Welcoming our new English saint

By Simon Hart

Saint John Henry Newman’s canonisation on 13 October was an occasion to savour for the pilgrims who travelled to Rome from Liverpool Archdiocese – and gives us a saint who is an example to all.

‘It was like England had gone to Rome … hearing the choir of the London Oratory School, hearing the English hymns.’ These words of Father Sean Riley capture something of the sensation felt by every English Catholic who journeyed to Rome on the weekend of 12-13 October – a weekend spent celebrating the canonisation of Saint John Henry Newman, England’s new saint.

From the Archdiocese of Liverpool, a party of 70 undertook the trip to the Italian capital, led by nine clergy – among them Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, Bishop John Rawsthorne and Bishop Tom Williams. They were far from alone. Some 50,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Square on Sunday 13th for the Mass of Canonisation, including Prince Charles, who described Cardinal Newman as a ‘priest, a poet and a thinker ahead of his time’.

In his homily during the Mass of Canonisation, Pope Francis sought to highlight other characteristics of Cardinal Newman, whose feast will henceforth be celebrated on 9 October each year. The Pontiff quoted Newman’s claim that ‘the Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not. The Christian is cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming; has no pretence.’ Qualities of equal weight today.

Cardinal Newman, who lived from 1801-1890, is the first English saint canonised since the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales in 1970. Moreover, he is the first Englishman born since the 17th century to have been promoted to full sainthood. He was canonised along with four women: Mother Mariam Thresia from India, Marguerite Bays from Switzerland, Mother Giuseppina Vannini from Italy, and the Brazilian-born Sister Dulce Lopes Pontes.

Cardinal Newman was many things. Theologian and poet, prolific writer and profound thinker. As an Oxford University academic and Anglican priest, he helped to found the Oxford Movement, established to revitalise the Church of England. His conversion to Catholicism in 1845 was a matter of much controversy but he was quickly ordained a priest and, with the permission of Pope Pius IX, set up the Birmingham Oratory. He was appointed the first rector of the institution that became University College Dublin yet his priesthood was practical too and full of care for the less fortunate, as evidenced by his visits to the sick and imprisoned.

According to Cardinal Vincent Nichols, it was his very English attributes, highlighted by Pope Francis, which should give encouragement to all Catholics in this country. ‘I just felt a deep sense of something being fulfilled, and a deep sense of encouragement,’ said the Cardinal in a reflection on the canonisation. ‘I think that is especially true for all of us in England because this new saint was so thoroughly English.’

The Cardinal added: ‘We do not wear our hearts on our sleeves, we do not shout about our faith. It is, as he said, a deep and silent hidden peace that often the world does not see. What was strengthened in me was this sense of an unostentatious way of being a disciple of Jesus in the world today in the Catholic Church.

‘Here we have a saint for us everyday priests, and we have a saint for us everyday disciples who don’t shout about our faith, who tend not to get on soapboxes on the street corners but show our faith in our hearts and in doing the ordinary things, our duties, but always with a sense of obedience, that this is what God wants.’

A Liverpool link
If Newman was born in London and died in Birmingham, his story does have one subplot of particular pertinence to Liverpool Archdiocese. After all, the man who received him into the Church was Blessed Dominic Barberi, the Passionist priest who is buried at St Anne and Blessed Dominic parish in Sutton, St Helens.

‘With the Barberi connection in the diocese, we all felt we should do something,’ said Fr Sean Riley. For the Liverpool group, their pilgrimage began on the Saturday afternoon with a Mass at the Church of St Anne in the Vatican, the Pope’s parish church. Later, at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, they attended a vigil of prayer presided by Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham along with representatives of the Confederation of the Oratory of St Philip Neri and of the Church of England.

Fr Sean reflected of this latter occasion: ‘It was quite emotional walking through the doors of the basilica, where the remnants of the crib are, to hear the strains of Praise to the Holiest in the Height.’ This Newman hymn, sung by the choir of the London Oratory School, was far from the only English flavour. There were seminarians from the English College serving at the Canonisation Mass the next day – and a sizeable number of English Catholics among the tens of thousands who filled St Peter’s Square for the Mass.

‘There were Liverpool pilgrims on the front row for the canonisation,’ said Fr Sean. ‘There was a tremendous sense of peace – a joyful but reverend feeling. Half of the English clergy seemed to be there.’

After the Mass, Canon Philip Gillespie, the rector of the Beda College and Catholic Pic columnist, joined the Liverpool clergy at a celebratory reception at the Collegio Urbano, a training college for missionary priests at which Cardinal Newman had once studied.

At the reception the Prince of Wales described Cardinal Newman as ‘a fearless defender of truth, whose impact on the world was as profound as it is enduring’. As Fr Sean observed: ‘It was wonderful to hear the future king of England speak about Newman as a national hero and a national treasure.’ The celebrations did not end there as the following day, an Pontifical Mass of Thanksgiving took place at the Archbasilica of St John Lateran, celebrated by Cardinal Nichols.

Two significant visitors from the United States were also present in Rome for the canonisation of Cardinal Newman: Deacon Jack Sullivan and Melissa Villalobos, the subjects of the two miracles attributed to him on the path to sainthood. ‘It was wonderful to meet them,’ said Fr Sean, who was also grateful for the assistance of a third American, Alex Kramer, a seminarian from the diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, who spent last summer on a pastoral placement at Christ the King parish in Liverpool, and played an important role in ensuring the Archdiocesan trip ran smoothly, together with Leisure Time Travel.