John Henry Newman was born in 1801 into an Anglican family and from a young age he felt drawn to religion. After graduating from Oxford University he was ordained as an Anglican minister. In the following years as a minister in Oxford he wrote extensively as he did for much of the rest of his life and was openly critical of Catholicism.
Newman travelled throughout Europe during 1832 visiting Rome which he said was "the most wonderful place on earth". Whilst on these travels he became seriously ill and on his recovery returned to England in the belief that God had work for him to do there. Over succeeding years Newman was a leader of the Oxford Movement which sought to reform Anglican doctrine based on its descent from the early Church and combat the State’s influence over the Anglican Church. Throughout the period Newman became increasingly drawn to the Catholic Faith, beginning to draw parallels between Anglicanism and heresies of the early church.
In 1841 Newman he began living an almost monastic existence with close friends at Littlemore, a period he described in his Apologia as “on my death-bed, as regards my membership with the Anglican Church”. February 1843 saw him publish a retraction in a local paper of all his previous condemnation of Rome and this was followed in September by his resignation of his living as an Anglican minister.
In 1845 Newman was received into the Church by Blessed Dominic Barberi. The conversion of perhaps the best known Anglican minister to Catholicism in a country still rife with prejudice created huge shock. For the remainder of his life Newman experienced misunderstanding and distrust from both Catholics and Protestants.
Of his conversion The Tablet said “…the Anglican Establishment has been deprived of the largest mind and the most penetrating intellect lately to be found, at least among her ecclesiastical children. The least part of what has occurred is that a man informed by profound genius has passed from heresy to the Church; has brought over to the camp of truth the stores of his profound learning, of his active and disciplined intelligence.”
Newman went to Rome to study for the priesthood in 1846 and whilst in Rome he discovered the Oratory founded by Saint Philip Neri in the sixteenth century. On his return to England in 1848 he set up the first English Oratory at Maryvale just outside of Birmingham. Three years later the Birmingham Oratory moved to its present site in Edgbaston on what is now the outskirts of the city centre. Newman along with his fellow Priests, worked with the poor of the city which was rapidly expanding as a result of the industrial revolution.
Newman also went on to establish the London Oratory under Father Faber as well as a school linked to the Birmingham Oratory. A prolific author Newman published a huge array of works, in later life sometimes writing for up to 17 hours a day.
Newman lived out his life at the Birmingham Oratory with the exception of a period in Dublin. In 1851 Newman was invited by the Bishops of Ireland to be rector of a new Catholic University, the formation of what is now part of University College, Dublin. 1855 saw the commencement of the building of the University Church on St Stephen’s Green which Newman felt would “recognise the great principle of the university, the indissoluble union of philosophy and religion”. Whilst the University was not a successful venture the Church remains, a monument to his time in Dublin. I think you can see a certain likeness between the style of University Church in Dublin and the cloister of the Birmingham Oratory
In 1879, when Newman was seventy eight, Pope Leo XIII named him a Cardinal, a rare honour for an ordinary priest. He obtained a dispensation to remain at the Birmingham Oratory. He adopted the motto ‘cor ad cor loquitur’; heart speaks to heart, the theme also chosen for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the UK.
On 11 August 1890 Newman died at the Birmingham Oratory. On his death the Cork Examiner stated: ‘Cardinal Newman goes to his grave with the singular honour of being by all creeds and classes acknowledged as the just man made perfect.’
It was reported that 15,000 people lined the streets to see Newman’s cortege travel to Rednal where he is buried. This is next to Cofton Park where the beatification is taking place. He is said to have wished to hasten the process of decomposition with the addition of compost to the grave, in obedience to ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’. It appears this wish was granted; when the coffin was recently exhumed as part of the beatification process no remains of his body were found.
The Times once wrote of Newman ‘whether Rome canonizes him or not he will be canonised in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England’. Declared venerable in January 1991 by Pope John Paul II, the 19th September sees his beatification. Should Newman go on to be canonized he would be the first English Saint since the Reformation not to have been a martyr.