VATICAN CITY, FEB. 27, 2001 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II recalled the second centenary of the birth of Venerable John Henry Newman, one of the most influential English Catholics of the 19th century, and proposed him as a model for Christians today.
According to the Pope, Cardinal Newman is a classicist in the proper sense of the word: “He was born at a particular time, 21 February 1801; in a particular place, London; and to a particular family: the firstborn of John Newman and Jemima Fourdrinier. However, the particular mission entrusted to him by God ensures that John Henry Newman belongs to every time, and place, and people.”
Newman was born in the heart of an Anglican family of bankers. From an early age he had a passion for God and spiritual matters, having experienced his “first conversion,” as he described it, at 15. He was ordained an Anglican minister in 1825, when he finished his studies at Oxford. Three years later, he was appointed vicar of St. Mary the Virgin Church, in Oxford.
In that post, which he held until 1843, Newman cultivated friendships with cultured Englishmen. He was part of the Oxford Movement, which hoped to have the Anglican Church considered part of the universal Church, like the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
In his “Tract 90,” Newman tried to give a Catholic interpretation to the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church. But both Oxford University and the Anglican bishops rejected his convictions.
In 1842 he retired to Littlemore to study and meditate. His retreat ended in his conversion to Catholicism on Oct. 9, 1845. Two years later he was ordained a Catholic priest.
He wanted to show to the English that one could be both a good Catholic and a loyal subject. Newman suffered the criticisms of Anglicans, and of Catholics who regarded his conversion as insincere. Pope Leo XIII recognized his merits and created him a cardinal in 1879. Newman died in Birmingham in August 1890.
In John Paul II´s letter on Newman, published today by the Vatican Press Office, he refers to the “troubled times” in which Newman lived, when old “certitudes were shaken, and believers were faced with the threat of rationalism, on the one hand, and fideism, on the other. Rationalism brought with it a rejection of both authority and transcendence, while fideism turned from the challenges of history and the tasks of this world to a distorted dependence upon authority and the supernatural.”
“In such a world, Newman came eventually to a remarkable synthesis of faith and reason, which were for him like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” one of the issues that has most interested Karol Wojtyla since his youth.
In particular, the Pope explained that in his search, the future cardinal would have to face pain and tribulations “but, paradoxically, rather than diminishing or destroying him, they strengthened his faith in the God who had called him, and confirmed him in the conviction that God ´does nothing in vain.´”
The Bishop of Rome ends his letter with the great lesson of this 19th century Englishman: “In the end, therefore, what shines forth in Newman is the mystery of the Lord´s Cross: This was the heart of his mission, the absolute truth which he contemplated, the ´kindly light´ which led him on.”
Cardinal Newman´s beatification process is well under way. On Jan. 22, 1991, John Paul II recognized his heroic virtues. Some Vatican observers see the letter as a new endeavor by the Holy Father to attract attention to the sometimes prophetic figure.