By Bishop James Conley
In response to a woman who referred to him as a saint, Blessed John Henry Newman said, “Saints are not literary men. They do not love the classics, they do not write ‘Tales.’”
Newman has ironically proven himself wrong. On Feb. 13, Pope Francis approved of the canonization of Blessed John Henry Newman after a second miracle was attributed to his intercession.
Newman is a great hero of mine and I frequently pray to him, asking for his intercession. As a fellow convert, I feel closely connected to him, especially in his life-long, passionate search for the truth.
Newman was born in London in 1801. His father was a banker and John was the oldest of six children. The family had modest wealth for the times, and so John had the privilege of attending a private boarding school. He studied the Greek and Roman classics in their original languages and developed a great love for learning.
From a very early age, he was a voracious reader. He started out with novels, and by the time he was in his teens, he was reading philosophy.
Newman grew up in an Anglican family, where they attended services every Sunday. However, by the age of 15, he became skeptical of religion. He even went on to read atheistic and agnostic philosophers.
This skepticism did not last, as he continued to pursue the truth, and in doing so, had a conversion of heart that allowed him to see the world in a different way. He became an Evangelical Anglican, joining a movement which placed a particular importance on the propagation of the Gospel.
Newman became a clergyman in the Anglican Church, choosing to remain celibate—focusing on his reading, studying, and writing. He became a student at Oriel college at Oxford University, and became a fellow at Oriel at age 21.
Newman was a great scholar of the Church Fathers, and he considered them to be a source of revival in the Anglican Church. While at Oxford, he encountered those who wanted to “Catholicize” Anglicanism, which led to The Oxford Movement, which he founded.
The Oxford Movement set out to renew the Anglican Church in its doctrinal principles, including the nature of the Church, Episcopal authority, the sacraments, and Sacred Tradition.
Throughout his life, Newman believed in the objectivity of doctrine. The doctrines of Christianity do not change because one doesn’t like them, or because worldly attitudes and fashions change. We conform to doctrine; doctrine doesn’t conform to us.
In his study of the Church Fathers, he came to see that the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, was the one who settled doctrinal disputes. And so, he concluded that the Anglican Church of which he belonged, lacked that source of doctrinal unity found in the Bishop of Rome.
Newman gives us an insight into the act of faith. Many would consider Newman’s path to Rome to be an intellectual conversion—and that was part of it. But, Newman himself knew that the assent to faith has many elements to it.
Newman coined the term the “illative sense” to described the assent of faith. The assent of faith was more of an implicit response than a step-by-step process. In the act of faith, one’s intellectual knowledge, life experiences, and personal dispositions come together in one act.
Newman came into the Catholic Church in 1845 at the age of 43. He arrived there due to his passion for orthodox doctrine. However, Newman suffered personally for his conversion. He was ostracized by family and friends, and was essentially exiled from his beloved Oxford University community.
While Newman is probably best known for his knowledge of the Church Fathers, his writing on the development of doctrine, and his mastery of the English language, he was, above all else, a holy man. And holiness is possible for all.
Newman wrote: “It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection—short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones.”
As a sign of Newman’s holiness, miracles have been attributed to his intercession. The most recently approved miracle concerned the healing of a woman from the United States. This woman was pregnant and had a life-threatening diagnosis, moving her to pray for the intercession of Bl. Newman. She recovered and her doctors have been unable to explain how or why she overcame her illness.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Deacon Jack Sullivan (pictured at left), whose miraculous healing was attributed to Bl. Newman as his first miracle.
Deacon Sullivan was in his third year of study in becoming a permanent deacon. In 2000 he nearly collapsed with pain as he walked from his car to his home. He was sent to the hospital and learned that his lumbar vertebrae were crushing the discs and compressing his spinal cord. He needed immediate surgery to avoid paralysis.
Sullivan was told he would have to give up his third diaconate year due to this illness, and he was saddened by this news. Then, he prayed for the intercession of Cardinal Newman: “Please help me to walk so I can finish the third year of the diaconate.”
He went to sleep, and when he woke up the next morning, he had no pain. Surgery was to take place in three weeks, but his surgeon said there was no point in doing so without symptoms.
Jack had no pain for the following nine months and then, the day after his last class of his third year, the pain came right back. His surgery was rescheduled. Jack Sullivan was in great pain once again.
On August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption, he prayed again, “Please, Cardinal Newman, help me to walk.”
He said he felt an intense heat, a tingling sensation throughout his body, and a sense of joy and peace. He stood up, walked, and had no more pain.
Blessed John Henry Newman’s life proves that saints come with unique journeys, with unique gifts, including great literary men like him.