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John Henry Newman: a mind alive

30 November, 1999

Cardinal Newman may be declared “blessed” later this year. But it is difficult to know who he was and what he stood for. Newman preached on some of the controversial issues that still divide Christians. Roderick Strange, Rector of the Pontifical Beda College, Rome, introduces us to the man and his writings.

162 pp. A Darton-Longman and Todd publication. to purchase this book online, go to www.dltbooks.com.



  1. ‘Have you read any Newman?’ 
  2.  Newman’s path 
  3. A mind alive 
  4. Infallible authority 
  5. Mary, the Mother of Jesus
  6. Serving the laity 
  7. Seeking Church unity 
  8. Strange providence 
  9. Preaching a living faith 
  10. Witness to holiness 
  11. The flame of love 






Apo  Apologia pro Vita Sua
GA   Grammar of Assent
HS    Historical Sketches
LD   The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman
PS    Parochial and Plain Sermons
US    Fifteen Sermons preached before the University of Oxford



When people are beatified or canonised, they are being offered to us as examples of holiness that we can follow with confidence. We need not suppose, however, that they have always been perfect. John Henry Newman once said as much about one of his theological heroes, St Cyril of Alexandria, who, as a churchman, could be a ruthless political operator. We are not obliged, Newman remarked, to defend aspects of his ecclesiastical career: ‘It does not answer to call whity-brown, white’ (HS ii. p. 342). Much more recently, Pope Benedict XVI has echoed that view. In his Wednesday audience on 31 January 2007, he observed that ‘the saints have not “fallen from Heaven”. They are people like us, who also have complicated problems. Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned’ (1). These are comforting words.

Newman himself has been a significant influence in my life. He will soon be beatified. My debt to him is far-reaching. In this book, however, I am not suggesting that he was always right about everything. I do not feel obliged to champion and defend every position lie took. ‘Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned.’ All the same, as his cause for beatification makes plain, he has a great deal to offer us.

I myself started to read Newman’s work when I was eighteen and I am reading and studying him still. What is more, after my ordination as a Catholic priest, I was given the chance to study his life and thought at some depth while engaged in doctoral research at Oxford. Once that was completed, there were further opportunities: invitations began to arrive to write articles about aspects of his thought or give lectures on him or contribute chapters to books which were being prepared about him. In this way, over the years, a considerable amount of material has come together. I do not claim that it is startlingly original, but I would like to think that it offers helpful avenues into understanding Newman himself, his ideas, and his approach to problems and difficulties which often enough we still struggle with today. Moreover, the benefits I have received from him are benefits I would wish to share with others. In part that wish has prompted this book.

At the same time, this is not a collection, or even a selection, of my writings on Newman. It draws on them, but it edits, adapts, and re-arranges them. Much of this material is new text, composed for the first time or developed from notes that I have made for lectures and talks over the years. I am writing for people who are curious about Newman and would like to know more, and for those who enjoy reading, but have little time for long books Outside their own area of interest or expertise. I would like to think that those who only have time to read one book about Newman will find that this is the one. They may do so in part precisely because they can relate to something personal, Newman’s influence on me which I am happy to acknowledge

It will be obvious, therefore, that this book does not pretend to be exhaustive, resolving disputes of scholarly detail between Newman specialists. Newman wrote so much that lie created a rich arena for debate. Those controversies may have something to teach us, but they are not my concern here. I plan rather to offer access to his life and thought and experience by avoiding unnecessary detail. I shall draw attention instead to some of the elements which have impressed me and which may, therefore, still be valuable to others.

I start with those points which made an immediate impact on me at the beginning. Then I sketch his life so as to offer a feel for events, for what happened, especially his search for the Church. That search itself was lifelong. Next, I have tried to offer a map of his mind. This chapter is called ‘A Mind Alive’, and echoes the sub-title of this book. It is central, but not because Newman can be reduced to an icy intellectual. His mind was alive because it reached out to touch the heart and engage the whole person. That union of mind and heart and person will be evident time and again in what follows. In particular, the mind came alive by recognising the relationship between dogma and theology. Newman championed dogma, the mysteries at the heart of the Church’s faith; that is well known. But he championed too the role of theology which by scrutiny tries to keep dogma pure.

