John Henry Newman, a giant of the English Church, is to be beatified.
This is good news for Newman’s brother priests in the London, Oxford, and Birmingham Oratories, long-time bastions of liturgical rigour, and aesthetic splendour.
It is also good news for the many students and scholars influenced by Newman’s life and work.
Indeed in many places, Newman’s name is affixed to colleges, schools and universities.
His ideas and writings continue to offer profound insights into disciplines as diverse as theology, philosophy, education, music, literature and politics.
Where Newman’s patronage is implored and his writings studied closely, the Church is beloved.
Newman’s client institutions are renowned for orthodoxy, and for academic excellence.
Newman was, of course, a master controversialist and a beautiful writer. He was a first-rate apologist for Catholicism – for truth, for Christ – and the by-turns gentle, crystalline, radiant, inscrutable wisdom of the Christian faith.
He gave everything for the Church – his sexuality, his intellect, his gifts at music composition, and writing – and risked much to proclaim the truth about God, and about man.
He was particularly brave to do so at a time when simply being a Catholic in deeply Protestant England was difficult indeed.
For this reason Catholic groups on university campuses have long been called Newman Societies and efforts to keep Catholic colleges in the United States – and elsewhere – close to the Church’s patrimony and mission are carried out under the aegis of Newman’s seminal work on higher education: The Idea of a University.
Those many young men and women who have benefited from Newman’s gracious, erudite patronage will rejoice at his elevation.
Newman’s beatification is good news too for Anglicans and Episcopalians.
Newman (1801-1890) spent much of his life as an Anglican. Part of the process of becoming a saint is a declaration that the individual in question has lived a life of ‘heroic virtue’.
A good part of Newman’s life (he converted on October 9, 1845), if not the best part, was spent as a faithful son of what he then thought, and some people of goodwill still think, was the enduring, ancient church of St Augustine: the ‘catholick church’ founded on the See of Canterbury.
The spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and in many respects counter-nationalistic transformations Newman had to undergo in order to recognise the Pope as the successor of St Peter, and to greet the Church of Rome as – at last – Christ’s Church – make up the bulk of his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. This is the masterful ‘apology’, or defence that Newman offered for his conversion, and life.
It remains a classic, the bulwark of any useful Anglican-Catholic dialogue.
Newman’s beatification is, then, good news for Christian unity.
It is also, however, joyous news for same sex attracted men. For Newman, perhaps uniquely among all the saints of the Church, lived very close to our times, and was extremely intimate with his beloved friend, Ambrose St John.
Newman wrote of St John:
“From the first he loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable.
“As far as this world was concerned I was his first and last.”
When St John died in May, 1875 Newman was undone. He said that the loss was the “greatest affliction I have had in my life” and then went further, writing: “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s…but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one’s sorrow greater, than mine.”
A year later, Newman declared: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St John’s grave – and I give this as my last, my imperative will.”
When Newman’s body is exhumed for the beatification, and – God-willing – canonisation rites, he will leave St John’s side for the first time since 1890.
In Newman’s life, and in his remarkable friendship with Ambrose St John, young same sex attracted men have a model for purity and chastity.
Newman decided when he was 15 that he belonged to the Lord, and wrote stirring, magnificent defences (even as an Anglican) of priestly celibacy.
Long after the din of the so-called culture wars has died down, Newman’s life-affirming friendship with Ambrose St John will shine out.
It is a challenge to the hyper-sexualised ‘gay’ world, a signal witness for our times. It is a sign of hope for human friendship; a witness to the fact that love between men can be holy, and His.
By beatifying John Henry Newman, the Church therefore gives same sex attracted men and women, and English-speaking Catholics everywhere, a powerful intermediary.
We have a mighty model for how to grow together in friendship and love.
John Heard is a Melbourne writer.