Friday, July 03, 2009

Birmingham people have souls: Why Newman should not be beatified in London

It has been announced today that John Henry Newman, Cardinal, Convert from Anglicanism, one time Oxford Don, has been approved for beatification by Pope Benedict. Once the beatification ceremony has taken place he will be known as Blessed John Henry Newman and will have a day each year in the Church's calendar. (And later, we hope, he will be canonised, named a Saint, and even be styled 'Doctor of the Church').

This is an exciting moment for the Catholic Church in England (and - I would be bold to say - for all English people). He will be the first non-martyr saint from England to be named since the Reformation. He was a philosopher and theologian writer A Grammar of Assent and The Essay on Development. Attacked in public for his conversion to Catholicism, he wrote an extensive autobiography Apologia pro Vita Sua. He wrote novels and poetry too, the best remembered of which is The Dream of Gerontius, set to music by Elgar. He was a pioneer in Catholic education, and wrote The Idea of a University. Catholic student organisations throughout the world are often called the 'Newman Society'. But most importantly (and Newman would have said so himself) having left the 'dreaming spires' of Oxford in 1845 he dedicated almost all of the rest of his life amongst the industrial poor of Birmingham.

He was in many ways an original thinker and did not always please those in authority over him. When he was made a Cardinal by Leo XIII in the latter years of his life, the news was not received with great enthusiasm by the ecclesiastical authorities in London. And when he died in 1890 the streets were lined by the people - not academics and theologians, those who mainly remember him today - but by thousands of the urban poor who he had cared for through plague and poverty. (The Times has made available its Obituary from 1890).

Pope John Paul II often conducted the ceremonies of Beatification himself, but under Pope Benedict these have returned to being local events, in the place where the blessed lived and worked. It will not be easy to find a suitable location in Birmingham as the international interest is so great. The places where he lived: Oxford, Littlemore, Maryvale and the Birmingham Oratory, could not host such an event. St Chad's Cathedral is probably not large enough. The Times seems to assume that the ceremony will be in Westminster Cathedral. No doubt the Archbishop of Westminster (formerly of Birmingham) would relish such an historic national occasion. No doubt the great and good of the nation's Catholics will assume that such an occasion, unique in all our lifetimes, must take place in the capital city. But this must not happen.

Such a decision would be entirely out of keeping with Newman's legacy. For all his learning, his writing, his creative thought, and for all his friendships and correspondence with the important and the wealthy, it was amongst the poor of the City of Birmingham that Newman lived his priestly ministry. For more than 40 years, almost all his Catholic life, he lived and worked amongst the poor. In this year of the priest that must not be forgotten.

Newman wrote many many letters and kept copies of them all. My favourite is a short reply to a rather self-important English priest, Mgr Talbot, who had a grand Church in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome.  The priest invited the famous Dr Newman to preach to his grand and educated Protestant congregation.

Newman politely but pointedly declined. Here is the full text of the letter (source here):

'The Oratory, Birmingham: July 25, 1864.
'Dear Monsignore Talbot,—I have received your letter, inviting me to preach next Lent in your Church at Rome to "an audience of Protestants more educated than could ever be the case in England."

'However, Birmingham people have souls; and I have neither taste nor talent for the sort of work which you cut out for me. And I beg to decline your offer.
'I am, yours truly,

If the Beatification takes place in England, let it be Birmingham!

[Picture from the Birmingham Oratory Website]


Catholic Mom of 10 said...

I liked this post being a born & bred Brummie of Irish descent & growing up in St Anne's Parish & growing up some more at the Oratory! Perhaps you could go over to Fr Ray's & help out..I posted a link to your post..

Catholic Mom of 10 said...

Hey I got an I Phone too..give me yr mobile no one of these days if u dare!

Patricius said...

I'd like to back Brum but you seem to undermine the case by saying St Chad's is too small!