Kat Keogh uncovers the story of Cardinal Newman, a humble man revered by many – and finally on the road to sainthood.
The massive pilgrimage to Birmingham is under way.
Tens of thousands of Catholics will converge on Cofton Park for the historic visit of Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday.
The Pontiff’s visit will see the beatification of Cardinal Newman, the Victorian cardinal who founded the Birmingham Oratory.
Credited with curing an American clergyman of a crippling spinal disorder, the cardinal’s beatification will set him on the road to becoming the first non-martyred English saint since the Reformation.
Today schools and colleges across the region may bear his name, but to those outside the Catholic fold, the name John Henry Newman remains a mystery.
For instance, what was it that he did or said which so moved two brothers who lived and worked as servants at The Oratory House on Hagley Road?
Fr Dominic Innamorati, now parish priest of St John & Martin in Balsall Heath, regrets he was too young to ask his two uncles what was so impressive about their employer, later to become Cardinal Newman.
“When I was a small boy, growing up with my family in Stirchley, I’d hear my uncles talking, telling my family, ‘That Father Newman is a saint, a real saint.’
“Sadly, I was too young to take their words in and ask them to explain how they felt. But I grew up taking it almost for granted that Fr Newman was holy. It was one of those facts, in our family, that we took almost for granted. I’d give a lot to have my uncles back for five minutes so I could ask them what gave them that notion of Fr Newman’s goodness.”
There was always something special about the then-Fr Newman. What else could explain why a down-to-earth husband and wife, probably Protestants, took their children from their small home in Witton Road, Aston, to hear him preach a homily that would result in the whole family being received into the Catholic Church?
This couple were the great-grandparents of Dr Christina Byrne, a retired paediatrician now living in Shropshire.
“My great-grandfather was John Howell, from Wiltshire, my great-grandmother Emily Gardiner, from Somerset. From their birth dates, I guess both came to Birmingham as the Industrial Revolution swept England,” says Dr Byrne.
They had six boys and a girl. John worked as a joiner, at one stage helping to build the big Post Office in Victoria Square in Birmingham. The puzzle about the family at that stage – and we will never solve it now – was what interested a working-class family so much that they turned out to hear Fr Newman preach? What was it about him that captured their imaginations so much that they were all converted to Catholicism at a time when, generally speaking, members of the Catholic Church were seen as misguided, to say the least?
“My grandmother, John and Emily’s youngest child and only daughter, was about 12 at the time the family heard Fr Newman and couldn’t remember where he was preaching.
“Something at the back of my mind says it was in Birmingham Town Hall, but I can’t be sure of that. We’ve got to remember that, until the Catholic Church became ‘respectable’ after the Restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850, there were few Catholic churches and no cathedrals.
“I have old photographs of Emily as a young woman in about 1887, when she was a student-teacher at St Joseph’s Catholic School in Nechells. That makes it likely her parents, her brothers and Emily looked on St Joseph’s as their parish church and were all baptised as Catholics there.”
A prized possession of Dr Byrne is Emily’s prayer book, in which she had copied down her favourite hymns and poems. As a child, Dr Byrne loved sitting beside her to leaf through this, reading the hymns. Emily married a printer, Henry John Marcussohn, in a Catholic church in Wiltshire. He wasn’t a Catholic at that stage but soon became one.
Cardinal Newman, says Dr Byrne, is regarded by many, completely erroneously, as a rather dry academic and theologian. “That disappoints me because it just can’t be right,” she says. ”My forebears felt his magnetism and they certainly weren’t intellectuals.” She says also that the cardinal was known as a very kind man as he got to know families in Ladywood – hardly a hang-out for bibliophiles and philosophers in the late 19th century.
Other mysteries abound, including rumours Cardinal Newman was a closet homosexual, claims which feature in a new biography by former seminarian John Cornwell.
