The Journey to Sainthood

Inside the Making of an English Saint

Isaac Withers


October 18, 2019

What a profound and powerful few days.  John Henry Newman is now St. John Henry Newman, and that simply sounds right. I would like here to just give a few closing thoughts on the experience that our canonisation team had. Since the canonisation date was announced back in July, we have worked with a fairly constant pace and over that time we were immersed in all things Newman, living and breathing him. Here are just a few reflections on that experience, both to give you a sense of what it was like to be somewhat ‘inside’ the canonisation and for us to attempt to process what happened.

Some Definite Service

When we were first discussing what theme should mark the occasion of the canonisation, a few different ideas were thrown around. ‘The Journey to Sainthood’ had already been established but there was room for something more from Newman’s own words. ‘Heart Speaks Unto Heart’ had, of course, already been used for the 2010 UK Papal visit and for Newman’s beatification, so early on we discussed perhaps Newman’s best known prayer, his powerful ‘Some Definite Service’.

‘God knows me and calls me by my name.… God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me, which He has not committed to another.’

We knew that the media conversation was going to be around sainthood and we knew that mainstream ideas about sainthood were more than a bit off - that the saints were perfect people who lived perfect lives. Well, John Henry Newman’s life itself is very good at disproving that notion, his life is exciting in how imperfect and hugely turbulent it was. We wanted people to know that sainthood is for all of us, or as Pope Francis put it with characteristic clarity in his 2018 letter, ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’:

‘To be saints is not a privilege for a few but a vocation for everyone.’

In fact, many attribute Newman’s ‘Some Definite Service’ with inspiring the Second Vatican Council’s promotion of a universal call to holiness, an idea that has been championed by all popes since. So, this was the message that we repeated over and over and asked our contributors to always return to.

The Apostle of Friendship

However, outside of our plan, another theme arose across our conversations, the theme of friendship. When we visited Dr Scott Hahn to interview him, he said something which caught our attention. He titled Newman ‘The Apostle of Friendship’ and expanded on this. Referring to the tens of thousands of letters that Newman wrote in his life, he said:

‘These aren’t just perfunctory, these are personal … He had a gift of friendship, and it was through the apostolate of friendship, through all of these letters, through all of these years, that he ended up wielding an influence of love.’

Dr Hahn explained that Newman had discovered that the key to the Christian life was friendship. In Newman’s own writings we can see this clearly:

‘It [Christianity] has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of such men … who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it … we shall find it difficult to estimate the moral power which a single individual, trained to practise what he teaches, may acquire in his own circle, in the course of years.’

Or as Dr Hahn puts it succinctly:

‘Friendship is not only the message of the gospel, it is also the best medium for conveying it. As our Lord says “I no longer call you servant I now call you friends.” Friendship with God is almost unthinkable apart from the fact that He became man in order to extend friendship to us and then He calls his apostles to do the same.’

Discovering this theme through our conversations and reading gave us a key understanding of Newman’s character and helped us to love him even more for it. Not only was he this profound thinker but he knew that the heart of the faith was friendship and this defined how he lived his life.

What made this all the more special to us was that our team was built on the foundations of strong friendships, friendships forged through years of receiving and ministering together in youth ministry circles in the Church. To use these friendships to now serve the apostle of friendship was a beautiful experience for us.

Miracles Amongst Us

The events in Rome over the last few days brought about many great reunions, but none were as precious to our team as the reunion with the Villalobos family. Melissa Villalobos received Newman’s miraculous intercession through praying to him when her pregnancy became extremely fraught (you can watch her story in full here). One of the first things our team did when taken on for the canonisation was the fly out to Chicago to interview her on film. The facts of her story were deeply moving, and as soon as we had concluded our filming, we were immersed into her family, sharing lunch together in their family home. It was then that we met Gemma, the daughter who was born of that miraculous healing, who in an amazing way is a walking miracle.

At that time, before the summer, Melissa had only begun sharing her story, with it only then having been confirmed by the Vatican as miraculous. By the time of the canonisation itself, her story continued to amaze people. Our team was delighted to see that when The Daily Mail covered the canonisation, it was really a story of her miracle and Prince Charles being there - people are clearly still fascinated by miracles. It was wonderful to see such a holy family at the heart of the celebrations and for their story to have been so celebrated. When we had interviewed Melissa, she had used Newman’s own words to describe how she felt being at the heart of this moment in the Church, quoting:

‘I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.

