Making Friends with John Henry Newman

Maybe, like me and J, you took awhile to find your home in the Catholic church. After a not particularly well-catechized childhood in the Catholic church, I spent four years as a newlywed pilgrim in the Anglican denomination before finding my way back to Rome. Later on, my husband read and debated himself into Catholicism after stints in the Evangelical and Anglican churches. Maybe that’s why, after years of debate and vacillation, when my husband finally crossed the Tiber, he took Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman as his patron saint. 

After all, John Henry Newman knows a thing or two about overthinking. In his lifetime, he wrote forty books and 21,000 letters. His long life, spanning from 1801-1890, roughly parallel to Queen Victoria, neatly bracketed the tumult and change of the nineteenth century and saw him make the vertiginous leap from the Church of England to the Roman Catholic Church, at the time still a somewhat persecuted faith in England. John Henry Newman was 44 when he finally became Catholic, and the radical decision cost him his reputation, his career, and even relationships with some of his family. (It all makes our defection to the Catholic church in our late 20s look like no big deal.)

After his conversion, Cardinal Newman kept up his prodigious writing and went on to influence many Catholic thinkers to the present day, including the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, contemporary philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Alasdair MacIntyre and Bishop Robert Barron. But for all that heady, cerebral stuff, Newman’s motto was “Cor Ad Cor Loquitur,” often translated as “heart speaks to heart.” Intellectual rigor takes you only so far, and then — the leap of faith.

This October, John Henry Newman will be canonized on October 13, when he is also expected to be named a Doctor of the Church. His feast day is October X, the date of his conversion — not his death day, as is the custom. Here are some ideas for how to celebrate, or to get the know the newly minted saint:

  1. At our home, we’ll be celebrating with friends. The liturgical feast should be a delight for Anglophiles who admire the likes of Tolkien, Lewis and Chesterton. With a nod to the new saint’s British roots, we’ll serve good English beer and cottage pie, which Americans sometimes call “shepherd’s pie” — a simple, hearty English casserole made of ground beef, mashed potatoes and root vegetables. I’m thinking of trying my hand at making treacle tart, but any traditional English dessert would do, and trifles —  variations on layers of cake, whipped cream and fruit — are an easy option in a pinch. St. John Henry Newman held lifelong ties to academia, so a celebration of his canonization might include the sort of tweedy traditions we associate with Oxford and which tie in so well to autumn: pipe smoking, warm drinks and woolen sweaters.
  2. A good way to get to know JHN is trying out some of the many hymns he wrote. We plan to sing what was probably the saint’s most famous hymn, “Lead Kindly Light,” but a quick Internet search reveals dozens of hymns penned by St. John Henry Newman, some of which you may be surprised to realize you already know.
  3. Prayer cards are available here, here and here if you’d like to give him a little place in your home. (He looks like my German Grimm forebears to me.)
  4. Kids can color their own John Henry Newman coloring page, or for a free option you could expand and print this image of John Henry Newman’s motto.
  5. This is probably my favorite thing I’ve ever read about the new saint, published over at First Things: “Two False Newmans”.
  6. You can go deeper into his story with Bishop Robert Barron’s video series featuring John Henry Newman as a “pivotal player” in Catholicism. 
  7. And for some excellent ideas on living this date in the liturgical calendar, you can visit Aquinas Learning.

 

No matter the size or scale of a celebration of St. John Henry Newman’s canonization, I think any feast—or study!— should end with my absolute favorite of his prayers. It cuts through the sometimes alienating Victorian verbiage and silences my panic at all the many volumes of the great man’s writing I have left to read. As our friends, filled by cheer and feasting, disperse into the cool of an early autumn evening, I want these simple words echoing in their minds:

May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in His mercy may He give us safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.

 

 

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