Pope Benedict XVI leads Mass and the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham, England, Sept. 19, 2010. CNS photo/Andrew Winning, Reuters

Fr. Raymond de Souza: Visit a shining moment for Benedict, Newman

  • October 1, 2020

This autumn brings a trifecta of anniversaries for those of us devoted to St. John Henry Newman.

It’s the 175th anniversary of his reception into the Catholic Church (Oct. 9, also chosen to be his feast day). It’s 10 years since his beatification in Birmingham and one year since his canonization last year in Rome. And we urgently need his intercession this year, as all the campus ministries named in his honour are struggling to function during the pandemic. Most of our activities aim to bring people together and build up a fellowship of faith; bans on gathering make our evangelical work very difficult.

One of the highlights of my 25 years in Catholic journalism was covering the 2010 pilgrimage — and official state visit — of Benedict XVI to Great Britain to beatify Cardinal Newman. It was a signature moment of his pontificate, as was, for example St. John Paul II’s canonization of Faustina Kowalska on Divine Mercy Sunday 2000 as the “first saint of the third millennium,” or his beatification of Jacinta and Francisco at Fatima later that same year.

I had hoped to go to San Salvador in January 2019 for what would have been a similar moment for Pope Francis, the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose heroic witness inspired me even as a teenager. But it was not to be, despite the fervent wishes of the bishops of El Salvador. The Holy Father was next door in Panama for World Youth Day and the canonization of Romero in his own diocese would only have been a day trip, but Pope Francis opted for a ceremony in Rome instead.

At the beginning of his pontificate, Benedict XVI had decided that he would no longer do beatifications himself, as John Paul had done, but revive an older tradition of beatifications being done in the local place by a papal delegate. Yet he made an exception for John Henry Newman, deciding to travel to Birmingham personally for the occasion.

The 2010 visit to Great Britain was important for three key reasons which unite the figures of Newman and Benedict: the importance of history, the importance of seeking the truth and the importance of civil public discourse. All of which are just as relevant in 2020.

First, Newman was a scholar of history, discerning in the past the ways of divine providence. Benedict too was sensitive to history, to the surprises of God. As a German pope visiting Britain, he thanked the British people for defeating Germany in the Second World War — an extraordinary moment.

“For me as one who lived and suffered through the dark days of the Nazi regime in Germany, it is deeply moving to be here with you on this occasion and to recall how many of your fellow citizens sacrificed their lives, courageously resisting the forces of that evil ideology,” Benedict said in his beatification homily. As we mark the 75th anniversary this year of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Benedict’s words are a reminder of the achievement of building a united, peaceful Europe out of the ashes of WWII.

Second, Newman and Benedict are united by a passionate commitment to the search for truth — and paid a price for it. Newman’s conversion in 1845 meant that he was no longer welcome at his beloved Oxford, Catholics being excluded from its faculty and student body. As a Catholic he also encountered suspicion and difficulty, as he was not inclined to bend with the favourable winds, no matter what company he kept.

Newman was subject to vile slanders and even a scurrilous trial and false conviction, for Victorian England could not easily abide that its most learned man and most gifted belletrist would become Catholic, a religion disdained in England as suitable for the poor Irish servant class.

Benedict, too, is the most learned man and most gifted writer of his generation of German theologians, but his fidelity to Catholic orthodoxy often put him in a minority, even among the German bishops. Being unequal to the task of debating him intellectually, Benedict’s enemies resorted to a decades-long attack on his gentility and fairness. The caricature of the fierce Panzerkardinal was at odds with the reality of a pope who began his Petrine ministry by proclaiming that nothing is more beautiful than friendship with God.

The third unity between Newman and Benedict is that in the face of hostile public attacks and coarse public discourse, they relied on the power of reason, elegantly expressed. Both of them were soft-spoken, likely incapable of shouting. The power of their speech came from its learning and logic, and they defeated their opponents’ arguments effectively because they had the courtesy to take them seriously. That lesson is as needed today as 10 years ago, or 175 years ago.

Benedict, now 93, has lived even longer than Newman, who died at 89. But in those two long lives — on Earth and in Heaven — that beautiful moment of the beatification 10 years remains singular.

(Fr. de Souza is editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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