Comment Opinion & Features

Words, hymns and moderation: Newman and the genius of English Catholicism

Cardinal Nichols holds a relic of St John Henry Newman after Holy Mass of Thanksgiving at the London Oratory (Mazur/cbcew.org.uk)

Does the canonisation of St John Henry Newman mean approbation for something more than a single, splendid, sanctified life? Does it celebrate a particularly English way of being Catholic? On the evening of the Holy Mass of thanksgiving at the London Oratory, Cardinal Vincent Nichols suggested as much, noting that Newman both symbolised and helped to bring about a flowering of English Catholicism.  

The Archbishop of Canterbury, preaching at vespers in Westminster Cathedral to celebrate the canonisation, proposed that Newman exemplified the best of English Christianity, in both of its Anglican and Catholic expressions.  

On the Sunday evening of the canonisation at Rome’s Chiesa Nuova, the founding church of the Congregation of the Oratory of St Philip Neri, Fr Ignatius Harrison (provost of Newman’s own Birmingham Oratory) noted that St John Henry was recognised as the father of the English Oratories. The emphasis, Fr Harrison insisted, should be on the “Oratory” not the “English”. He may well have been offering a gentle correction to those who reverse the emphasis.  

The English Oratories are very, well, English – and not just those in England. Visitors to other English-speaking Oratories around the world may well think they have taken a stroll down the Brompton Road or wandered into Edgbaston. 

Writing about Newman for L’Osservatore Romano, the Prince of Wales noted that in the Oratory he brought something of Rome to England. True enough, but at the same time Newman made the Oratory wholly English. 

And what is that Englishness, the particular genius of English Catholicism? 

It is certainly not the caricature of stiff reserve. Fr Harrison took pains to reject that explicitly when preaching at the Chiesa Nuova. The cheerfulness and sentiment of St Philip were not excised when the Oratory was brought to England. At the London Oratory, the provost, Fr Julian Large, permitted himself something of an emotional moment, as he publicly recalled that the canonisation events in Rome had “been the happiest days of my Catholic life”. He will not have to confess that effusion at their next chapter of faults; it isn’t one. 

What might be characterised as English Catholicism has three aspects which Newman’s life highlights. 

First, St John Henry’s canonisation took place during the Church’s “extraordinary missionary month” and thanksgiving Masses were offered at the Oratories on World Mission Sunday. English Catholicism has not been missionary – the Mill Hill Fathers notwithstanding – in the sense of sending great numbers abroad, especially in comparison with the Irish.  

Yet English Catholics – Newman in the first place, with Ronald Knox, GK Chesterton and JRR Tolkien closely following – have had an enormous impact through their writings. Given their status as a small minority under a hostile establishment, English Catholics became gifted at explanation, persuasion and apologetics. All those students whose campus chaplaincies are named after Cardinal Newman will find in him a surprisingly current model of missionary discipleship in a challenging environment. If the Irish Church exemplified commitment to the missions overseas, the English Church shows how the mission sometimes begins at home, and offers lessons applicable abroad. 

Second, one of the noteworthy elements of all the Newman celebrations, both in Rome and England, was the common choral theme. We sang Praise to the Holiest in the Height, Lead, Kindly Light and Firmly I Believe and Truly. Liturgically speaking, a votive Mass of St John Henry has its own proper collect and readings, but such Masses will become more commonly known for their hymns.  

Hymns – especially the great Victorian hymns – constitute a distinctive feature of English Catholicism. The choral tradition extends also to polyphony and great anthems. When Cardinal Nichols related the comment of the archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, namely that he had never heard such singing in the basilica, it was a fine expression of English liturgical piety. 

A third dimension of English Catholicism is the balance – or perhaps competition between rival views – it offers in relation to Rome. St John Henry was happy to build a Birmingham Oratory church that was as Roman as could be, while writing letters expressing his desire that the pontificate of Blessed Pius IX come to an end as soon as possible.  

He was able to defend Roman doctrines while questioning Roman policies. During canonisation week, one often heard that one ought not look into the “engine room of the Barque of Peter”. That’s Knox, not Newman, but it reflects an English sensibility. 

Catholics in Birmingham on Sunday, October 20, witnessed ecumenical vespers in honour of St John Henry. Catholics who at were at Holy Mass on Sunday, October 20, 1850, would have heard Cardinal Wiseman’s (in)famous pastoral letter, “From out of the Flaminian Gate”. What a difference 169 years makes. 

“Catholic England has been restored to its orbit in the ecclesiastical firmament, from which its light had long vanished,” Wiseman wrote. One might suggest that the kindly light of English Catholicism shines more brightly now that the great champion of its ways, most wonderful, is in the company of the holy ones in the height.