What does John Henry Newman mean to ordinary Catholics today? His intellectual works, such as his great tome The Idea of a University or even the compelling Apologia Pro Vita Sua are not always easily accessible to the man and woman in the pew, such as myself.
But there are two aspects of Newman’s earthly heritage which I think everyone can appreciate. One is the daily prayer that I remember finding in my mother’s prayerbook, which reads: “May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at the last.”
And then there are the marvellous hymns, such as Lead, Kindly Light:
Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on;
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene: one step enough for me.
But the other aspect of Newman’s teaching which is so vital and with which, I think, everyone can identify, is his emphasis on the supreme role of conscience in our lives. This was expressed most famously in his adage: “I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please, – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards”
It’s taken me a lifetime to understand and appreciate how profound and important conscience is; how anguishing a troubled conscience can be; and how destructive it is to one’s own sense of worth to go against conscience.
Some of what Cardinal Newman wrote was, in style, Victorian (he thought of students as “gentlemen”). But his deliberations on the role of conscience are, if anything, more relevant now than ever.
There is so much in our world today which is in opposition to the Christian conscience. So many of the values now seen as norms are antithetical to Catholic and Christian values. But this is precisely why it is so essential to hold to what we know is right, in the very depths of our conscience. And stick with it.
Newman House in Dublin – just next to the beautiful Newman University Church in St Stephen’s Green – has now been transformed into an institution called MoLI – Museum of Literature Ireland.
The former townhouse where John Henry Newman first opened the doors of a Catholic university is a stunning location, with enormous, light-filled rooms overlooking a charming city garden.
MoLI is a modern museum concept – with mobile installations, assisted by broadcast readings and projected images, and a roll-call of renowned Irish writers. There’s a room dedicated to the Limerick writer Kate O’Brien, author of Without My Cloak and Mary Lavelle. There’s a colossal focus on James Joyce, whose face adorns MoLI’s publicity. Joyce is now a “brand”, mercilessly merchandised and marketised, and flogged as a literary celeb.
What would Cardinal Newman have thought of the Joyce cult – and the wordplay association, at Newman House, with Joyce’s saucy character Molly Bloom? Obviously we cannot say. Although we do know that James Joyce (through the character of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) declared Newman “the greatest of English prose writers”. I saw no mention of this at MoLI.
Justice Siobhan Keegan has found that the restrictive Northern Ireland legislation on abortion is a breach of human rights where a “fatal foetal abnormality” is diagnosed. In response to Justice Keegan’s ruling, I was greatly moved by a letter in last weekend’s Financial Times, from John and Lisa Green of south London.
“In 2009,” they wrote, “our unborn son, Raphael, was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality, and we were offered, on more than one occasion by medical staff, an abortion.”
They refused, and it turned out that the diagnosis was not accurate. And although their son did have a disability, his short life brought great joy to his parents and siblings.
“Our experience and that of countless others is that abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormality can turn out to be wrong … and that even if the diagnosis is correct, the natural process of death and a time to grieve should be upheld as a human right in Northern Ireland, both for the benefit of the parents’ mental health and for the life, however short, of the unborn child.”
Brave, heroic and admirable parents.
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