Eugene de Mazenod had the highest regard for Newman, whom he met on his first visit to Britain in 1850. A man of universal influence, Newman’s life touched that of the Oblates at a number of points, most profoundly in the part he played in inspiring the ‘Second Spring’ of English Catholicism which was a chief factor motivating the Founder to open an English mission.
He was born in London on 21 February 1801, the eldest of six children. His father, also John, was a banker who went bankrupt when Newman was just finishing school. His mother, Jemima Foundrinier, was of Huguenot extraction. From her he received an initial religious formation influenced by Calvinism. Thanks to a scholarship Newman was able to enter Trinity College, Oxford and was elected a fellow of Oriel College in 1822. He was ordained priest in the Church of England on 29 May 1825 and made vicar of the University Church St. Mary’s on 2 February 1828. In the course of these years his faith developed. He moved away from the evangelical party in his Church to being a sympathizer with the leaders of a new catholic movement within that Church. In the next decade he became the leader of that movement – the Oxfordmovement. Its method was to circulate Tracts for the Times to the clergy pointing out abuses and suggesting remedies. Thus it was also known as the Tractarian movement. Of 90 tracts published 1833-1841 Newman wrote 26. There was considerable resistance to the movement on the part of evangelical and liberal Anglicans, as many of the movement’s adherents became Catholics. Newman himself retired from Oxford to Littlemore, a village nearby, on 19 April 1842. Here with likeminded men he lived a life of prayer, study and dialogue. In September 1843 he resigned as Vicar of St. Mary’s. On 3 October 1845 he resigned his fellowship in Oriel College and on 9 October 1845 was received into the Catholic Church. The public impression made by this event can be gauged by the fact that the Founder alludes to it twice in his letter to the clergy and people of Marseilles dated 21 December 1845. Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was published in this year.
In February 1846 Newman and his companions left Littlemore. Father Perron was Newman’s fellow guest to dinner in Grace Dieu in 1846. In May 1846 Newman received minor orders and in September he and his companions left for Rome. He was ordained priest in Rome on 30 May 1847. The group decided to become Oratorians and on 2 February 1848 Newman established the Oratory at Old Oscott which he renamed Maryvale. “Bishop Ullathorne however needed the presence of a religious community to take charge of a district in Birmingham, inhabited largely by a core of Irish immigrants. John Henry Newman took up the challenge seriously and moved to Birmingham, January 1849. He took up residence in the mission in Alcester Street in January 1849…The Oratorians kept charge of this mission until 1853 when they moved to the Edgbaston district of Birmingham. The mission passed into the hands of secular priests in 1855…” (Vincent Denny, “John Henry Cardinal Newman…”, in Vie Oblate Life, Vol. 50/1 , p.67). Under the title of ‘St. Anne’s parish’ it was confided to the Oblates in 1938 and is still in their care. Meanwhile in 1849, to Eugene’s confessed astonishment, the Oblates had succeeded Newman’s Oratorians and taken possession of Maryvale as their house of formation in England.
Cooke relates how in 1851 Newman received into the Catholic Church in Leeds a group of Anglican clergy and laity that included two future Oblates: George Lloyd Crawley and John Atkinson.
At the first Provincial Synod of Westminster held at Oscott in 1852 Newman preached his famous sermon “the Second Spring”. Father Cooke was present on this occasion.
Newman’s work towards establishing a Catholic university in Ireland was coming to a frustrating close by the time the Oblates reached Dublin in 1856. His Apologia pro vita sua appeared in 1864, and his A Grammar of Assent in 1870. Father Dawson relates that this latter work was already being studied by the Oblate students in Autun before they were sent back to England in that year because of the political situation in France.
Newman’s life as a Catholic brought him spiritual contentment and a reputation for sanctity, but he was often under a shadow of distrust by Catholics who did not understand him. When he was named cardinal in 1879 it was both a consolation and a protection. Cardinal Newman died in the Birmingham Oratory on 11 August 1890. He was declared “venerable” by Pope John Paul II in 1991.
Michael Hughes, o.m.i.