Today saw the beatification of John Henry Newman by Pope Benedict XVI, he is the first person to beatified by the present Holy Father in person. This honour is perhaps due to the fact that the he is said to admire Newman deeply and indeed to have been a follower of his work since the seminary. But it marks another first, as Newman is the first Englishman, except for the martyrs, to have been beatified since the Reformation. The Holy Father spoke today about Britain’s history of martyrs:
"England has a long tradition of martyr saints, whose courageous witness has sustained and inspired the Catholic community here for centuries. Yet it is right and fitting that we should recognize today the holiness of a confessor, a son of this nation who, while not called to shed his blood for the Lord, nevertheless bore eloquent witness to him in the course of a long life devoted to the priestly ministry, and especially to preaching, teaching, and writing."
The ceremony took place at Cofton Park in Birmingham, very near to the Oratory Retreat House where Newman was buried. It is estimated that over 50,000 people attended the event, with coach loads of pilgrims coming from all over the country. Some visitors including a number of OratoriansI have been lucky enough to meet over the last week had travelled from all over the world.
So much will and indeed already has been written about today in addition to the extensive TV coverage that means that so many of you reading this will have seen much of the Mass for yourselves. Therefore it seems that there is little I can add without making this a more personal account of the event.
Certainly most if not all of the pilgrims had an early start. When we boarded our coach (our rucksacks and stools attracting curious stares from the revellers still leaving nearby nightclubs) for most the excitement was overcoming any feelings of tiredness. This was heightened when one of the Priests onboard lead prayers for the day during the journey. I was amazed when we arrived at the venue and I saw the incredible number of coaches already parked up and huge throngs of people crowding the road on the walk up to the park. I don’t think I have ever been at an event with even close to the number of people and I hadn’t comprehended the reality of the sheer numbers.
There was an overwhelming feeling of friendship and companionship throughout the event. From arriving at the pick-up point right through the day people chatted easily with their neighbours whether they were strangers or friends. It was great to get to speak to so many people who had travelled from overseas for the event. In particular I was struck by my neighbours for the Mass itself. Oratorians from New Jersey, one described the significance of the beatification to him with what felt like as much of sense of excitement and kinship to Newman as I have heard from those from Newman’s own Oratory.
In the true tradition of English weather it rained and the morning started bleakly. Even after the sun began to rise the cold and wet remained and after a couple of hours this was beginning to dampen some of the outward signs of enthusiasm. At 8am the event began and spirits began to lift despite the weather. The BBC were recording for Radio 4’s Sunday Worship from the park. This appeared to inject energy into the gathering and with the pilgrims joined in enthusiastically singing along.
The large screens positioned at the front of the park worked well and allowed us all to have a good view of proceedings. A recording of the Holy Father boarding the helicopter earlier in the morning was shown and the crowd erupted into flag waving and cheers. This was repeated when a helicopter hovered over Cofton Park but it was sadly false hope, more of which occupied the next few minutes as helicopters abounded; the security services were clearly keeping a very close eye on the venue. However, at this point the rain with an immaculate sense of timing started to clear, as many people remarked, almost in anticipation of the Holy Father’s arrival at Cofton Park.
When footage came up of the Holy Father touching down near the venue the park erupted. For a few minutes the crowd followed his progress being driven from his landing site to the Park itself with a palpable and growing excitement. Once in the park after some greetings with officials and dignitaries he boarded the Pope Mobile and drove amongst the excited crowds who were thronging around the paths.
With all the priests and guests in place we waited some minutes for the Pope to take his place in the Sanctuary for Mass. The ceremony took place in a mixture of Latin and English, you can read the full text here from page 127 and the homily here. Quite a number of Newman’s works featured within it and one of the Deacons was Jack Sullivan, an American whose cure from a spinal condition was the miracle that led to today’s ceremony.
Father Richard Duffield, Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, spoke briefly about Newman's Life. I was surprised at how short the actual Rite of Beatification was but the response from the crowd to the Pope’s confirming the beatification was tremendous. At this point the backdrop for the Sanctuary changed and in addition to the colourful background we were graced with a huge image of Newman, almost surveying the assembled pilgrims that had gathered on the grounds where he once walked. I heard much positive comment throughout the day about that fact that his feast day was to be ninth of October, the anniversary of his conversion rather than the anniversary of his birth or death.
The Pope talked not only about Newman the scholar but also Newman the Priest. He lived out that profoundly human vision of priestly ministry in his devoted care for the people of Birmingham during the years that he spent at the Oratory he founded, visiting the sick and the poor, comforting the bereaved, caring for those in prison.
He went on to touch on the esteem in which he was held by many in his adopted city. In the run up the beatification I have read much of Newman and heard many peoples’ perspectives; those of Newman scholars and biographers and those of others like me attending the various events. It felt appropriate to me that the Holy Father chose to remind people of this, the aspect of his life that seems least talked about, indeed sometimes forgotten for the scholar, the writer and the theologian.
One image that particularly stood out for me was the rows of Priests making their way out into the crowds of pilgrims to distribute communion. This was carried out remarkably quickly and efficiently given the huge numbers involved but still respectfully. Another enduring recollection will be the reverential silence that punctuated the Mass. Silence is perhaps a strange thing to focus on in relation to an event that had more people at it than any I have ever attended but thus the quiet of so many people was I think was even more startling. Linked to this for me was the new experience of being part of so many people praying together both in person and with a shared goal.
Despite seeing some comments about the organisation in the run up to it that made me concerned, with the exception of the regrettably early start I thought the whole day was very well organised and ran smoothly. This was a huge occasion and even with some experience of managing events I can only begin to imagine the logistical nightmares involved so credit goes to all those responsible. I don’t profess to sufficient knowledge or understanding of Newman to be able to conjecture with any credibility on what he might have thought of today. However, I certainly think that it was a day on which he was truly honoured and revered and one he could be proud of.