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Diary: Working on the canonisation team has been an experience of grace

(CNS photo from Crosiers)

The last week of our preparations for the Newman canonisation has begun. As I pack my bags to go to Rome and prepare for the occasion, this is a chance to pause and look back over the journey that we’ve travelled, especially over the past year.

For me there were four special features that stand out.

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When I first read the account of the miracle that led to the canonisation it was impressive enough to read, but over these last months I have been privileged to get to know the recipient, Melissa Villalobos. Her devotion to Newman is palpable, and a great testimony to his sanctity.

After speaking to her by phone, it was evident that we needed to get a film crew over to Chicago and record her account properly. You can see the result on our website, newmancanonisation.com. It was a really special experience for the production team, just as it is for anyone watching the great film that they’ve made. But her influence on the whole canonisation process doesn’t stop with the story of the miracle. It was Melissa who first suggested the idea of doing a novena, and as I write, the huge numbers of people signing up are a remarkable witness to the spiritual impetus that has been generated from her interaction with Blessed John Henry. I greatly look forward to getting to know her and her family better over the coming days.

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Besides providing the miracle, the other great American contribution has been from the National Institute for Newman Studies (NINS). Whenever I entered our own London Oratory library, I was always daunted by the shelves groaning under the weight of the volumes of books, sermons and letters written by Newman.

But NINS in Pittsburgh has changed everything. It has put almost all of Newman’s prodigious output online, along with an excellent search engine, so anyone can cross the doorstep and enter into Newman’s mind. On one of my meanderings at newmanreader.org, I came across the almost 300 obituaries that were written after Newman’s death. That in itself is testimony to the impression that he made. In reading these obituaries I’m struck by how powerfully Newman’s saintly character converted so many people from an attitude of hostility and suspicion to admiration.

Of course Newman did not become famous for what he wrote so much as for what he said. He was a great and renowned preacher.

A good few years ago, I heard the actor Michael Wade giving a rendition of Newman’s famous Second Spring sermon. It was a revelation to hear one of his sermons come alive from the pulpit.

No actor can replicate Newman’s voice. People would come to Oxford just to listen to him preach, because his voice gave his thoughts and words sweetness and clarity. In our plans to celebrate Newman’s canonisation we were determined to bring his voice alive. So far, we have produced more than 25 podcasts featuring a variety of presenters. Each of them has chosen a favourite passage from Newman, and after hearing it spoken by our “Newman voice”, the presenter tells us why they find the passage meaningful in our present times. I’d encourage anyone to dip in and listen to them. The podcast series is entitled Journeying with Newman.

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I’ve felt there has been a “following wind” in our preparations for the canonisation. I’m convinced there has been a lot of divine grace blowing us along from above. But the tiller has been expertly handled by a brilliant team of young professional Catholics who have coalesced around the Cause. It has been awe-inspiring to be drawn along by their enthusiasm and confidence. They have shown us the way.

Newman famously said: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission.” These committed young Catholics seem have taken those words to heart.

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This last year has focused my mind especially on how Newman himself would have wanted to be commemorated. I’m sure that above all he would have wanted to be remembered as a son of St Philip Neri, the man whose great heart converted the city of Rome in the 16th century and who founded the Oratory, which Newman brought to England.

Newman said: “Whether or not I can do any thing at all in St Philip’s way, at least I can do nothing in any other”. He wrote beautifully about St Philip, and every day we English Oratorians listen to Newman’s words on our patron saint’s life while we dine together. Newman wanted not to be remembered for his mind, so much as his heart. And he had St Philip in mind when he chose for his motto cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”).

As I dash for the plane, looking forward to meeting Melissa and all the other worldwide pilgrims as we head towards October 13, I encourage readers to join in praying that grace flow into all our own hearts through the intercession of JHN, soon to be declared a saint.

Fr George Bowen is a priest of the London Oratory and director of the Newman Canonisation Committee