By Simon Caldwell
LONDON (CNS) – The British government has agreed to allow the exhumation of the body of a 19th-century cardinal whose cause for sainthood is widely expected to progress soon to beatification.
The Ministry of Justice granted a licence to allow undertakers to dig up the body of Cardinal John Henry Newman from a grave in a small cemetery in the suburbs of Birmingham, England, and transfer it to a marble sarcophagus in a church in the city, where it can be venerated by pilgrims. The licence was expected to arrive on August 11, the 118th anniversary of the cardinal’s death in 1890.
Approval had been delayed by several months because of a 19th-century law that forbids the transfer of bodies from graves to church tombs.
But Sir Suma Chakrabarti, permanent secretary to the Ministry of Justice, finally decided to make an exception to allow the exhumation to go ahead.
The licence was confirmed in an August 6 letter sent to Peter Jennings, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Birmingham, by Robert Clifford, the head of the burials team of the coroners unit of the Ministry of Justice.
Jennings told Catholic News Service in an August 8 telephone interview that he was “most grateful” to the government “for granting this licence in exceptional circumstances.”
“The Ministry of Justice has recognised the importance of (Cardinal) Newman as a national figure and as a figure of great importance to the country, the Church and to ecumenism,” he said.
Jennings said the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes wanted Cardinal Newman’s body to be moved into a setting that befits his status as a potential saint.
He said that undertakers will open the lead-lined coffin at the graveside and Cardinal Newman’s corpse, wearing the vestments of a priest, will be photographed. It will then be transferred to a morgue where “major relics” – such as bones from the cardinal’s hands – will be retrieved.
Cardinal Newman’s remains will be moved to a new coffin that will be displayed to the public before it is placed in a marble sarcophagus after a celebratory Mass in the Birmingham Oratory church.
The tomb will be engraved with the cardinal’s motto: “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem” (from shadows and images into the truth).
The date of the exhumation will be kept secret but will take place before December, when Pope Benedict XVI is expected to announce Cardinal Newman’s beatification.
Born in London in 1801, Cardinal Newman was an Anglican priest who led the Oxford movement in the 1830s to draw Anglicans to their Catholic roots.
He converted to Catholicism at the age of 44 after a succession of clashes with Anglican bishops made him a virtual outcast from the Church of England.
Cardinal Newman’s cause was opened in 1958. In April, Vatican medical consultants ruled that an inexplicable healing in August 2001 was a result of his intercession. Deacon Jack Sullivan of Marshfield, Massachusetts, had been suffering from a serious spinal disorder but was cured after praying to the cardinal.
The case is now being studied by a committee of theological consultors, who will meet again on September 30.
If they decide that the healing was a miracle and their finding is confirmed by the sainthood congregation and the Pope, it will mean that Cardinal Newman can be beatified and declared “blessed.” A second miracle is needed for his cause to progress to canonisation.