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John Henry Newman was born in London on 21st February, 1801, the eldest of six children, three boys and three girls. His father was John Newman, a banker (the name may indicate Jewish ancestry), and his mother was Jemima Fourdrinier, of Huguenot descent. He attended Ealing School from the age of seven, and as a boy enjoyed reading the Bible. At the age of fifteen he began the quest for spiritual wholeness which was to last the rest of his life. He thought perhaps that life might be just a dream, that he might be an angel, and even that his fellow angels were deceiving him with the mirage of a material world. From the outset Newman was of a philosophical disposition, and this evolved into a form of Christian mysticism with which he could not ultimately accommodate his Anglican principles, even after the reforms of the Oxford Movement. Tract Ninety of 1841 represents a final attempt to show that the Anglicanism, as defined in the Thirty-nine Articles, was consistent with Catholicism. His classic text 'Apologia pro vita sua' of 1864 is our main source of information about his earlier religious thinking.

Newman was not yet 16 when he went up to Trinity College, Oxford, to read Classics and Mathematics. Here he overworked, and despite his obvious intellect was awarded only a third class degree in 1821. But his abilities were clear for all to see, and the next year he was elected a fellow of Oriel, Oxford's most prestigious college at that time, where he came in contact with Keble and Pusey, and later with R.H. Froude. By now he had given up his ambition of studying for the Bar, and resolved to take Holy Orders. He was ordained in 1824, becoming curate of St. Clement's, Oxford, at the suggestion of Pusey. In 1828 he was appointed vicar of the University Church of St Mary, under the patronage of Oriel College. His sermons there were thought to be among the finest of his century, and were fondly recalled by Oxonians many decades later.

The neglected village of Littlemore was a distant part of his parish, and Newman determined to provide it with its own 'chapel' and school. In 1832 he resigned his tutorial post at Oriel, and the following year made a tour of the Mediterranean with his friend Hurrell Froude, during which he met Cardinal Wiseman at the English College in Rome - a formative encounter. It was in Rome that he wrote many of his sacred poems Lyra Apolostolica (published 1836). It was in 1833 that he wrote the famous hymn 'Lead, Kindly Light', a heartfelt plea for guidance. Manuscript texts of this hymn and a listing of the original donors who paid for the church are kept at Littlemore. The foundation stone of St Mary and St Nicholas' church was laid in 1835 by his mother, Jemima, who did not live to witness the consecration on 22nd September 1836; the school opened in 1838.

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

John Henry Newman - The Pillar of the Cloud (Lead kindly light), June 16, 1833

In 1842 Newman withdrew to Littlemore, and lived under monastic conditions with a small band of followers, their life being one of great physical austerity as well as anxiety and suspense. There, he assigned the task to his disciples of writing of the lives of the English saints, while his time was largely devoted to the completion of an Essay on the development of Christian doctrine, by which principle he sought to reconcile himself to the more complex creed and the practical system of the Roman Catholic Church. In February 1843, he published, as an advertisement in the Oxford Conservative Journal, an anonymous but otherwise formal retractation of all the hard things he had said against Rome; in September, after the secession of one of the inmates of the house, he preached his last Anglican sermon at Littlemore and resigned the living of St Mary’s.

Conversion to Roman Catholicism
An interval of two years elapsed before he was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church (9 October 1845) by Dominic Barberi, an Italian Passionist, at the College in Littlemore. In February 1846 he left Oxford for Oscott, where Bishop Wiseman, then vicar-apostolic of the Midland district, resided; and in October he proceeded to Rome, where he was ordained priest by Cardinal Giacomo Filippo Fransoni and awarded the degree of D.D. by Pope Pius IX. At the close of 1847 Newman returned to England as an Oratorian, and resided first at Maryvale (near Oscott); then at St Wilfrid’s College, Cheadle; then at St Ann's, Alcester Street, Birmingham; and finally at Edgbaston, where spacious premises were built for the community, and where (except for four years in Ireland) he lived a secluded life for nearly forty years.

