Since Cardinal Newman’s death in 1890, the Popes have praised him as a holy man and a singular gift to the Church.
In an interview with ZENIT ahead of the imminent canonization this Sunday, Oct. 13, this was documented by Professor Mary Katherine Tillman, an expert on the English cardinal, who was named by the National Institute for Newman Studies as winner of the 2019 Gailliot Award for Lifetime Achievement in Newman Studies.
According to her biography on the University of Notre Dame’s website, she has taught and lectured in academic venues nationally and internationally primarily on the thought of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman with particular interest in his educational theory and his views on the faith/reason relation. Her work on Newman’s life and writings appears in academic journals, scholarly books and electronic publications.
With Notre Dame Press, Professor Tillman has published introductory monographs for reprints of three of Newman’s works, Rise and Progress of Universities, Benedictine Essays and Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford. More recent publications include her book, John Henry Newman: Man of Letters, and a chapter on Newman’s “Philosophy of Education” in The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman. She also is board member emerita of the Newman Association of America, is a member of the editorial board of the National Institute for Newman Studies and currently mentors graduate students studying and writing on Newman.
For the occasion of the Anglican who converted to Catholicism’s upcoming canonization, we had a wide-ranging conversation with the expert:
ZENIT: What inspired your interest in Cardinal John Henry Newman, who will become a canonized saint on Sunday?
Professor Tillman: I entered into Newman Studies–because I was attracted to his idea of liberal education which coincided with my own main vocation of university teaching; because of his idea of Church as balanced, interactive, threefold–referring to priestly in its people, prophetic in its theologians and kingly in its rulers; because of his view that the laity really do matter–he had said: “the Church would look funny without them” ; and because of his amazing description of how the human mind works.
After three advanced degrees in philosophy, I finally found someone who described how my own mind works—and really, how anyone achieves certitude about anything. It is through informal, often implicit, inference, not abstract, logical arguments. Grounded in common sense, faith begins in the dispositions of the human heart and moves through reasoning from the accumulation of probabilities to their convergence in a personal judgement. “Faith is the reasoning of the religious mind,” wrote Newman. He wrote: “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”
ZENIT: Blessed Cardinal Newman is well known, but if someone did not know him, how would you present him to them?
Professor Tillman: His life spanned the 19th Century, from 1801 to 1890. He was a great Church leader—as an Anglican for the first half of his life and a Catholic for the second half. He led the Oxford Movement for reform in the Anglican Church and he became a Cardinal in the Catholic Church. A man of towering intellect he wrote history, theology, philosophy, novels and poetry. One can also get to explore his many volumes of books, essays, letters and his hundreds of celebrated sermons on a website full of resources called newmanreader.org.
ZENIT: Why does he hold a special place in the hearts of the English and even of the Americans?
Professor Tillman: Though he lived from 1801 to 1890, his quiet influence permeated the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s on a number of important universal and contemporary issues: the relation of faith and reason, the role of the laity in the Church, the development of Christian doctrine, freedom of conscience as “the connecting link” between the individual and God. Newman was often called “the absent father” of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Paul VI called Vatican II “Newman’s Council.” The two miracles required for canonization both occurred in the United States.
ZENIT: How would you analyze recent Popes attention to Newman?
Professor Tillman: Pope Francis quotes from Newman’s letters in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Pope Benedict liked Newman. It was he who beatified Newman in 2010 at an open-air Mass in Birmingham England, where Newman lived most of his Catholic life. The Pope spoke about Newman to tens of thousands, some of whom had slept overnight in sleeping bags. A choir of 1,200 sang and the prayers of the faithful were said, besides in English, in German, Welsh, French, Vietnamese and Punjabi. Newman represented a tradition, Pope Benedict said, “of gentle scholarship, deep human wisdom and profound love for the Lord.” The pope quoted Newman’s appeal for a well-instructed laity: “I want a laity not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”
ZENIT: And Benedict also quoted Newman regarding educating the laity?
Professor Tillman: Benedict quoted Newman on the importance of an educated Catholic laity: “I would like to pay particular tribute to [Newman’s] vision for education, which has done so much to shape the ethos that is the driving force behind Catholic schools and colleges today. Firmly opposed to any reductive or utilitarian approach, he sought to achieve an educational environment in which intellectual training, moral discipline and religious commitment would come together.”
