When John Henry Newman travels to Rome as the Church’s most famous convert in October 1846, the Vatican offers him a freshly decorated apartment. Unfortunately it is not ready. So Newman and Ambrose St John, a member of his community at Littlemore outside Oxford, find themselves lodged in a hotel with the archbishop of Damascus, a New Zealand bishop and the head of the Trappists. It is nevertheless “a palace of filth” where they dare not unpack because of the fleas and dirt.
Next day the two Englishmen hear Pope Pius IX celebrating Mass at St Peter’s, before paying a series of calls and setting off to see the sights on foot as ordinary pilgrims. All this is recounted in the easy flow of letters Newman writes to friends and family at home, recording their activities in brief notes.
They visit the great basilicas and see where St Peter and St Paul were martyred, introduce themselves to the Father General of the Jesuits and are taken by Cardinal Charles Acton in his carriage to visit the Passionists on the Caelian Hill.
They learn of a French priest in their hotel who was unable to speak for two years until an Abbess of Minsk made a novena for him, with the result that his speech returned. When an irreligious French artist unknowingly goes to the Mass of thanksgiving he is so overcome that he makes a general Confession on the spot. Not a miracle, it is said, but a grazia (favour).
On finally moving into the department of Propaganda, by the Spanish Steps, the two converts find themselves splendidly lodged. The cardinal in charge admits he is envious of the new furniture, chairs, writing table, priedieux and crucifixes. They are given toast and coffee at 7am, two good meals in the day and tea at night. Their rooms have stoves, but they do not light them because nobody else does. Both spend several days in bed with colds. On Friday their hosts are so concerned that they insist that the Englishmen eat meat.
Although notorious for being tongue-tied with strangers, Newman is impressed by the students of some 20 nations exchanging the kiss of peace at a Pontifical High Mass, saying: “It is like Pentecost come again and some of them may, from what one knows, be martyrs.” He finds himself correcting the English pronunciation of a Lombardian priest in exchange for two hours’ instruction in Italian.
Newman and St John dutifully attend the lectures on morals and dogmatics like the young students around them, though St John notices his travelling companion nodding off in one. Their main grudge is against the expensive clothes they are expected to wear. Since they are not ordinary students they must wear the buckled shoes and uncreased stockings of English gentlemen.
And they are not entirely impressed with other aspects of Rome. The people are cruel to animals in the streets and the clocks never keep the same time. When the pair come in from walking in the rain one Sunday they are summoned by the pope without time to change, so they are told to dip the tails of their coats in water to remove the mud.
The Holy Father proves very amiable, though he claims to be unable to pronounce English names. But they have made their mark, and encouraged by Cardinal Wiseman, are given permission to establish an Oratorian house in England. They like the Chiesa Nuova, the church of the community’s founder St Philip Neri, and are keen to adopt its constitution, which has hardly any rules and permits members to keep their own property and furnish their own rooms.
But there are difficulties. Newman is asked at short notice to preach at the Roman funeral of a niece of Lord Shrewsbury, which gains no thanks from anyone. He dislikes speaking extempore, knows nothing of the dead girl and so preaches in his own way, which is quite a novelty and pleases no one present. The Catholics who are used to Italian fluency do not understand his manner and the Protestants who come for the music and from respect for the family with high and mighty ideas about their superiority, do not relish receiving a lecture. As the story is retold, the Protestant world is gripped by a regular fury. One man is said to have recommended that Newman be thrown into the Tiber. The Pope tactfully suggests that Newman is more a philosopher than an orator who spoke “strongly”.
After being ordained subdeacon, deacon and priest, Newman is formally appointed superior of the new community and given an Oratorian Father to supervise their six-month novitiate at a beautiful house at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, where St Helena donated the True Cross. Set in a profusion of wild flowers which summon thoughts of Beethoven, it is located on Monte Cavi, two miles outside Rome, the same distance as Littlemore from Oxford, which they mix up with Rome in conversation.
Back in England after a year, Newman duly establishes the Birmingham Oratory and wins the admiration of the Protestant public with his Apologia. He only returns to the Eternal City some 35 years later to receive his cardinal’s hat from Leo XIII in official recognition of his loyal service, and to denounce the belief that there is no positive truth in religion and that one creed is as good as another – assumptions ever more in evidence.
David Twiston Davies is a former chief obituary writer of the Daily Telegraph