The acquisition of our very own saint, Mary MacKillop, has raised awareness in Australia of the hierarchy of sanctity. In the lead up to her canonisation, she has certainly become a household name.
The same could not be said about John Henry Cardinal Newman, who was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI during his recent state visit to Britain. Ordinary citizens, if they think about him at all, would probably categorise his philosophy and theology as esoteric and irrelevant to modern Britain.
It was not always so. Throughout his adult life, Newman was a high profile household name. In the 19th century, religion was part of the very fabric of society and controversies within and between the Christian churches made headlines in the press. Newman was often at the centre of such controversies. As the leader of the Tractarian Movement in Oxford in the 1830’s he came into conflict with conservative members of the Church of England hierarchy and other prominent Anglican academics who considered Newman’s championing of a return to the Patristic teachings of the Early Church Fathers to be dangerous and subversive. As a Catholic priest, theologian, philosopher and writer, he was in conflict with the recently re-established English Catholic hierarchy who also considered some of his activities to be subversive (probably for the same reasons!) In spite of his formidable reputation, Newman was by all accounts a warm and very accessible person. He was a devoted son and brother, a loyal and much loved friend, a generous and tolerant colleague.
His life experiences would seem to have had little in common with Mary MacKillop’s. He had spent thirty years in Oxford as an Anglican scholar, academic and cleric and the next forty-five, for the most part, as a parish priest in the slums of Birmingham. She spent her life in the far-flung colonies of Victoria and South Australia, much of that in the Bush. Yet their concerns and travails were very similar. For both, the education of poor Catholic children was high on their list of priorities. Both clashed with their cautious and conservative bishops – in Newman’s case Bishop Ullathorne of Birmingham who for ten years had served as the Vicar General to NSW in the 1830s. Both had very personal experiences of failure and rejection. Both were an inspiration to those who worked with them, lived with them, loved them.
Both believed absolutely in the validity of the religious experience of even illiterate and ordinary people, even if they could not explain/verbalise it. Newman strongly defended the assertion that those who had the simplest faith had ‘reasonable grounds for their certitude’. This certitude was based on an unshakeable belief in a moral order/our conscience, which was activated by the grace of God. Both believed that although the hierarchy ‘channelled grace’ to the faithful, the visible church was not the full picture. The Church was made up of single individuals -‘innumerable hearts’ – who loved and were loved by God.
Newman’s radical theology raised many questions about the nature of ‘church’ in his day. Seventy years after his death, his theology informed and influenced the deliberations at Vatican II. Now 120 years later, ‘the church’ – hierarchy and laity – would benefit from a reassessment of his theology. It seems he is after all a man for our times.
Elizabeth McKenzie is editor of the Tinteán magazine of the Australian Irish Heritage Network.
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