic Herald. “His imminent beatification will further raise his profile around the world and spur more people to pray for his intercession in moments of crisis. This may lead to a further inexplicable healing that would fulfill the requirement for canonization.”
Perhaps, as the faith of American Catholics pushes Newman closer to his formal recognition as a saint, the British religious character is undergoing a transformation. This September, in a surprising display of public piety, more than 20,000 Britons came out to venerate the relics of St. Thérèse as they toured the country. The Puritan zealots of Oliver Cromwell’s day are doubtless revolving in their damp English graves.
For British Catholics, then, this might be a time of hope. Is it possible that Newman’s ascension to the altars of the Church, combined with a well-timed apostolic visit from Pope Benedict XVI, might engender a mysterious religious revival in the land once regarded as Mary’s Dowry? John Henry Newman certainly believed that such miracles happen.
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