That interplay of dogma and theology is illustrated in his interpretation of infallible authority in the Church and evident also in the way he presented teaching about the Blessed Virgin Mary. Then the value he placed on the role of the laity has also been influential. And those issues – infallibility, Mariology, and the laity, – reflected his care for ecumenism as well, the need for the Church to be one. These subjects occupy the chapters that follow. After probing them, we can return to the man himself, his awareness of divine providence, his preaching about faith, and his life as a witness to holiness. And at the end, as a kind of coda, there is a reflection on his poem, The Dream of Gerontius.

Once again, I wish to record my appreciation and gratitude for the encouragement and wise advice that I have received consistently from Brendan Walsh and Helen Porter at Darton, Longman and Todd. This book is the fourth I have published with them. That fact alone speaks volumes for the support and help that they and their colleagues have offered me in recent years.

Although in preparing this particular text I have not needed to visit Father Paul Chavasse and the Fathers at the Birmingham Oratory, I have clear memories of their generous hospitality when my Newman studies were in their infancy. And whenever I have visited since, they  have always received me warmly. I thank them now especially for permission to use the photograph of Newman on the cover and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Gerard Tracey, who has died, and to Brother Francis McGrath, FMS, for their work in completing the publication of Newman’s Letters and Diaries, and for the kind assistance they have always s been ready to offer me.

I am conscious too of the debts I owe to others who have studied Newman and whose friendship and insight have encouraged me, people like Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, Nicholas Lash, Ian Ker, Sheridan Gilley, Joyce Sugg and Stephen Prickett. There are too many to mention, but no list of mine must omit two who have died, John Coulson and the incomparable Stephen Dessain. And I wish also to thank my friend and colleague at the Beda College, Fr John Breen. Chapter by chapter, as it was completed, was passed before his keen, critical, but non-specialist eye. His help was invaluable. Then over dinner one evening another friend, Father Paul Murray, OP, poet and wise man, suggested the book’s title. I am grateful to them both.

And finally, there is the dedication. Newman had three sisters, and so have I. The eldest, Anne-Marie, I never knew for she died at birth, but she is no less loved because of that. And the other two, Gill and Alison, have filled my life with friendship, love, and laughter. I thank them with love. I am proud to dedicate this book to my sisters.






It was my good fortune when I went up to Oxford in 1970 to study Newman to find that Father Stephen Dessain, that prince among Newman scholars, had agreed to be my supervisor. Stephen was a member of the Birmingham Oratory which Newman had founded. He was deeply devoted to Newman and his knowledge of Newman’s writings was without equal. His small biography, John Henry Newman, which was first published in 1966, remains the best brief biography of the Cardinal, and the twenty-one volumes of Newman’s Letters and Diaries which he edited and saw published between 1961 and his death in 1976, bear witness to his grasp of the corpus and his scholarship. Although he assisted countless other people with their research, I was to be his only full-time student.

Stephen and I knew each other a little already from his visits to Rome while I was a student at the English College and he had come to my priestly ordination on 21 December 1969. By chance it was the anniversary of his own. Ever generous, he brought me as a present the collection of Newman’s Oratorian papers which had been edited by Dom Placid Murray and published the year before with the title Newman the Oratorian (1) Inside he had written Newman’s words about God’s hidden saints and their influence: ‘Say they are few, such high Christians; and what follows? They are enough to carry on God’s noiseless work’ (US p. 96). While Newman was referring to the saints, I have no doubt that Stephen was thinking of Newman. And this book is in part my attempt to
explore Newman’s influence on me, his part for me in ‘God’s noiseless work’.