The pope concluded his talk with an excerpt from one of Newman’s poems, “Praise to the Holiest.”
ZENIT: What about Saints, Popes John Paul II and Paul VI?
Professor Tillman: Pope John Paul II published letters specifically on Newman’s genius and holiness on various occasions: the bicentenary of Newman’s birth in 2001, the centenary of his death in 1990, the centenary of his cardinalate in 1979. And he “gladly mentions Newman” in his 1990 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, meaning ‘Faith and Reason’. Pope Paul VI gave an address specifically to Newman Scholars in 1975 and Pope Pius XII wrote a letter on the centenary of Newman’s conversion to Catholicism in 1945.
ZENIT: When thinking of this love for the truth which was an intricate part of his being, can you recall an anecdote in Newman’ life that you think exemplifies this love?
Professor Tillman: He was the founding rector of the Catholic University of Ireland and wrote prolifically about the value of a Catholic liberal education. His classic work The Idea of a University remains a roadmap for the search for truth through education. His life story, found in his autobiographical Apologia pro Vita Sua fully illustrates his personal quest for truth in its many stages of development along his journey to Catholicism.
His Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was his own study of how the doctrines of Christianity developed through the various great Councils of the Church to the present day. It was at the conclusion of this work that Newman was convinced that Catholicism was the locus of truth and he became a Catholic. This is what he asked to be engraved on his tombstone: “Out of shadows and images into the fullness of truth.”
ZENIT: The saints, as the Church teaches, are models of Christian life. How can Cardinal Newman be a model for today’s Christians life?
Professor Tillman: People can read his writings, especially his Plain and Parochial Sermons, which are now celebrated as a classic of spirituality.
ZENIT: When Newman, originally Anglican converted to Catholicism, he gained enemies. Since, ecumenism has made very important progress. Is it possible that the canonizing of an ex-Anglican, may make some people unhappy?
Professor Tillman: I would encourage everyone to go to the websites on Newman’s canonization to see the genuine delight and enthusiasm of the Anglican Church at Newman’s canonization. Some consider him the patron saint of ecumenism. An Anglican bishop said: “If Newman was an Anglican today, he may not have seen the need to convert, but would have worked quite happily in dialogue between the two churches. One can only speculate that the ecumenical movement would have benefited greatly as a result of his participation. In declaring Newman, a saint, the church recognizes in him a scholar who is as much of the Anglican tradition as the Catholic tradition. St John Henry might well be classed as the new patron of ecumenism. This would be a fitting accolade.” The Church of England also warmly welcomed the announcement of the canonization.
[Here is a press release from the Church of England that greeted the news in July of Newman’s impending canonization reproduced on the website of St Mary’s, Oxford:
The Church of England warmly welcomes the announcement by Pope Francis that John Henry Newman is to be canonized later this year. Newman, a former Anglican priest who became a Roman Catholic in 1845 – midway through his life – and eventually a Cardinal, is regarded as one of the most influential figures from his era for both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism.
An important theologian, preacher and pastor in his years as an Anglican priest, he was one of the key leaders of the Oxford Movement that heralded a revival in the life of the Victorian Church of England that spread around the Anglican Communion.
He remains a central figure in both Catholic and Anglican theology: a profound scholar, powerful preacher and the founder of religious communities.
Newman, who was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, is also commemorated in the calendar of the Church of England on the date of his death – 11 August.]
ZENIT: The Oxford University church where he preached and ministered as an Anglican expressed joy too, I believe…
Professor Tillman: The Reverend Dr William Lamb, the current Vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the Oxford University church where Newman preached and ministered as an Anglican, welcomed this news and said: “Newman’s spiritual journey has enabled both churches to see just how much we hold in common, and his thinking continues to animate ecumenical dialogue between our churches, not least in the work of ARCIC. This means that we can look forward to celebrating his legacy of scholarship and ministry together with Roman Catholic friends and colleagues. No doubt we will continue to welcome the many pilgrims who will come to visit St Mary’s in the years ahead to see the place where Newman preached and ministered.