In Newman’s Unquiet Grave, Cornwell, a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, recounts how Cardinal Newman’s final wish was to be buried beside lifelong friend Fr Ambrose St John, prompting speculation that the two were involved in a homosexual relationship.
Weeks before his death in 1890, Cardinal Newman wrote in his will: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St John’s grave ... I give this as my last, my imperative will.”
Born into a religious family in 1801, Cardinal Newman attended Great Ealing School in London, where he is said to have preferred Bible study to sport. After graduating from Trinity College, Oxford, he was ordained into the Anglican Church in 1824, but scandalised Victorian society when he defected to Rome and became a Catholic in 1845.
His lifelong friendship with Father St John began shortly before his conversion, and the pair lived and worked together for more than 30 years.
Cornwell’s book uses correspondence by Cardinal Newman to show his feelings of loss following his friend’s death in 1875. Among his many letters to friends, the cardinal wrote: “I praise God for having given me 32 years not merely an affectionate friend, but a help and stay as a guardian from above might be, making my path easy to me in difficulties, and cheering me by his sunny presence, as Raphael took the weight upon him of Tobias.
“I cannot think how I could have done anything without him, and, as knowing how timorous and utterly unready I am, therefore doubtless God gave him to me. Just when all friends Protestant and Converts were removed from me, and I had to stand alone, he came to me as Ruth to Naomi.”
Cardinal Newman’s close relationship with Father St John came under the microscope two years ago, when plans were outlined for the remains of the cardinal to be moved from his grave in Rednal to lie in state at the Birmingham Oratory.
The move, and Cardinal Newman’s will, prompted speculation by the media that his specific burial arrangements were evidence of a gay relationship. Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell accused the Catholic Church at the time of “grave robbery” over plans to move the remains.
Mr Tatchell said: “I think we owe it to Cardinal Newman to ensure his wishes are carried out. He wanted to be buried for eternity with the man he loved, Fr Ambrose St John. The reason the Catholic Church is not doing this is because they don’t want to acknowledge that Cardinal Newman loved a man.”
Mr Tatchell’s fears of “grave robbing” proved unfounded, when the exhumation of the grave in October 2008 revealed Cardinal Newman’s coffin was not lead-lined and that his body had disintegrated. But the Vatican has moved to rubbish rumours of his alleged homosexuality by enlisting the help of Newman scholar Fr Ian Ker, who states the Cardinal is “irrefutably heterosexual”.
Oxford Don Dr Ker updated his Newman biography, John Henry Newman: A Biography, last year to include a new chapter to “prove decisively” that the clergyman was not gay.
“Secret” diary entries written in Latin by an adolescent Cardinal Newman reveal how the 15-year-old feared end-of-term dances with girls would tempt him into sin.
Fr Ker said: “It is decisive evidence about his sexuality which he wasn’t intending to make public.
“These were private diary entries. They were written in Latin because he was afraid that somebody might see them. It is decisive evidence and there is isn’t a scrap of evidence to the contrary.”
But one man to whom the question mark over Cardinal Newman’s sexuality is of no concern is Jack Sullivan, the Catholic deacon who credits him with freeing him from “agonising” pain following surgery nine years ago.
Hundreds of people turned out to hear the Bostonian’s testimony when he spoke at the Birmingham Oratory in November last year, a visit which he likened to a “homecoming”.
He told the 300-strong congregation how, after being left unable to walk following an operation, his surgeon told him it would be physically impossible for him to return to studies to become an ordained deacon.
Mr Sullivan said he turned to prayer after seeing a TV documentary on the life of Cardinal Newman.
“My prayer was simple,” he said. “It was not for healing, only for me to realise my dream. I said ‘please Cardinal Newman, help me to walk so that I may return to classes and be ordained’. Suddenly I felt an intense heat and a tingling all over that lasted for a long time. I experienced a sense of joy that I had never felt before, something that didn’t come from me.”
After being discharged from hospital the next day, Mr Sullivan contacted the Birmingham Oratory to tell them of his healing.