I can date the time and place where it all began precisely. It was the morning of 30 March 1964 and I was in a Roman bus on my way to the Alban Hills, south of the city. It was Easter Monday. I had come to the English College as a seminarian the previous October and that Monday I was going to Palazzola, the College’s villa, for a week’s break after Easter before lectures began again. I was travelling with Tony Cornish, a fellow student and, since 1967, a priest of the Plymouth Diocese. We were talking about this and that, and then at one point Tony turned to me and asked, `Have you read any Newman, Rod?’ I had not. I had only the vaguest idea who Newman was. I had seen portraits. He then told me about Meriol Trevor’s two-volume biography which had been published recently and which the College library had just acquired.’ When I got back to Rome, I went to find it and decided to read it that summer during our long vacation. And I did.

What I read captivated me. I went on at once to read Newman himself. I began with his Apologia pro Vita Sua, in which he gave his account of his journey to Catholicism, and I wrote my own extended summary of it as a way of trying to grasp a little more clearly the sequence of events. It would be fair to say that I have been reading and studying Newman’s work ever since. There has been much else, of course, but Newman has never been too far

What was it that impressed me? In many ways, as I have said, this entire book is an answer to that question, but let me begin by mentioning three aspects in particular which struck me almost immediately.


First, like most people, I love a good story and I found the story of Newman’s life enthralling. It revolves around the twin ingredients of controversy and surprise. The young Newman, though shy, was recognised as brilliant. When he took his degree, however, he managed only to scrape a pass. Intensity and overwork had drained him. Nevertheless, the following year he was elected a Fellow of Oriel, which at that time was regarded as the very cream of Oxford intellectual society.

As a College tutor Newman believed that his care for his pupils should extend beyond simply the teaching he gave them. Something more personal, a moral dimension, was needed. Many years later he was to state his view plainly: ‘An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else’ (HS iii, p. 74). A view which is commonplace nowadays was seen then as a reform so radical that he had his pupils withdrawn. And one ironical consequence of that action was for him to find himself with time available, when the moment came some years later, to devote himself wholeheartedIy to the Oxford Movement which aimed to renew the Church of England by restoring to it its share in the Catholic tradition.

When it began, he was its driving force. But then he found himself drawn by his own arguments and a series of events to doubt the very position for which he was so eloquent an advocate. Some years later, after anguished study and reflection, he ceased being an Anglican and was received into the Roman Catholic Church. That was in 1845. This decision was as painful as it was dramatic, for it caused a parting from friends which only long years and abiding affection on both sides would overcome.

Catholicism, however, was no safe haven for him. Further controversies ensued.

After ordination in Rome, he established the Congregation of the Oratory in Birmingham and London, but later his plans were marred by an unhappy dispute between the two houses. Then during a series of lectures in 1851 he took the opportunity to respond to the scandalous allegations against Catholics which were being made in England by a former Dominican friar, Giacinto Achilli, and he was tried for libel. The evidence which would have cleared him had been mislaid by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, the Archbishop of Westminster, and a prejudiced jury found Newman guilty. Many people were outraged and the verdict prompted The Times to observe that Roman Catholics could no longer have faith in British justice.

During this time he was also working to found a university in Dublin at the invitation of the Irish bishops, but was consistently being denied the support he needed to make the venture succeed. Then in 1859, the year following his return to England, he was persuaded to accept the editorship of the Catholic periodical, The Rambler, which the bishops regarded as too critical; he was judged to be a safer pair of hands and acceptable to both the bishops and the periodical’s proprietors. His attempt to calm anxieties, however, misfired and almost at once he was asked to resign. The situation deteriorated further for him because soon afterwards an article of his on consulting the laity brought him under suspicion in Rome. His readiness to answer objections was passed on to the Church authorities; but as the questions they then sent were never passed back to him, he assumed all was well, while they assumed he would not reply. He remained under a cloud for some years.

