Cardinal Newman's life of prayer, study, sacrifice

  • September 19, 2010
TORONTO - He endured permanent estrangement from most of his relatives after converting to Catholicism and faced suspicions from some of his fellow bishops. But these crosses couldn’t dim the light of faith that guided Cardinal John Henry Newman in living out his ministry as scholar, preacher and teacher.

Today, Newman’s light and legacy are embodied in the Newman Centres and clubs on campuses across North America and Australia which bear his name.

John Henry Newman Newman lived a life of prayer, study and sacrifice and his example of faith was to be celebrated and recognized on Sept. 19 when Pope Benedict XVI was to beatify the 19th-century English cardinal in Birmingham, England.

In the hustle and bustle of the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, one of the places students can seek refuge is at the Newman Centre and its chapel just across from the Robarts Library.

Fr. Michael Machacek, the Toronto Newman Centre's executive director and pastor, remembers his student days at U of T when he used to drop by the centre for weekday Mass between engineering science classes. He credits his experience at the centre as one that helped plant the seeds of his vocation to the priesthood.

Machacek recalls one of Newman’s oft-quoted works, The Idea of a University, which spoke profoundly of Newman’s interest in the role of the university.

“He saw so much potential in young people. He really believed if the Church is going to take its mission seriously, it needed to reach out, inform and develop young people,” Machacek said.

“He felt it was essential that all the elements, whether sciences or arts, should be looked at with the eyes of faith.”  

Newman’s life

1801 — Cardinal Newman is born in London, Feb. 21, the eldest of six children.

1817 — Newman takes up residence at Trinity College and receives his first communion in the Church of England.

1824 — Newman ordained an Anglican deacon. .

1825 — Newman is ordained a priest in the Church of England.

1839 — Newman encounters his first doubts about the position of the Anglican Church.

1845 — On Oct. 9, Newman is received into the Catholic Church at Littlemont by Italian Passionist priest (now Blessed) Fr. Dominic Barberi.

1847 — On May 30, Trinity Sunday, Newman is ordained a Catholic priest in Rome.

1850 — Newman delivers his “Lectures on certain difficulties felt by Anglicans in submitting to the Catholic Church” in London. He receives an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity conferred by Pope Pius IX.

1854 — Newman installed as first rector of the Catholic University in Dublin, Ireland.

1864 — Newman publishes a history of his religious opinions in seven weekly parts called “Apologia pro vita sua.”

1879 — Pope Leo XIII names Newman a cardinal.

1889 — Newman celebrates Mass for the last time Christmas Day.

1890 — On Aug. 10, Newman receives the Sacrament of the Sick. He dies of pneumonia.

1958 — Newman’s cause for canonization begins.

1986 — Historical commission forwards its findings to the Holy See.

2009 — Miracle ascribed to Newman’s intercession is recognized by the Church.

2010 — Newman is beatified on Sept. 19.

To do so without faith is “like breathing with one lung,” Machacek said.

The power and impact of Newman’s writings are seen in the Newman Centres at public universities across North America.

“The fact that you’ve got all these Newman Centres is a testament to who he was,” Machacek said.

Meanwhile, Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., a former director and pastor for six years at Toronto’s Newman Centre, says Newman’s significance was his model of friendship.

“(Newman) had a great ability to make room for people and to welcome them,” said the CEO of Salt+Light Television, who gave the homily to some 300 students in Toronto at a Sept. 12 Mass in honour of Newman.

Rosica refers to Newman’s personal motto: “cor ad cor loquitur” or heart speaks to heart.

“There was nothing superficial about Newman’s way of relating to so many different people. He looked at them and loved them for who they are,” he said.

Rosica noted how Newman had an “extraordinary capacity for deep friendship,” having written 20,000 letters to friends during his lifetime.

Newman’s influence can also be seen in the fact that Pope Benedict XVI will be breaking with the tradition of his pontificate where the Pope has presided over canonization ceremonies for new saints while a cardinal or archbishop presides over beatification ceremonies, Rosica noted. This time, Pope Benedict will personally beatify Newman.

The Pope, who was introduced to Newman’s writings as an 18-year-old seminarian, has expressed a deep connection with the late cardinal. In Peter Jennings’ Benedict XVI and Cardinal Newman, the Pope’s address (as then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) at the 1990 Newman Symposium marking the centenary of Newman’s death says: “The characteristic of the great Doctor of the Church, it seems to me, is that he teaches not only through his thought and speech, but rather by his life,” he wrote. “If this is so, then Newman belongs to the great teachers of the Church, because at the same time he touches our hearts and enlightens our thinking.”

For Nathan Gibbard, a doctoral student at Montreal’s McGill University, Newman’s appeal to young people is his honesty and willingness to “bare his soul.” Students can relate to him because he’s also experienced difficulties in his life, he said.

Throughout Newman’s academic career, he faced several challenges and criticisms from colleagues, including doubts about his translation of the Bible (after having been asked to undertake a new English translation) and his ability to lead a Catholic university.

As for being in tune with students, Newman faced similar questions when he was contemplating a conversion to Catholicism from the Anglican Church.

“Students also have the same kinds of questions like ‘Why am I Catholic? Do I really believe in the real presence?’ ” Gibbard said. “A lot of it seems counter to what they’re told in modern culture.”

It’s this intellectual curiosity and soul-searching which Newman tackled in his writings, putting up an eloquent defence of how faith and reason can co-exist, Gibbard said.  

Despite technological advances, “what it means to be a student hasn’t changed a lot: to be searching, questioning and becoming an adult are still there,” he said.

Newman Centres, which are established in public secular universities, are “a constant reminder to remember the spiritual element of young people,” Gibbard said, “and of what it means to be human.”

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