News Analysis

How America embraced Newman

The recent news that the Bishop of Northampton has declined to move forward with the cause for the canonisation of GK Chesterton was not well received in the United States.

At this year’s annual conference of the American Chesterton Society in Kansas City, the news was met with disappointment by the 500 Chestertonians in attendance. The consensus was that it would take nothing less than a miracle to overcome the hierarchical indifference and inertia with respect to Chesterton’s Cause.

Thankfully, Americans believe in miracles and are not averse to praying for them. It was, after all, the two confirmed miracles in answer to the prayers of Americans that paved the way for John Henry Newman’s beatification and imminent canonisation.

First, in 2001, there were the prayers of Deacon Jack Sullivan, from Massachusetts, beseeching Newman’s intercession, which led to the miraculous healing of Deacon Sullivan’s spinal injuries. Then, in 2013, there was the inexplicable healing in Chicago of Melissa Villalobos, which saved her life and that of her unborn child. It is no mere coincidence that the prayers of Americans have played such a crucial role in Newman’s Cause and in his being raised to the altar. Devotion to Newman is widespread in the United States. His influence on converts is well documented, especially in the testimonies given on The Journey Home, a weekly EWTN programme in which those who have come home to Rome tell their stories.

Thomas Howard, one of the most prominent converts in recent years, paid tribute to Newman’s influence on his own conversion in the title of his book Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome, which alludes to Newman’s famous hymn. Another prominent recent convert, Holly Ordway, cites Newman’s Grammar of Assent as being an important marker on her own conversion from atheism.

It is, however, in the field of education that Newman’s influence is felt most palpably. At colleges and universities across the length and breadth of the country, Newman Centers provide a hub for Catholic student activity on secular campuses.

The first such centre in the United States was established in 1893, only three years after Newman’s death, at the University of Pennsylvania. Today, there are more than 2,000 such centres, all of which are inspired by Newman’s own wish that Catholic students at secular colleges and universities should form societies on campus to serve their spiritual and social needs and to offer witness. (Pictured: a statue of Newman at the campus of Newman University in Wichita, Kansas.)

Newman’s seminal work on education, The Idea of a University, has proved inspirational in the design of the curriculums of many of the new wave of Catholic colleges and universities that have sprung up across the US in the past 40 or so years. The best of these are listed in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College, which is published by the Cardinal Newman Society, one of the most dynamic and effective organisations on the Catholic scene today.

Founded in 1993, its mission is to promote and defend faithful Catholic education in the face of what it calls the “creeping secularism in Catholic education that has often corrupted teachings and behaviours – both inside and outside the classroom – and replaced authentic Catholic identity with bland conformity to a declining culture”.

It is of little surprise that the progress of Newman’s Cause has increased interest in his own words and works. To offer but two examples of this renewal of interest, the Augustine Institute has published Waiting for Christ: Meditations for Advent and Christmas, the success of which has prompted a follow-up volume, The Tears of Christ: Meditations for Lent, both of which consist of extracts from Newman’s sermons, selected and edited by Christopher Blum, dean of the Augustine Institute’s graduate programme in theology.

Dr Blum is embarking on a speaking tour in early October, in the days prior to the canonisation. On October 13, the date of the canonisation itself, I will be giving a lecture in Washington, DC, for the Institute of Catholic Culture on “The Heart of a Saint: The Spiritual Influence of Cardinal John Henry Newman”, which will look at Newman’s life and legacy, including his controversial conversion, his groundbreaking work in philosophy and theology, and his position as the father of the Catholic literary revival.

As an Englishman living in the US, the present author confesses a sense of patriotic pride that Blessed, soon to be Saint, John Henry Newman, that most quintessential of English writers, should have won such a following on this side of the Atlantic.

Yet a saint is not for any one particular country but for all peoples and all cultures, and for all time.