It felt as if we were in a film. Rustling birds announced the approach of dawn in the Eternal City. A tinkle came from the convent in the garden. Gently a couple more bells joined in before an authoritative boom from St Peter’s struck seven o’clock, seven minutes late. A female voice in our residenza sang the first verse of Praise to the Holiest in the Height, reminding us of why we were here.
Our first visit was to the Chiesa Nuova, the 16th-century Oratorian mother church where some English girls were waiting to distribute tickets for pilgrims’ events, while in the queue two scholars reminded us of work being done on the papers of Newman’s rival Cardinal Manning.
After attending Mass at St Philip’s chapel it was clear to us that every white-collared Oratorian Father who was anybody was coming to Rome and that pilgrims, normally cautious about discussing the faith in the streets, were talking freely about their path to Newman through schooling, reading and, in some cases, the experience of illness. I also found myself wondering whether the modern pilgrims’ way, crammed in the aircraft of BA, EasyJet and Ryanair, was touched by a return of that confident Victorian Englishness which we had long been expected to suppress.
At a colloquium in the depths of the Vatican hosted by the British ambassador Sally Axworthy, the French Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet spoke with some emotion of Newman’s effect on Catholic theology and Lord Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University, smoothly talked about the aims of education without referring to current politics in British universities. A sister from the community known as The Work concentrated on Newman’s call to holiness.
Reluctantly leaving the munificent lunch at the Casina Pio IV, we headed for the Angelicum for a series of less ecumenically oriented talks and responses which began with George Weigel’s description of Newman’s study at the Birmingham Oratory. Here the focus was on the Grammar of Assent and The Idea of a University.
Sister Catherine Joseph Droste gave short shrift to such Eastern-inspired concepts as “mindfulness” which ignored the first precepts of Newman’s teaching. Fr Guy Nicholls discussed Newman’s attitude to music, poetry and architecture, and gave a welcome insight into his work as a priest in Birmingham, while Professor Tracey Rowland won a round of applause when she mentioned the imprisoned Cardinal Pell. The evening concluded with a vigil of prayer and sacred music from the angelic voices of the London Oratory School choir.
As the sun rose over the entrance to St Peter’s on the morning of the canonisation a group of young Swiss struck up the Salve Regina, while the tidal wave of worshippers from across the world resembled a mixture of Roman legionaries with banners and a gigantic rugby scrum. When my wife complained about some pushing and shoving, a Dominican nun told her that nuns were the worst – except for her own community, of course. Yet for all the babble, the vast crowd was reduced to total silence at the Consecration.
A reminder of the essential spiritual factor was the presence of the two recipients of miracles who had appealed to the now St John Henry Newman for help in their hour of need. Deacon Jack Sullivan was a retired American magistrate with a severely damaged spine, and Melissa Villalobos, who had a life-threatening haemorrhage in pregnancy, was accompanied by her husband and seven beautiful and perfectly behaved children. Both gave readings, Mrs Villalobos at the Saturday evening vigil of prayer at Santa Maria Maggiore and Deacon Jack Sullivan read the Gospel at the final celebratory Mass at San Giovanni in Laterano.
And what of the outside world? The only mention of the continuing constitutional crisis at Westminster came from Fr Ian Ker, author of the best biography (now republished with some additional information), who had arrived with two of his Neocat parishioners. When a member of a television crew suggested taking a comb to his hair, he said he wanted to retain his “Boris Brexit look”. Nevertheless, a stream of admirers came up to him, and he was seen sitting on a chair while a Dominican theologian was at his feet.
The presence of the Prince of Wales at the ceremony was an important milestone in healing the wounds of the Reformation. Already acknowledged as one of the greatest Victorian writers, St John Henry will now be sure to appear alongside Winston Churchill in those lists of great national heroes which newspapers periodically compile. In Rome, heart undoubtedly spoke unto heart, in best Newman tradition, making the entire event truly unforgettable for all who have been touched by this great man.
David Twiston Davies is a former chief obituary writer of the Daily Telegraph
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