In June 2019, we were approached by the Oratories of England to take on the digital communication of the Newman Canonisation. We were thrilled that a project of this scale came to us - after all, John Henry Newman was going to be the first English saint (who was not a martyr) declared in over five hundred years! As English Catholics, this was personally exciting to us, and we knew that this was a highly significant moment in the life of the English Church. It also meant that we would be working alongside The Catholic Bishop’s Conference of England & Wales, The British Embassy to the Holy See, and various offices in the Vatican.
Pope Francis had announced that the Canonisation would take place on October 13th, meaning we had roughly four and a half months to raise awareness of the canonisation and to move tens of thousands of tickets for the event itself. Where to start?
As excited as we were to take this project on, we were also very aware that for all the institutions named after Newman around the world, few people knew the story of his life. We knew that Newman was perceived as very academic and that his vast body of work and his great spiritual insights were viewed by many as inaccessible. On top of this, we were aware that to understand Newman, one had to understand his historical context. So, we needed be able to tell the story of a Nineteenth Century saint in a way that would grip a modern audience - no small challenge.
Then there would be the event in Rome, which we wanted as many people to be able to participate in as possible. We knew that the event of the canonisation would create an international conversation about sainthood and we wanted to change perceptions around this if we could, that to be a saint is, as Pope Francis put it, ‘not a privilege for a few but a vocation for everyone.’
‘God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.’ St John Henry Newman
From the beginning of our work on the Newman Canonisation we were determined to do two things, to use the mediums of social media and video as much as we could and to tell personal stories wherever possible. This led us quickly to the idea of a film series tailored to social media channels. This led to us taking to the USA to film a lot of this series with world renowned Catholic theologians (such as Dr Scott Hahn) and priests (such as Fr Mike Schmitz).
Key among these interviews however was our day in Chicago with Melissa Villalobos, a former lawyer and mother of seven. Melissa had prayed to John Henry Newman at a very dangerous moment of a pregnancy when she feared for her life and the life of her child, and was miraculously cured. This was the miracle that, when approved by the Vatican, allowed this canonisation to take place. This was a hugely powerful story and it was one of our most successful films, being shared by Vatican News among many others.
Continuing this work when we returned to the UK, we filmed in St. Mary’s University Church in Oxford, where Newman was chaplain to the students for many years. We were also given complete access to Newman’s private rooms in the Birmingham Oratory, as well as to the Brompton Oratory. We were hugely grateful to both Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for granting us films with them. As Newman was Anglican for half of his life before his conversion to Catholicism, we knew this too was an important part of his story and faith formation that should not be ignored. Overall, this film series saw huge engagement and helped to continually raise the profile of the Canonisation.
Outside of the film series, we were keen to use Newman’s own words to tell his story. Our early research led us to his gripping spiritual autobiography the, ‘Apologia Pro Vita Sua’ which tells the story of his journey to Catholicism. This first person account, along with his sermons, gave us a lot of beautiful material to work with.
To our surprise, Newman wrote very clearly and in a way that we knew a modern audience would understand, in a similar way to how Charles Dickens or others of this period can still inspire us with their words. The history, it turned out, was not a barrier to Newman’s messages.
This motivated us to base much of our social media content around his personal story and his great spiritual insights, leading to a digestible blog series. Newman’s life story, which we split into eight distinct chapters, gave us a roadmap and a structure to our content that allowed people to follow along and become invested in him as a person who endured a many trials and who pursued the truth no matter where it led him.
We were hugely grateful to our team of Newman experts who helped us to tell Newman's story in detail, drawing from a depth and breadth of knowledge that we did not have. These included, to name just a few, Dr Paul Shrimpton of Magdalen College School, Oxford, Dr Teresa Iglesias, Professor Emerita of Philosophy, University College Dublin and Fr Juan Velez, a renowned Newman biographer.
‘Cardinal Newman is a modern man ... who throughout his life was on a journey ... to let himself be transformed by the truth.’ Pope Benedict XVI
After this extensive multi-media campaign, we prepared to shift our gears for the event of the canonisation itself. This meant both live coverage and event management. Throughout our campaign we had been promoting booking your ticket to the canonisation online through our central site www.newmancanonisation.com, so that when the canonisation arrived, we could distribute these tickets from one collection point in Rome. As far as we know, this is the first time that this has been done for a canonisation, with tens of thousands of tickets distributed.
Outside of the main event, the Canonisation Mass, our team also organised and ran ten events in Rome surrounding the Canonisation Mass. This meant working very closely with our partners in Rome, the Oratorian, The British Embassy to the Holy See, and various offices in the Vatican.
As for live coverage, we were very aware that as a small team among major news outlets, our agility and exclusive access would be our advantage. We were the only media team to be inside the canonisation reception attended by HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, who led the UK delegation to the canonisation. As such, we had the exclusive film of the speech he delivered which we gave EWTN (The Eternal Word Television Network) permission to use and broadcast.
Due to the global status of Prince Charles, mainstream press and media reported heavily on the event. The following day, the Newman Canonisation was on the front page of UK broadsheet newspapers ‘The Times’ and ‘The Daily Telegraph’ - even side-lining Brexit for a brief moment. Our Press and Media co-ordinator facilitated media access to Melissa Villalobos which led to the story of the miracle also being published by the mainstream UK Press, being carried in particular detail by ‘The Daily Mail’ and the BBC.
‘In the age in which he attains sainthood, his example is needed more than ever.’ HRH Prince Charles
The clearest result of our work was the immense sight of St Peter’s Square full for the Canonisation Mass, knowing that all those there for John Henry Newman had acquired their ticket through our channels.
Outside of those who were there in person, there were the huge numbers viewing via live stream and those who followed along on social media. Over the course of our campaign our Twitter impressions came to 2.4 million. With over 160k views on our videos across our platforms, we also know that many who were previously unfamiliar with Newman were inspired by high quality content about him in the run up to him becoming a saint. It was a great joy to see the story picked up with enthusiasm by the mainstream press, bringing the story of a convert to Catholicism to those outside of the Church too.
‘Let us ask to be like that, “kindly lights” amid the encircling gloom.’ Pope Francis