e-mail us


Discovering anew treasures of Newman


The parents of John Henry Newman, born in London on Feb. 21, 1801, could not have had any idea that the first of their six children would become a world famous cardinal who might eventually be canonized.

I first came to know the awesome prose and poetry of Newman when I was 19, in my sophomore year at Boston College. We read and recited Newman’s “Second Spring,” his sermon given on July 13, 1852, to commemorate the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England. We also read Apologia Pro Vita Sua and The Dream of Gerontius.

In the last century, Newman became an awesome presence. His Idea of a University undergirds the mission of the 232 Catholic colleges and universities in America. His writings on the development of doctrine were central to some of the aspirations and achievements of the Second Vatican Council.

When I served as lecturer at Oxford University, I visited the beautiful St. Mary’s Church where he preached as an Anglican and his home at Littlemore where he was received into the church. I especially remember the desk where, on the eve of his reception into the church, he wrote some 20 notes to his closest friends revealing his intention to become a Roman Catholic.

The misunderstandings and humiliations that came to Newman because of his conversion are palpable at Oxford. His struggles are equally visible at Birmingham, where he founded the Oratory and where he is buried. Newman’s efforts to establish a Catholic university in Dublin also reflect the failures that characterize some phases of his life.

The majestic prose and poetry of Newman have been central to my faith. Every time I see any reference to him or a quotation from his works I pay rapt attention. His poem that opens with the lovely words, “Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom,” comes spontaneously to my lips. The profound place that divine providence had in Newman’s life has permeated my spirituality.

Celebration of the bicentennial of Newman’s birth will be held in several countries. People will be reading about his life and piety in books such as the two-volume biography by novelist Meriol Trevor, herself a convert. And observers everywhere will be asking again and again whether John Henry Newman will be beatified and canonized.

Fr. Vincent Blehl, an American Jesuit who is the postulater of Newman’s cause, regularly urges that people who are incurably sick pray for a miraculous cure through the intercession of Cardinal Newman.

The International Center of Newman Friends in Rome regularly sends out attractive material on developments used by those who are discovering or rediscovering the treasures in the writings of Newman. Among all of the beautiful statements of Newman I love the following the best:

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission -- I may never know it in this life but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me -- still He knows what He is about.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001