This is the text of an article written for publication in the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel on Wednesday 29th September 2010.
You may have been surprised by this news. Newman - a Victorian clergyman and academic who converted to Catholicism in1845, half way through his life - is not especially well known, even by many Catholics.
Why? Well, while students of his writings greatly admire them, it has not always been easy for people to warm to the man himself. He seems a bookish figure - a fellow of Oxford university, who wrote learned works on education, philosophy and theology. He lived for most of his life in a community of priests, and appears to some to be rather dour and dull. In the many photographs of him which survive, he is studious and serious. There are no images of him smiling.
But this understanding of Newman misses out so much. He was indeed a great thinker and educator - but he was also a man of great tenderness and compassion, who saw the image of God in all people. Don’t be misled by the photographs. You will search long and hard for any Victorian photograph in which the subjects are smiling - exposure times were too long, and teeth, I suppose, too bad.
No, when he became a Cardinal, he took the motto “Heart speaks to Heart”, for he, the academic from a privileged background, could see very well that God’s heart speaks to the Heart of every single person, rich or poor, educated or illiterate. As an Anglican he moved from the centre of Oxford out to Littlemore to care for the poor in a rural area which was rapidly industrialising. When he came to Birmingham, the already famous Dr Newman set up his new community not in the plush and affluent suburbs, but in a former gin warehouse, amongst the poorest and most deprived of the rapidly growing city. He was deeply loved by the ordinary parishioners who he consoled, encouraged and educated through the schools he founded. When nearby Bilston was overcome with an epidemic of cholera, the local priests unable to cope and others afraid to help in case they too became ill, he went there, oblivious to his own safety, to console the sick and bury the dead.
And though he was no Oscar Wilde (another Victorian convert to Catholicism), neither was he without wit. When a pompous English priest in Rome invited him to address his intelligent and well-to-do English congregation - who would be a much more cultured audience than any in England, he claimed - Newman pointedly but firmly declined “because people in Birmingham have souls too”!
His concern for the ordinary people, and their love of him was most apparent at the end his life. Well into his eighties he walked the several miles from his parish to the Cadbury factory to plead the case of workers there. And just a few years later when his funeral cortege passed through the the city to his grave in Rednal, the streets were lined with more than 20,000 people who had loved this kind and holy man.
Perhaps the course of time, and the many academics who still read and study Newman, have clouded the memory of someone who was not just an intelligent man, but also a warm and saintly one.
His first ever Feast Day is on October 9th. If you wish, join Catholics all over the world and in saying “Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us.”