The importance of John Henry Newman’s canonization

Jared Staudt

Bl. John Henry Newman (1801-90) will be canonized on Oct. 13 and surely will be named a Doctor of the Church at some point in the future. Newman, known and studied even in secular universities for his masterful prose, epitomizes the drama of conversion. Having experienced the draw of evangelical Christianity in high school, he briefly flirted with liberal secularism at Oxford before taking a lead in the attempt to restore Catholic practices to the Church of England, known as the Oxford Movement. As an Anglican priest and famous preacher, however, he began to doubt the truth of the Anglican Church’s 39 articles of faith, recognizing their inconsistency and lack of continuity with the history of the Church.

Newman’s conversion touches crucial questions at stake for every Christian. Does the Church transmit truth in clear and authoritative fashion? Does faith depend upon our own individual judgment or is it a grace filled movement of assent to God’s revelation? For Newman, there could be no certainty in religion unless God gave authority to the Church to teach definitively in His name. His conversion to the Catholic Church in 1845 marked the definitive moment of his life, when he left the comfort of his life at Oxford and his many friends, for the peace of entering into the Church established by Jesus and which maintained direct continuity to the apostles. This turned his life upside down, but, through it, he experienced the relief of resting in the true faith.

His first work written as a Catholic, in 1848, the year after his ordination to the Catholic priesthood, consisted of a semi-autobiographical novel, Loss and Gain. Ignatius Press released a critical version of the text with commentary, which I read in preparation for his canonization (edited by Trevor Lipscombe, 2012). The main character, Charles Reding, finds himself at Oxford in the midst of religious controversy, having to sort through skepticism, evangelicalism, high Church Anglicanism, and a comfortable conformism. Although Charles bears some resemblance to Newman, his character serves as a more general way of entering into the mind and heart of a young man grappling for religious certainty.

After reading and teaching Newman for many years, Loss and Gain drew me into Oxford in a much more real way, making Newman’s time there come alive as he describes it in minute detail: “The first day of Michaelmas term is, to an undergraduate’s furniture, the brightest day of the year. Much as Charles regretted home, he rejoiced to see Oxford again. The porter had acknowledged him at the gate, and the scout had smiled and bowed, as he ran up the worn staircase and found a blazing fire to welcome him. The coals crackled and split, and threw up a white flame in strong contrast with the newly blackened bars and hobs of the grate. A shining copper kettle hissed and groaned under the internal torment of water at boiling point … A tea-tray and tea-commons were placed on the table … and a note from a friend whose term had already commenced” (102).

More to the point, we can enter into Newman’s train of thought prior to his conversion, which he plays out through the slow development of Charles’ faith. Unsatisfied with the inconsistencies of Anglicanism, Charles began to admire the clear authority of the Church: “This too has struck me,” he noted to his tutor, “that either there is no prophet of the truth on earth, or the Church of Rome is that prophet. That there is a prophet still, or apostle, or messenger, or teacher, or whatever he is to be called, seems evident by our believing in a visible Church. Now common sense tells us what a messenger from God must be; first, he must not contradict himself … Again, a prophet of God can allow no rival but denounces all who make a separate claim, as the prophets do in Scripture” (190). In his later autobiographical account of his conversion, Apologia pro vita sua, Newman argued that if God were to bestow revelation in the world, there would need to be an authority to interpret this revelation so that it did not become subject to the whims of individual judgment. Newman found this necessary authority in the Catholic Church.

In addition to Newman’s imaginative witness to the faith in his two novels and extensive poetry, he also wrote many great works of theology. In particular, he can guide us on pressing questions such as the relationship of conscience and authority and the genuine development of doctrine, which withstands the corruption of novelty. He also wrote one of the richest works on Catholic education, The Idea of a University, and his life bears witness to the central importance of friendship in the Christian life. His canonization marks a momentous occasion for the Church; hopefully it will turn more Catholics toward his prophetic voice.

COMING UP: Ms. Taylor: St. Louis’ fourth grade founder

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The following interview was conducted by the eighth grade class of 2020 at St. Louis Catholic School in Louisville to honor Ms. Lydia Taylor, the school’s beloved fourth grade teacher who is retiring after 20 years of teaching at St. Louis.

Our beloved fourth grade teacher, Ms. Taylor, has been working at St. Louis for over 20 years. As such, she has plenty of experience teaching in a Catholic environment. Since she is retiring this year, the 8th grade class at St. Louis decided to interview her and find out about Ms. Taylor. These are just a few of the many answers we received from her.

What are some things you wish more people understood about teaching in a Catholic School?

“I feel like we address the whole person… and [teach] life skills that can be carried on into their grown-up lives.”

Ms. Taylor feels that in Catholic schools, children receive an education that is applicable in all aspects of life, not just the academic portion. Catholic school teachers help children with social skills and independence among other skills. At public schools, teachers don’t get to know their students on a personal level, unlike Catholic schools. A personal connection with their students allows teachers to educate them on important life matters. Our Catholic faith and morals also allow our teachers to help students without having to worry about offending or insulting them.

What will you miss most about teaching at St. Louis?

“I’m going to miss the students for sure, and I’m actually going to miss the parents. I have had a lot of friendships over the years… A lot of my teaching friends have left before me, but I still keep in touch with them.”

Since Ms. Taylor was hired at St. Louis three days before the school year started, her room was a mess, and she wasn’t going to be able to clean it up in time. The parents at St. Louis saw how worried she was and stepped in to help by cleaning her room and organizing her lesson plan. She says she has met some truly incredible people here at St. Louis.

How would you like to spend your summers when you leave St. Louis?

“I think I’m going to move back East and vacation here in the summers… When I became a teacher, I thought I would have the summers to write, but I don’t, so I will probably catch up on my writing when I retire.”

Ms. Taylor has a passion for writing and even used to be a newspaper reporter. Her passion to write is still strong, and she hopes to do plenty of it when she retires.

Ms. Taylor with the eight grade class of 2020 at St. Louis. (Photos provided)

What accomplishments fill you with pride over the last 20 years at St. Louis?

“Having student teachers come back. I enjoy having my students come back wanting to pursue a job as a teacher.”

Ms. Taylor feels that she did her job properly when she inspires her students so much that they come back asking for assistance so that they can be just like her. She also enjoys hearing from students who have graduated and she can see what they are up to and how she impacted their lives.

Is there a quote/ saying that you live your life by?

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Gandhi

Ms. Taylor believes that if you want to improve the world, you will have to set a good example of how we should treat each other and how we should live our lives. Ms. Taylor sets a good example for her children in hopes that they will go out and set a good example for the rest of the world.

If you could pass on any wisdom to your students, what would you share?

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” Ms. Taylor believes.

She thinks that people shouldn’t worry as much about the minor issues in life but focus on the things that are more important.

What would students be surprised to find out about you?

“This is kind of embarrassing, but I was actually in the Mrs. Massachusetts pageant… It was great for all my friends because they got to watch me up on the stage, but for me, it was like, “What do we do now?” and “Why am I doing this?”

Ms. Taylor also brought in a picture of a quilt she made with her class one year, which hung in the capitol building for one month. The whole class received official certificates of their work from the quilt, and the quilt sold for $2,000 at our school’s Gala.

Ms. Taylor is an incredible teacher and has been here for her students for over 20 years. We wish her luck in her further adventures and will always remember her here at St. Louis as an amazing teacher and friend.