The Oratory School was associated with this establishment and flourished as a well-known boy's boarding school, long renowned for its strong academic achievement, leading to its dubbing as 'The Catholic Eton'. Before the house at Edgbaston was occupied, Newman had established the London Oratory, with Father Frederick William Faber as its superior. At the London Oratory (in King William Street, Strand) he delivered a course of lectures (on "The Present Position of Catholics in England") in the fifth of which he protested against the anti-Catholic utterances of Giacinto Achilli, an ex-Dominican friar, whom he accused in detail of numerous acts of immorality.

Last Days

From the latter half of 1886 Newman's health began to fail, and he celebrated Mass for the last time on Christmas day 1889. On 11 August 1890, he died of pneumonia at the Birmingham Oratory. Eight days later, Cardinal Newman's body was buried in the cemetery at Rednal Hill, Birmingham, at the country house of the Oratory.

In accordance with his expressed wishes, Newman was buried in the grave of his lifelong friend, Ambrose St. John. Previously, they had shared a house. The pall over the coffin bore his cardinal's motto Cor ad cor loquitur ("Heart speaks to heart"). Inseparable in death as in life, a joint memorial stone was erected for the two men; the inscription bore words Newman had chosen: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem ("Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth").

Newman's Character

He was considered to be a man of magnetic personality, with an intense belief in the significance of his own career; and his character had strengths as well as weaknesses. As a poet he had inspiration and genuine power. Some of his short and earlier poems are described by R. H. Hutton as "unequalled for grandeur of outline, purity of taste and radiance of total effect"; while his latest and longest, The Dream of Gerontius, attempts to represent the unseen world along the same lines as Dante. His prose style, especially in his Catholic days, is fresh and vigorous, and is attractive to many who do not sympathise with his conclusions, from the apparent candour with which difficulties are admitted and grappled, while in his private correspondence there is a charm that places it in the forefront of that branch of English literature. James Joyce as reported in Richard Ellmann's Biography, "James Joyce" (1959), declares in a letter that no one could write prose that can be compared to Newman.

He was highly sensitive, self-conscious and impetuous. He had many of the gifts that go to make a first-rate journalist, for, "with all his love for and his profound study of antiquity, there was something about him that was conspicuously modern." Nevertheless, he had little knowledge of the scientific and critical writing composed between 1850–1890. There are a few passages in his writings in which he appears to sympathise with a broader theology, admitting that there was "something true and divinely revealed in every religion" Arians of the Fourth Century, 1.3 [14] He held that "freedom from symbols and articles is abstractedly the highest state of Christian communion," but was "the peculiar privilege of the primitive Church." (Ibid, 1.2 [15]

Even in 1877 he allowed that "in a religion that embraces large and separate classes of adherents there always is of necessity to a certain extent an exoteric and an esoteric doctrine." (Prophetical Office, preface to third edition)[16] These admissions, together with his thoughts on doctrinal development and assertion of the supremacy of conscience, led some critics to hold that, in spite of all his protestations, Newman was at heart a liberal. Newman explained to his own satisfaction the teachings of Catholicism, even holding the Pope to be infallible when declaring someone to be a saint; and while expressing his preference for English as compared with Italian devotional forms, he was one of the first to introduce Italian devotions into England. The motto that he adopted for use as a cardinal Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaks to heart), and that which he directed to be engraved on his memorial tablet at Edgbaston Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (Out of shadows and phantasm into truth) disclose as much as can be disclosed of a life which, both to contemporaries and to later students, was seen as devout and inquiring, affectionate and yet self-restrained.

His Cause
In 1991, Newman was proclaimed venerable after a thorough examination of his life and work by the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints.[1] One miracle was investigated and confirmed by the Vatican, so he will be beatified on 19 September 2010. A second miracle would then be necessary for his canonization.

In 2008, as a part of the process of investigation, Newman's grave was opened to exhume his body, but his wooden coffin was found to have disintegrated and his body completely decayed.[13]


Text taken from: Littlemore Church Website and various other sources.

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