A Newman Pilgrimage, 2001

Peter Hodgson, Sister Brigette, FSO, John Hittinger: Newman’s Study, Littlemore 2001
[Newman’s]  insights into the relationship between faith and reason, into the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, and into the need for a broadly-based and wide-ranging approach to education were not only of profound importance for Victorian England, but continue today to inspire and enlighten many all over the world.

—  Pope Benedict XVI
We are grateful for the life and work of Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and for Pope Benedict’s visit to Great Britain. Newman is justly celebrated as one of the greatest witnesses to the truth of the Gospel and Catholic faith in the modern world. Fr Bouyer compares him to Augustine and Aquinas for understanding his importance to our age. Father Dessain, whose book John Henry Newman (1966) remains a useful study, mentions three aspects to the appeal of Newman: i. the strictness and holiness of his life; ii. his “earnest” practical advice in living the Christian life; and iii. his balanced exposition of Christian dogma (p. 16). All of these features are especially apparent in his Parochial and Plain Sermons, but intensify as he crosses the Tiber and becomes a Catholic priest, Oratorian, and Cardinal of the Church. 

As I would like to make some posts about Newman in the coming days, I wish to share a few memories from a Newman pilgrimage I made during Holy Week, 2001 when I was on Sabbatical in St. Andrew’s Scotland. I started reading Newman’s Sermons during many a long evening in a little flat on North Street across from St Salvator College in the heart of St Andrews. For the very reasons mentioned by Father Dessain I was drawn to them. I would enter each sermon as a secret room with exquisite stained glass whose colors and warmth brought a sense of beauty and joy. Hawthorne’s description of stained glass in a Roman church does seem apt as a description of Newman’s sermons:

the light, which falls merely on the outside of other pictures, is here interfused throughout the work; it illuminates the design, and invests it with a living radiance; and in requital the unfading colors transmute the common daylight into a miracle of richness and glory in its passage through the heavenly substance of the blessed and angelic shapes which throng the high-arched window. .  .  . [they]  glow like a million of rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and topazes. . . . The pictures are most brilliant in themselves, yet dim with tenderness and reverence because God himself is shining through them. (The Marble Faun, c. 33)

I was more than happy to visit Oxford to visit Peter Hodgson, professor emeritus at Corpus Christi College, former chief of theoretical physics. He promised to show me the Newman places. The previous semester Professor Hodgson had visited the U.S. Air Force Academy where he spoke to cadets about science and faith. I shall share his testimony to the cadets in a subsequent post.

We began the pilgrimage at St Mary the Virgin Church at Oxford where Newman delivered his great Parochial and Plain Sermons. The sexton of the church, a former RAF pilot, decided to help out the visiting professor from the Air Force Academy. He gave us a special tour of the chapel. One could still feel the presence of Newman; a contemporary, William Lockhart, said the year after Newman died: “Newman’s sermons came down like a new revelation. He had the wondrous, the supernatural power of raising the mind to God, and rooting deeply in us a personal conviction of God, and a sense of His presence.” (1891)

The sexton called his friend, the curate at the Anglican church at Littlemore, built by Newman and his mother.  He would give Dr Hodgson and I a tour. Newman and his mother wished to do something for the poor parishioners in Littlemore, and they designed a beautiful Church with a stone altar, contrary to the regulations of the Anglican community. His mother died before it was completed; Tract 91 was condemned by the leading Bishops, thus dashing the hopes of the Oxford movement for a more Catholic view of the Anglican faith. Newman in conscience knew that he must resign as a curate. He gave the “parting of friends” sermon and went across the street to start a phase of contemplation and writing. Later in life, Newman would lean of this gate and recall with some sadness this “parting of friends.”

From the outside Newman’s new residence is quite unremarkable; inside its sparse rooms Newman and his friends were devoted to prayer and study. As he wrote the Development of Doctrine he came to understand that the Roman Catholic Church stood in true continuity with the orthodoxy of Athanasius, the other Church fathers, and the gospel.

On the wall in the Littlemore study, in the room where the event occurred,  one can find this plaque. Blessed Dominic Barberi visited Newman on a rainy evening in October 1845. Newman asked to be received into the “one true fold of Christ.” He eventually parted for Rome and after becoming a Roman Catholic priest he returned to England and resided in Birmingham, where Benedict XVI recently visited for the beatification. The Oxford years, his happiest he said, were behind him.

Our pilgrimage ended with an afternoon tea and conversation with Sister Brigette, a member of a remarkable order “The Spiritual Family: The Work,” based in Austria who are entrusted withe care of the Littlemore residence. Afterward we made a visit to the oratory for hymns, prayers and a rosary (using one of Newman’s rosaries). Ever since that visit to Oxford and Littlemore have I felt the presence of Cardinal Newman, especially upon reading those Sermons.

I left the Air Force Academy to pursue Newman’s vision of Catholic education. Only later did I come appreciate a deeper understanding of Newman’s life which was characterized by much failure only matched by his deep faith and pure hope.

Pope Benedict, in his homily at the beatification, finds the heart of the matter:

Newman helps us to understand what this means for our daily lives: he tells us that our divine Master has assigned a specific task to each one of us, a “definite service”, committed uniquely to every single person: “I have my mission”, he wrote, “I am a in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place … if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling” (Meditations and Devotions, 301-2).

Additional images:

From the Tower on the University Chapel

Anglican curate, Littlemore
Front of Littlemore Church
Desk used by Newman to write Development of Doctrine


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