A Cardinal's Correspondence

Interview With Editor of Newman Letters Project

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BIRMINGHAM, England, NOV. 30, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The complete collection of letters of Cardinal John Henry Newman is one of the «finest» in the English language, says the editor of the project to publish the cardinal’s correspondence.

Brother Frank McGrath is the editor of the Oxford University Press series «The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman» (1801-1890), which has just published its 32nd volume.

In this interview, Brother McGrath talks about how it took the persistence of an American Jesuit to initiate the project, and how it’s taken over 50 years for the project to come to fruition.

Q: When did Cardinal Newman’s letters begin to be published?

Brother McGrath: The first lot of Newman letters to appear was a selection of letters in 1891, the year following the cardinal’s death. They were restricted to his Anglican years — but only from 1826 to 1845. These two volumes were edited by Anne Mozley — sister-in-law of Newman’s two sisters, Jemima and Harriett, who had married the Mozley brothers, John and Tom, in 1836.

Wilfrid Ward’s two-volume biography of Newman appeared in 1912. It contained letters from his Catholic years, but these were generally extracts.

Six years later, the Birmingham Oratory published the correspondence between Newman and John Keble covering the last seven years of Newman as an Anglican. That is, from 1839 to 1845.

Q: How did the project to publish a complete edition of his letters begin?

Brother McGrath: On Feb. 9, 1953, a letter landed on the desk of Father Henry Tristram at the Birmingham Oratory. At the time, it was him who was the archivist of the Newman papers. The letter was from Father Eric McDermott, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown University in the United States.

Father McDermott made four proposals. First, that Georgetown University and the Birmingham Oratory join forces to microfilm all the published and unpublished papers of John Henry Newman. Secondly, he suggested that they publish all of Newman’s letters, plus all his diaries, all his sermons, and all his papers, philosophical and theological. Thirdly, he recommended that a definitive edition of all of Newman’s books be published. Fourthly, and finally, he proposed that for this purpose, a Newman Institute be established on campus at Georgetown as part of its graduate school. He estimated that altogether this would involve publishing about 100 volumes.

At the time, Father Henry was in poor health. So nothing much happened until after his death in 1955 when Father Stephen Dessain was appointed to take his place. He then renewed contact with Father McDermott.

Initially, it was Father Stephen’s intention simply to publish a selection of Newman’s letters from his Catholic period. This would probably run into about eight, maybe 10 volumes.

But Father McDermott eventually persuaded Father Stephen that everything ought to be published. «It seems to me,» he told him, «that the fullness of the printing is a very grave matter. I am a historian by profession and perhaps I am unduly conscious of the necessity of having all the documents available for sound work. Selective letters are somewhat like a biography: They are one man’s view of the evidence.»

Negotiations between Georgetown University and Birmingham got off to a promising start. They went on for six years. But negotiations over copyright and finance proved complicated, and, in the end, it proved difficult to come to an agreement.

Q: So what happened then?

Brother McGrath: The Birmingham Oratory made the decision to push ahead on its own and publish all of Newman’s letters, both from the Anglican and Catholic years, just as Father McDermott had suggested in 1953. It was decided to commence with the Catholic years.

And so it was that Volume 11 made its appearance in 1961. By the time of his death 18 years later, Father Stephen had published 21 volumes all covering the Catholic years. That is, from 1845 to 1890. It was a tremendous achievement by any standard. Along the way and at various times, he was assisted by Jesuits Father Vincent Blehl, Father Edward Kelly and Father Thomas Gornall.

Father Stephen died on May 31, 1976, leaving only the letters belonging to the Anglican years to publish. That is the years from 1801 to 1845. This would take another 10 volumes, but this time it took another 30 years.

Q: Who oversaw the project after Father Dessain?

Brother McGrath: Jesuit Father Thomas Gornall and Father Ian Ker were appointed joint editors. And so they set to work on the Anglican years, eventually bringing out the first five volumes, covering the years 1801 to the end of 1836.

Gerard Tracey then took over and brought out Volumes 6-8, covering the years 1837 to the end of April 1842. He was working on Volume 9 when he died unexpectedly in December 2002.

At this point, I was invited by the Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory to complete the series. Volumes 9 and 10 covering his final four years as an Anglican have now been published.

Volume 32 has just been published. It contains more than 500 letters found too late for inclusion in previous volumes.

So now, after 50 years, 32 volumes, and seven editors, we have one of the finest collections of letters in the English language.

Q: So what else needs to be done in the Letters and Diaries project?

Brother McGrath: There is one other task remaining: the General Index. This will be a colossal undertaking and may take years to complete. It means a lot of money, a lot of skill, and a lot of time.

At present, I’m working on the remaining three volumes of Newman’s unpublished Anglican sermons. The first two volumes have already been published. Volume three goes to Oxford University Press next week and, all things being equal, will be published next year. This will be followed by Volume 4 the following year, and Volume 5 the year after that. There is a lot of work to do; but, in due course, there will be time for the General Index.

Q: Was the publication of the letters and diaries of John Henry Newman significant in the history of the cause for Newman’s beatification?

Brother McGrath: Father Stephen Dessain’s view was that you needed to look at Newman’s letters for a true account of him — his published writings were not enough on their own. This desire — and the subsequent initiation of the Letters and Diaries project – was really simultaneous with the beginning of the cause.

Work on the letters and diaries was begun in the 1950s, as I said. As for the cause for beatification, Monsignor Francis Davis worked hard to get it up and running, and this happened in 1958. Father Stephen and Monsignor Davis used to meet once a week at the Oratory when the latter was working in the nearby Bearwood parish.

So, the cause and the Letters and Diaries project were certainly interrelated, though the project of publication of the letters was started partly for scholarly purposes, or at least with the aim of understanding Newman, rather than conceived as directly linked with the cause.

But in fact, the Letters and Diaries project became very important in the history of the cause. In the official «Positio» drawn up by Jesuit Father Vincent Blehl, postulator of the cause for many years, there are lots of letters quoted as well as cross-correspondence from Newman’s works.

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More information: http://www.newmancause.co.uk

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