His letter set in motion an eight-year investigation into his cure, which was subjected to rigorous tests by a panel of doctors and then by a group of theologians set up by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome.
The Vatican approved Mr Sullivan’s case as a miracle earlier last year and the deacon will be reading the Gospel at Cardinal Newman’s Beatification Mass on Sunday in Cofton Park.
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Making the Cause
An 88-year-old priest should be the first to greet Benedict XVI when the Pontiff steps into Edgbaston Oratory’s gloomy hall, decorated in all dark wood and dark tiles, writes Maureen Messent.
The Holy Father will be ushered to the – by then – Blessed John Henry Newman’s study and chapel, then to the beautiful Oratory Church.
But first will come the papal handshake with Fr Gregory Winterton, the gentle old man who has worked a lifetime to advance Newman’s Cause. Will the Pope be reminded, I wonder, that Father Gregory had to turn down the request for a favour from Pope Paul VI?
That’s doubtful. But it happened back in the 1970s, says Father Gregory when the late Paul VI was arranging the 1975 Holy Year.
“We got this letter from the Vatican, asking us to have Newman’s Cause all packaged as a Holy Year highlight,” says Father Gregory.
“I had to write back very respectfully. I’ve forgotten the actual words we used, but they were along the lines of: ‘Sorry, old chap, no can do. We’ve not read the Cardinal’s letters yet’.”
Then this old priest, a former military man, admits an Oratory short-coming: “We were total beginners in the canonisation process,” he says. “Didn’t know the ropes. Hadn’t a clue where to start.”
All down the years, research has continued sporadically into Newman’s life. Although he died in 1890, it wasn’t until 1958 that his Cause was officially introduced.
The First World War had been the first major delay. Then there was the question of poring over the late Cardinal’s letters, diaries and books – he was a prolific writer.
Then Monsignor Francis Davis, of Oscott College, enlisted the support of English-speaking bishops across the world. They rallied round. But by 1958 only those who knew Newman in his later years, were left alive, although Archbishop Grimshaw was enthusiastic and appointed an Historical Commission, it never met.
Father Stephen Dessain pressed on alone with the Newman papers. By the time of his unexpected death in 1976, he’d researched just 21 volumes – considered insufficient to help out Pope Paul’s Holy Year.
Father Gregory, then Provost of Birmingham Oratory, nursed the Cause along. A flurry of bishops and archbishops took it up. A conference was called in Rome. By the summer of 1986 the Diocesan Process was over and all evidence on Newman’s Cause was dispatched to Rome.
Pope John Paul II signed the required Decree for the Cardinal’s case to go forward in 1991.
Throughout all these years, Father Gregory was tireless, patient and optimistic. By now, everything rested on a miracle, needed to advance Newman to the first step of sainthood. The Catholic hierarchy in Britain waited for what they believed would be proof of Newman’s holiness.
Relics of a holy man on display
Rarely seen items from the life of John Henry Newman have gone on display in Birmingham.
Items such as the Cardinal’s robes, hat and shoes, not seen the by general public since his death in 1890, will form part of a celebration of his life at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
The exhibition will include personal items on loan from the Birmingham Oratory, plus the museum’s own collection, including a specially conserved painting by Birmingham-born William Thomas Roden entitled Portrait of His Eminence Cardinal Newman.
The portrait, painted in 1879, was commissioned in commemoration of Newman being made a Cardinal and was acclaimed by many as a truly lifelike portrait of the man.
Another major feature of the display is a bust of Cardinal Newman by Richard Westmacott the younger, a sculptor and friend of the Cardinal.
The Cardinal’s jewelled mitre with silk and gold thread inset with semi-precious stones can be seen alongside his robes, hat and shoes, his gold pectoral cross inset with gems, and a Victorian gothic-style crozier used by Newman.
The exhibition runs at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until January 2011 and admission is free. For more information visit www.bmag.org.uk.