On the day of John Henry Newman’s funeral on August 19, 1890, more than 15,000 people took to the streets of Birmingham to pay homage to him. Generations have spoken of him as a saint ever since.
Among those who saw the holiness of this man was RH Hutton, the editor of the Spectator, who wrote in an obituary that Newman’s passing was like “a white star, extinguished, of a sign vanished, of an age impoverished, of a grace withdrawn”.
Such respect has barely ebbed over the years and the day upon which the Victorian cardinal’s sanctity was finally recognised by the Catholic Church came on Sunday, a gloriously sunlit October morning in Rome.
Tens of thousands of people from all over the world, including many from Britain and the United States, converged to participate in the historic Mass of Canonisation, embraced by Bernini’s colonnades like the arms of Mother Church.
The crowd prayed the rosary in Latin as the final guests took their seats, with the Prince of Wales, representing the Queen, leading the UK delegation. Seated around him were members of the Government, including Thérèse Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary and herself a Catholic. Rehman Chishti, the Government’s special envoy for religious liberty, was also there, along with Catholic MPs such as Edward Leigh, a Conservative, and Labour’s Mike Kane.
A substantial delegation of Anglican bishops were given their own area close to the papal throne, and Pope Francis made a point of stopping to chat cordially with Archbishop Ian Ernest of the Anglican Centre in Rome.
In front of the altar, distant from the dignitaries, sat another group of guests, a family with seven children, including a baby, all remarkably well behaved and impeccably patient as they waited for the Mass to begin as the day grew steadily hotter.
They were the family of Melissa Villalobos, the Chicago mother whose inexplicable healing from a potentially deadly haemorrhage at the intercession of Cardinal Newman proved him to be a saint and made his canonisation possible.
The children included Gemma, now five, who was also saved as an unborn child when her mother, expiring on her bathroom floor, desperately prayed: “Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop!”
In previous times, the Villalobos family might have presented Newman’s relics to the Pope. But on this occasion, they brought the offertory in a carefully rehearsed and choreographed march past world leaders up to Francis, who sat in the shade of his canopied throne.
Melissa and her husband, David, were the last in the entourage, carrying Blaise, a baby, and John Henry, his toddler brother, respectively. Gemma walked piously before them, hands joined in prayer, and when she reached the Pope she broke into a broad smile, which the Holy Father reciprocated.
Francis then blessed each of the youngest children, with John Henry lurching away from his hand, quite oblivious to the magnitude of the privilege he was about to receive.
By that point, Pope Francis had already declared Newman to be a saint by solemnly reading out the decree of sainthood ahead of a peal of muted but triumphant applause.
It might have been reasonable to expect such a moment to be the high point of the Mass, but that came at the moment of Consecration when, in the presence of thousands of pilgrims, world leaders, journalists, soldiers and police officers, St Peter’s Square fell silent. It was a stark reminder that Newman’s greatness came from his discipleship, that he sought to follow Christ, whose beating heart he recognised in the Eucharist, and to grow in holiness.
To be devoted to Newman is not to worship him but to learn from his teachings and emulate his example. The saints always point beyond themselves, to someone infinitely greater – their master, Our Lord – wanting the Church to know Him as they knew Him themselves.
Newman has succeeded handsomely in this respect and the canonisation was a moment of joy that spilled into relief and celebration, especially for those who had longed to see it.
Among them was Fr Anthony Wilcox, a retired priest of Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, who said he was in Rome when the Cause opened in 1958. “I have followed him since,” he said. “This is the culmination of a long journey.”
Also there were the newly ordained priests Fr Ryan Service and Fr John Waters, both of whom identified their vocations after attending Newman’s beatification by Pope Benedict XVI in Cofton Park, Birmingham, in September 2010.
Fr Service was a youth worker at the time and the event left him pondering what Newman’s reflections on personal vocation meant for him. “I thought what is the ‘definite service’ that the Lord is asking of me, and now I am here as a priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham.”
Fr Waters said that Newman had “book-ended” his journey into the priesthood.
“I started the seminary just after he was beatified,” he said. “I took a lot of inspiration from him, and here I am ordained a priest for three months. I have just concelebrated his Mass. It was beautiful.”
Fr Marco Egawhary, a priest in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, said he believed the canonisation sent a strong message to the laity to whom, he said, Newman was devoted.
“Newman taught that holiness is possible by doing the duties of each day well, and through his own life he thought that he failed, and didn’t have many successes, but we have seen the fruit of his preaching over the years.
“It gives great encouragement to priests and the laity that even if we get discouraged, there is always a definite service that we can do for the Church.”
For Carol Parkinson and Jean Johnson, parishioners of the Birmingham Oratory and converts to the faith, the Mass marked the fulfilment of decades of work in promoting the teachings of Newman that had brought each of them into the Catholic Church.
Carol, secretary of the Friends of Cardinal Newman, a group set up by the late Oratorian Fr Gregory Winterton, said: “I am here representing all those people, alive and dead, who have prayed for this day. I was absolutely certain it would happen. He was such a strong presence. So many people have a devotion to him.”
Jean added: “So, so many of us are Catholics because of him.”
Another convert among the pilgrims was Mgr Keith Newton, the Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, of which St John Henry is a patron. He attended the canonisation with about 100 ordinariate members, including 26 priests.
“I was at the beatification 10 years ago and I was still an Anglican, sitting with the Anglican bishops. It is quite moving to be here as a Catholic for his canonisation,” he said.
St John Henry, he added, spoke to many former Anglicans like himself because his teachings had emphasised to them the importance of “the pursuit of truth”.
Generations to come will undoubtedly be talking about what St John Henry means for them, given the scope and richness of his teachings. Pope Francis, for instance, chose to highlight the saint’s gentle holiness during his homily at the Mass.
It was nevertheless interesting that Newman’s teachings on conscience have grown in appeal since the time of his beatification.
Even Prince Charles, writing in L’Osservatore Romano, noted that “those who seek the divine in what can seem like an increasingly hostile intellectual environment find in him a powerful ally who championed the individual conscience against an overwhelming relativism.”
Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney cited Newman’s influence on the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance movement in wartime Germany as a profound example of the influence of his “theology of conscience”. He told a symposium at the Angelicum University on the eve of the canonisation that St John Henry should be accorded the title of “Doctor of Conscience”, echoing a call by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, that Newman be made a Doctor of the Church.
Such a development might be the next chapter of the story of this remarkable man, and pilgrims returning from Rome might feel with some justification that, 130 years after his death, the age of St John Henry Newman is only just beginning.
Simon Caldwell is a freelance journalist