Our Anglican Friends

The day before the Canonisation itself, the unexpected happened - The Times released a piece written by HRH Prince Charles himself about John Henry Newman - as we read it it made our hearts soar. Line for line, it was pure gold. Prince Charles’ attendance with us all for the celebration of the first non-martyr English saint since the reformation was in in itself historic, but what he wrote went above and beyond what we could have hoped for. It was later published fully in L'Osservatore Romano, and to quote just an extract of it, the Prince wrote of Newman:

‘In the age when he lived, Newman stood for the life of the spirit against the forces that would debase human dignity and human destiny.   In the age in which he attains sainthood, his example is needed more than ever - for the manner in which, at his best, he could advocate without accusation, could disagree without disrespect and, perhaps most of all, could see differences as places of encounter rather than exclusion … Whatever our own beliefs, and no matter what our own tradition may be, we can only be grateful to Newman for the gifts, rooted in his Catholic faith, which he shared with wider society.’

It was at this point that the media attention truly snowballed and over the next few days we saw the figures across social media fly and good news story after good news story appearing across the press. We looked on with joy as the day after the canonisation, the images of the Prince and the Pope and the Prince and the Cardinal covered the front pages of The Daily Telegraph and of The Times. For the future King of England to say these words was truly historic, but in truth every response from the Anglican Church about the canonisation of John Henry Newman had been hugely positive. In a video gifted to us from his team, Archbishop Justin Welby said:

'His legacy is far broader than one church or two churches. It is a global legacy, a legacy of hope and truth, of the search for God … But for the Church of England and for Anglicanism, Newman along with Keble, Pusey and others, started a movement, The Oxford Movement, that has had a fundamental, lasting, beneficial and important influence on Anglicanism.’

The significance of these words cannot be overstated, because in Newman’s day, to convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism was to lose everything and to face incredibly hostility. He writes devastatingly in his autobiography that when the Oxford Movement was formally condemned by the Bishop of Oxford, it was a national scandal.

‘I saw indeed clearly that my place in the Movement was lost; public confidence was at an end; my occupation was gone.  …  in every part of the country and every class of society, through every organ and opportunity of opinion, in newspapers, in periodicals, at meetings, in pulpits, at dinner-tables, in coffee-rooms, in railway carriages, I was denounced as a traitor who had laid his train and was detected in the very act of firing it against the time-honoured Establishment. … Confidence in me was lost; - but I had already lost full confidence in myself.’

This experience of rejection from the Church of England broke Newman’s heart. We cannot begin to imagine how he would feel to hear the future King and the Archbishop of Canterbury praising him with such words. This was truly the making of history, and a new height for his personal story. However, as another great Anglican thinker put it this week, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in The New Statesman, it is also this deep understanding of personal pain that makes him such a powerful spiritual director to so many:

‘He knew something about the pain of commitment, having made a choice that initially lost him his job, his friends and his reputation. Part of his abiding interest and greatness is that … he knew how to interpret his personal struggles in a way that could help others make sense of their experience … Twenty-first-century readers – even those for whom the category of saint means little or nothing – will still find his intense, self-aware intelligence both disturbing and illuminating. And if a saint is someone who shows you just why the notion of God might matter to the mind and the heart, Newman has surely earned the title.’

For the saint who dreamed of a ‘Second Spring’ of Catholicism in England to hear all of this surely brings him great joy in heaven. To hear once more from HRH Prince Charles:

‘He gave the Catholic Church renewed confidence as it re-established itself in a land in which it had once been uprooted.   The Catholic community in Britain today owes an incalculable debt to his tireless work, even as British society has cause for gratitude to that community for its immeasurably valuable contribution to our country’s life.’

The most personally moving moment of the whole canonisation for me was seeing the Anglican representatives be blessed at the Thanksgiving Mass. I have never before found Christian unity as powerful as when I saw it then, in the context of this great saint who was so formed by his Anglican roots. Afterwards I sought out these representatives of the Church of England and thanked them for honouring us with their presence and for making this historic moment all the more beautiful.

Heaven is like the Church

In the final weeks running up to the canonisation, an idea in one of Newman’s sermons sparked my imagination and returned to me often over the days in Rome.

‘Heaven then is not like this world; I will say what it is much more like,—a church. For in a place of public worship no language of this world is heard; there are no schemes brought forward for temporal objects, great or small; no information how to strengthen our worldly interests, extend our influence, or establish our credit … Here we hear solely and entirely of God.’

Increasingly, I began to think in Rome that I was seeing this lived out in front of me. These were days when miracles walked among us, when churches celebrated together and when monarchs prayed with us. No one was there from themselves no matter how important they were, everyone was there to celebrate a life lived totally for God, a saint who lived in friendship with God and with so many others. To put it as Pope Benedict XVI did in 2010 on the occasion of Newman’s beatification, we were there to:

‘ … give glory and praise to God for the heroic virtue of a saintly Englishman.'

St. John Henry Newman, guide our friendships, draw us to the truth always, and help us to be a light to others.

To conclude as Pope Francis concluded on Sunday:

‘Let us ask to be like that, “kindly lights” amid the encircling gloom. Jesus, “stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as Thou shinest; so to shine as to be a light to others” (Meditations on Christian Doctrine, VII, 3). Amen.’