The lecture touched on many aspects of Newman’s life and that of his contemporaries as well as his links with Birmingham. The Professor’s words painted a vision of the city of Newman’s age, one in which he spent a significant portion of his later life as a Catholic.
He told us that, being close to the centre of the industrial revolution, Birmingham was the heart of the ‘Workshop of the World’. The population of the city grew rapidly during this period with the need for labour being fed both from surrounding areas and further afield. In 1851 just one quarter of its population were regular churchgoers.
Birmingham was at the centre of the Catholic revival thanks at least in part to the charismatic Cardinal Wiseman (founder of the Dublin Review) and to Oscott College which was within easy reach of the city. Indeed St
The Catholic population of the city was largely made up of Irish immigrants, many of who fled the hardships of Ireland during the potato famine to seek work in England’s increasingly industrialised cities
Newman’s original city location for his Oratory was in Alcester Street. It opened on February 2 1849 in a former gin distillery and here he taught Sunday school and classes in the evening. Funds were scarce with the community living on a frugal diet of salt beef and salt cod; poor Irish immigrants would have made up much of Newman’s early congregations. All of this was a far cry from his life as an Anglican Minister eating at High Table in the colleges of Oxford.
Despite this Newman seems to have developed a love for the city and its people. Indeed he famously declined an invitation to preach in Rome:
'The Oratory, Birmingham: July 25, 1864.
'Dear Monsignore Talbot,—I have received your letter, inviting me to preach next Lent in your Church at Rome to "an audience of Protestants more educated than could ever be the case in England."
However, Birmingham people have souls; and I have neither taste nor talent for the sort of work which you cut out for me. And I beg to decline your offer.
'I am, yours truly,
JOHN H. NEWMAN'
What stood out for me from this lecture and my other reading is that Newman was clearly a man who thrived in a diverse range of environments gaining respect and affection from people of all backgrounds and beliefs; from the slums of an industrial city to Oxford’s Colleges, from the more affluent environs of the London Oratory to Dublin society. Surely to be able to do so in his time was a greater achievement than even it would be in our own?
Father Richard Duffield, Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, thanked Professor Gilley for such an interesting opening to the week of events leading up to the beatification. He left the audience with the thought that in these times we should follow Newman’s words and have “clear heads and holy hearts” and St Paul's guidance ”to hold fast to that which is good”.