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‘I have nothing of a saint about me,’ Newman insisted. He was wrong

Cardinal John Henry Newman

When Newman’s friends called him a saint, he insisted he was a mere writer. But now Rome has accepted a second miracle

Barring the unforeseen, John Henry Newman will be declared a saint next year. Church authorities have determined that a woman in Chicago who had a life-threatening pregnancy and a deacon in Boston who had a debilitating spinal condition were each miraculously healed after praying to Newman, thus clearing the way for his canonisation. In time, Newman may well be named a Doctor of the Church.

Perhaps the greatest mind and finest writer of his time, he devoted his considerable gifts to vindicating the religious convictions of the ordinary Catholics whose bodies he has now begun to heal. He stressed the real over the notional, the concrete over the abstract, the personal over the theoretical. “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination,” he wrote. “Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.”

Newman’s own influence amply bore out this conclusion. His manner, bearing and voice were enough to move men. They had a “mesmeric influence” (RW Church), a “wonderful charm” (AP Stanley) like a “magnetic stream” or “electric stroke” (JA Froude).

In a way, Newman’s beatification (in 2010) and canonisation come late. Newman was recognised as a saint by contemporaries in the 19th century, including by many outside the Catholic fold.

Veneration of Newman began at Oxford in the 1830s, when he was still an Anglican leading the Tractarian movement. “Light-hearted undergraduates would drop their voices and whisper, ‘There’s Newman’,” JC Shairp recalled. “Awe fell on them for a moment almost as if it had been some apparition that had passed.” One man wrote after seeing him: “I could almost have imagined that one of that glorious army of saints and martyrs, whose memory we were celebrating, had risen from the grave and come among us.”

After Newman had converted to Catholicism and been made a cardinal, men continued their praise. “His soul was in his voice, as a bird is in its song,” wrote Henry Scott Holland. And what a voice! Matthew Arnold rhapsodised that Newman had “the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music – subtile, sweet, mournful.” Emily Bowles wept when she first heard this “exquisite” voice ring out from the pulpit. When, at a reception in the parsonage afterward, Newman asked Bowles, “Will you have some cold chicken?”, she was so overwhelmed that her mother had to answer for her.

As his question to Bowles – both courteous and banal – should indicate, Newman did not put himself forth as a guru. A young visitor to Oxford found that Newman would rather play with his colleague’s children than talk on churchy topics:

After dinner, Dr Pusey’s children ran into the room. One climbed Newman’s knee and hugged him. Newman put his spectacles on him, and next on his sister, and great was the merriment of the Puseyan progeny. Newman, it is said, hates ecclesiastical conversation. He writes so much that when in society he seems always inclined to talk on light, amusing subjects. He told them a story of an old woman who had a broomstick which would go to the well, draw water, and do many other things for her; how the old woman got tired of the broomstick, and wishing to destroy it broke it in twain, and how, to the old woman’s great chagrin and disappointment, two live broomsticks grew from the broken parts of the old one!

Mary Holmes, who had admired Newman’s writing, found him unimpressive in person – and told him so. He told her that she had been wrong to expect an oracle. “I am not venerable,” he wrote to her. “I am very much like other people, and I do not think it necessary to abstain from the feelings and thoughts, not intrinsically sinful, which other people have. I cannot speak words of wisdom.”

When Newman was told that some thought him a saint, he became even more vehement: “I have nothing of a Saint about me as every one knows … Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales.” (Newman had written two novels.) “It is enough for me to black the saints’ shoes – if St Philip uses blacking, in heaven.”

Needless to say, Catholics did not heed him. Upon his death, Bowles called him “our lost saint”. Eleanor Watt wrote: “Please God my prayers may be answered that I shall live to see his canonisation begin before I die. He has certainly been canonised by the voice of the people.”

The happy day that Watt did not live to see, that Newman thought should never arrive, will soon be celebrated by Catholics all over the world.

Alongside Catholic devotion to Newman, there has arisen veneration of him as a queer icon, fuelled by his famous refinement of feeling and intellect, the fact that he never married, and his request to be buried alongside his dear friend Ambrose St John. It is true that Newman defied the mainstream Victorian ideal of bluff, athletic, self-consciously heterosexual manhood, which was hatched at Eton and Harrow and baptised by Charles Kingsley as “muscular Christianity”. But he experienced life without a woman’s love as a sacrifice, as Ian Ker has shown in his biography. After nearly dying in Sicily, Newman wrote of his desire for a “woman’s interest”, which, “so be it, shall never be taken in me … Yet, not the less do I feel the need of it.” He refused marriage not out of distaste, but for the sake of the Kingdom.

AN Wilson has asked whether Newman might not be called an “advanced egomaniac” rather than a saint. As evidence against Newman’s sanctity, Wilson adduces the fact that “much of the second half of Newman’s life was spent in various exercises of self-contemplation, of which the Apologia was only one example” (another is Newman sorting his correspondence). He also finds some of Newman’s letters “feline and acid”.

Of course, Newman wrote the Apologia under duress. It was his response to Kingsley’s attack on his character and the character of all Catholic priests. If sorting through one’s writing were unsaintly, we would have to deny the sanctity of Augustine, who at the end of his life made a careful review of his writing that resulted in The Retractions. If an occasional sensitivity were unsaintly, we would have to dispense with St Paul. Newman once praised the “tenderness and simplicity of character” that led Augustine, Jerome, and Basil “to an unstudied self-manifestation”. We see the same simple directness in Newman’s moments of exasperation.

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Newman’s favourite saints were the Church Fathers, because their controversial writings and correspondence gave him an exact knowledge of their characters and lives. “[They] have written autobiography on a large scale,” he said. “They have given us their own histories, their thoughts, words, and actions, in … productions which are in themselves some of their meritorious works.”

Veneration of Newman, always most intense among bookish Catholics, rests on the same basis. Whoever reads him still hears what Arnold called the “unforgotten voice”, still feels the force of his soul. In words and arguments, he gives a luminous sense of what the Christian life entails: strict adherence to the faith, easy liberality in all else, charity even in controversy – the virtues of the writing are virtues of the man, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

Still, it is delightful to think that the first Catholic known to have enjoyed divine favour through Newman’s intercession had not read a word of his prose. On the day that Jack Sullivan, a man studying for the diaconate in Boston, was diagnosed with a pinched spine, he went home and started watching television. “Switching channels, I accidentally stopped at the EWTN channel,” he wrote. “It was there that I was introduced to Cardinal John Henry Newman.”

That night he prayed that Newman would intercede for him. It was to this unliterary man that Newman showed his special favour.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things and a Robert Novak journalism fellow