By Frank Wessling
This September, at about the time American children and college students are settled into another school year, a notable Catholic scholar will be declared blessed, the final step before official recognition of sainthood in the Church.
John Henry Newman, Englishman of the 19th century — he lived from 1801 to 1890 — will join our rich line of spiritual models in ceremonies to be conducted by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit England Sept. 16-19.
Newman is best known for his well-documented move from Anglican Church priest to priest and then cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. But he also earned broad respect for his views on higher education. From 1851 to 1857 he was rector of the Catholic University of Dublin in Ireland. During that time he wrote “The Idea of a University,” setting down his platform for learning.
In its most general form, he saw a university as a community which prepares “the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out toward truth, and to grasp it.” In the end such an education contributes to the formation of human material “capable of divine purposes.”
Soon-to-be Blessed St. John Henry Newman is one of the most interesting Catholic figures of the recent past. Since he wrote in the English language we have easy access to his journey of faith and the working of a well-ordered mind. The website www.newmanreader.org has links to virtually all of his published writings, including “The Idea of a University” and the story of his religious journey, “Apologia pro Vita Sua,” a Latin title meaning roughly “defense of my life.” Newman called the Apologia — which he wrote in English — “a whole book about myself, and about my most private thoughts and feelings.”
His style doesn’t fit our early 21st century world, but that doesn’t make him irrelevant. Just the opposite. In order to be Catholic in a catholic manner we need to see and feel beyond the limits of our own time, to know some of the wild and surprising variety in that cloud of witnesses for God’s grace that colors our past. We are richer for that heritage.
The beatification of a member in the Church is an opportunity to learn more of our heritage and become better able to work for the good in our own time. John Henry Newman is worth a look.