Dear friends, exactly two weeks ago today, I was sitting in the sunshine of St Peter’s Square in Rome as our Holy Father Pope Francis created five new saints. Alongside four holy women from Italy, India, Brazil and Switzerland, St John Henry Newman was canonised, the first English saint in forty years, and the first English non-martyr saint in over six hundred years.
The liturgy of canonisation was solemn, but beautifully simple. At the beginning of the Mass, the Cardinal responsible for overseeing the process of recognising saints asked Pope Francis to enrol these five exceptional examples of sanctity among the Church’s heavenly patrons. Their portraits hung above us on the façade of St Peter’s Basilica. Each of their lives a sacrifice of praise to the holiest in the height, each of them imitators of Christ.
By their intercession, these new saints had gained two miracles, one leading to their beatification, the other to their canonisation. In the case of St John Henry, a man was healed of a crippling spinal disease and a woman cured of unstoppable bleeding. Each of these miraculous recoveries, together with St John Henry’s entire life and writings, were subject to intense scrutiny. The result of this investigation showed, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, ‘the outstanding holiness of this much-loved father of souls.’[i]
The congregation of over fifty thousand people fell silent as Pope Francis, invoking his authority as the Vicar of Christ, declared each of the five to be saints in heaven, held up now for veneration and honour by the Universal Church. It was so moving to see present at the Mass the man and woman who had received miracles through St John Henry Newman’s prayers.
Our new saint’s life was a pilgrimage of discipleship, marked by a passion for truth and a profound humility. The words of St Paul capture fittingly his journey: he fought the good fight; he ran the race to the finish; he kept the faith. And now he wears the crown of righteousness as a saint in glory.
St John Henry Newman was born in London 1801 and died in Birmingham in 1890. He realised early on that he existed in relationship to God, his Creator, and this made sense of everything. A brilliant mind, he was ordained a clergyman in the Church of England where he served with dedication and faithfulness. But his study of early Christian writers, of history and of theology, together with his growing inner spiritual conviction, led him to assent to the truth articulated by the Second Vatican Council that the Church of Christ…’subsists in the Catholic Church.’ (LG 8) Having sought to renew the Church of England with elements of Catholic worship and belief, St John Henry’s continuing conversion eventually brought him to the Church of Rome. On 9 October 1845 he became a Catholic through the ministry of the Passionist Priest, Father (and now Blessed) Dominic Barbieri. The ‘kindly light’ of faith had led him home.
Nineteenth century England was a challenging place for St John Henry. A remarkable academic, theologian, writer and preacher, he nonetheless faced controversy and opposition. Initially viewed with suspicion by some within the Catholic Church, he was inspired by St Philip Neri. In 1847 he was ordained a priest, and in 1879 was named a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII. St John Henry is credited with shaping major themes of Vatican II and his influence continues in the Church today, especially in the philosophy of education, the understanding of conscience, and the development of doctrine.
That St John Henry Newman’s humanity and his weaknesses could be caught up into his holiness is what makes him such an attractive and hopeful figure. In the homily for the Mass of canonisation Pope Francis spoke of the ‘holiness of daily life’ lived out by St John Henry. This is an encouragement for all of us, to live the little events of each day with a spirit of loving selflessness. Quoting St John Henry, Pope Francis said: ‘The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not… The Christian is cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming; [and] has no pretence.’[ii]
Perhaps above all, it’s St John Henry Newman’s humility before God, before others, before the Church and, importantly, before the truth of revelation, which bring to life the words of the Lord Jesus that the one who humbles himself will be exalted. St John Henry is exalted as a saint only because first he lived the humility of a disciple.
I would like to think it’s more than just coincidence that St John Henry Newman was canonised in October, the month of the Holy Rosary, the same month in which he entered the Catholic Church. Any visitor to St John Henry’s rooms at the Oratory in Birmingham can still see today his rosary hanging from a hook, ready to be picked up and prayed. St John Henry recalled that long before he became a Catholic, as a boy, he drew a picture of a rosary, the beads with a cross, in his Latin verse notebook. The Newman scholar, Bishop Philip Boyce comments: ‘From that moment until the last months of his life when, as an old and feeble Cardinal he could no longer celebrate Mass or read his breviary, but could merely use his rosary beads, the Blessed Virgin Mary was a constant presence in his life.’[iii]
It’s no exaggeration to say that St John Henry Newman loved the rosary. ‘It seems so simple and easy,’ he wrote, ‘but you know God chooses the small things of the world to humble the great.’[iv]Anyone who has practised this devotion, he said, knows that there is within it ‘a soothing sweetness that there is in nothing else.’[v] ‘To my own feelings,’ he wrote, ‘there is nothing more delightful.’[vi]
It was St John Henry’s firmly held belief that ‘the rosary gives us the great truths of [Christ’s] life and death to meditate on, and brings them nearer to our hearts.’[vii] For someone who chose ‘Heart speaks to Heart’ as his motto, the rosary was a means of this intimate conversation between the heart of the disciple and the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In St John Henry’s words, ‘with all our thoughts of Him are mingled thoughts of His Mother.’[viii]
St John Henry’s advice to a recent convert about how to pray the rosary gives an insight about how he prayed it himself: ‘before each mystery, set before you a picture of it and fix your mind upon that picture (for example the Annunciation or the Agony [in the Garden])’ as you say the Our Fathers and Hail Marys.[ix]
For all his enormous intellect and learning, St John Henry prayed the rosary with simplicity and humility. ‘The great power of the rosary,’ he wrote ‘lies in this, that it makes the Creed into a prayer.’[x]
If we too want to grow in holiness, to pray with humility so as to humble ourselves before the Lord and each other, the rosary, the prayer of faith, offers a ‘heart to heart’ conversation with Our Blessed Lady as she draws us to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the centre of her sweetness.
May Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, pray for us
May St John Henry Newman, pray for us
[i] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Beatification of John Henry Newman.
[ii] Pope Francis, Homily as the Canonisation of John Henry Newman
[iii] Philip Boyce, Mary – The Virgin Mary in the Life and Writings of John Henry Newman, Gracewing, 2001, 25.
[iv] Boyce, 180.
[vii] Ibid. 181.
[viii] Ibid. 181.
[ix] Ibid. 180.
[x] Ibid. 181.