Everyone agrees it’s a great thing both for the Church in this country and for the Universal Church that John Henry Newman is now a saint. If the interest in his life and works generated by canonisation leads to a genuine engagement with his thought and a recovery of its riches that will be wonderful.
Some of the interest, however, particularly the attempt to harness the spirit of Newman to 21st-century religious polemics, is a great disservice to a man who spent much of his life having to repudiate the ways in which his views were misrepresented and his motives impugned. Claiming Newman as an icon for gay Christians, or a prophet of doctrinal “paradigm shifts”, threatens to obscure the most crucial thing about his canonisation and the only worthy source from which joy should spring according to Newman himself.
Saints are those whose assent to faith is real, who strive to live by the invisible realities of a supernatural, revealed faith, even though it may contradict and confound their own experience. Sainthood is not an achievement of the personality or of natural gifts; it is the gratuitous action of God on the humble soul.
Newman would want us to rejoice with and for him in the title “saint” because it confirms beyond all doubt that he correctly read the directions of the drama of his own existence. It finds perfect expression in the joyful song of the Guardian Angel in The Dream of Gerontius: “The crown is won. Alleluia.” This child of God, “reared and trained in the narrow way” in the course of a long, remarkable life, has finally come home. God has brought him beyond the shadows and darkness of the world of sin and death “to see Him in the truth of everlasting day”. This is why we should be celebrating.
Though Newman insisted that there was “nothing of the saint” about him, he was thoroughly realistic about sanctity. “Thy saints, though to the eyes of man without sin, really had a vast account and they settled it by continual trials here,” he says in one meditation. He, by contrast, feared that he had no such merits or sufferings. In fact, he expected to spend a long time in purgatory. (“There I shall go through my sins once more, in their punishment.”) He trusted and hoped in the power of Christ’s redemption. He knew his sins had been forgiven, but this did not blind him to the reality of the guilt left by them. Like the protagonist of his poem, he expressed himself ready to suffer, to atone, because this is the only appropriate response to the immense love shown in the Paschal Mystery.
Newman knew that there is no grace without a judgment, that the gift of God’s love invites a response. As we celebrate the gift of that love and its triumph in the life of St John Henry, we must examine ourselves and the Church in this country about how we stand in relationship to the forthcoming drama of Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.
St John Henry now tells us authoritatively how to proceed: “We advance by yielding, we rise by falling, we conquer by suffering, we persuade by silence, we become rich by bountifulness, we inherit the earth through meekness, we gain comfort through mourning, we earn glory by penitence and prayer.