At the end of 1863 matters came to a head. He was accused by Charles Kingsley of indifference to the truth and there poured out from him his Apologia pro Vita Sua. That controversy marked a turning-point, at least with regard to the respect in which he was held by his contemporaries. Yet there were more controversies to follow. His plans for establishing an Oratory in Oxford were encouraged at first, but then frustrated, and notably his moderate interpretation of the doctrine of papal infallibility brought him into conflict with Archbishop (later Cardinal) Manning’s extreme ultra-montane view. But finally in old age his life became more serene.

In 1878 Trinity College, Oxford, where he had been an undergraduate, invited him to become its first honorary fellow and so he visited Oxford again for the first time in 32 years. And then the following year the new pope, Leo XIII, created him a cardinal. Old wounds were being healed, the cloud was lifted from him for ever.

As a young man, beginning my preparation for ministerial priesthood, it seemed to me a stirring tale, an example of love for the truth and fidelity to Christ and the Church, and it compelled my admiration.

A second aspect which caught my attention was the fact that Newman was English. It may help to remember that, when I began reading him, the Second Vatican Council was in progress. The Council was encouraging a growing awareness of the local church, and Newman’s personality and his approach to many issues gave a clear example of what that could mean for England. The point is not chauvinistic. His influence in other countries is too well known for that. It is simply a matter of acknowledging that when the Church in Council was trying to recognise what each culture could contribute to its life, Newman supplied a particular illustration of what the English contribution might be. On one occasion years later some friends who were not Catholics were joking with me by saying that Newman had never really been a Catholic, but was always an Anglican at heart. I responded by saying that on the contrary I felt Newman had shown how being English and a Catholic were compatible. It was just banter, but I may have struck a nerve, because there was a sudden silence and the subject was changed.

Thinking of banter, it is perhaps worth adding here that people don’t usually associate Newman with humour. But I found that preconception mistaken. Let me offer examples.

On holiday in the Mediterranean in 1832, there is a splendidly comic account of his seasickness: ‘the worst of seasickness’, he observed in a long letter to his mother on 23 December, ‘is the sympathy which all things on board have with the illness, as if they were seasick too.’ He goes on to describe the movement of table and chairs – swing, swing – and the motion of the glasses, knives and forks on the tables, with wine spilling – swing, swing – and trying to hide the misery you are feeling, until you can do so no longer, but when you get up, you can’t move, because the ship is moving, and when you finally make your berth, the door won’t shut, then ‘bang, bang, you slam your fingers’. Then, when you lie down, there is the noise of the bulkheads, the noises of the gale, ‘creaking, clattering, shivering, and dashing’, not to mention the bilge water, which he calls an ‘unspeakable nuisance’, set in motion by the storm and draining down to the bottom of the boat (LD iii, p. 159). The whole passage is masterly. And his letters generally are full of comic observation, such as his comment on William Wilberforce’s false teeth, and his habit of throwing ‘the whole set out of the gums upon his tongue, and [chewing] them, as an infant might a coral’ (LD xx, p. 261). And there is the story of Newman laughing, just before sending off the final proofs of A Grammar of Assent which he had dedicated to his friend, Edward Bellasis, ‘in remembrance of a long, equable, sunny friendship’. Just in time he noticed that the dedication recalled instead ‘a long, equable, funny friendship’. There is plenty more (3).

And a third element which impressed me early on was Newman’s instinct for pastoral care. I soon discovered that when people knew anything about him at all, they tended to think in stereotypes, contrasting him with his contemporary, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning. Manning was seen as the practical one, involved in the world’s affairs, while Newman was regarded as intellectual and remote (4). But the reality was very different. I was struck by Newman’s practicality, his commitment to pastoral matters and the administrative skill that went with it.

When he took up his first curacy at St Clement’s in Oxford, he was an earnest evangelical Anglican, who, while not believing in predestination, was convinced that more people were damned than were saved. But by caring for his parishioners, he learnt otherwise. How could the majority of such good people be destined for hell? he wondered; that could not be true. Then, as I noted earlier, when he became a tutor at Oriel, he could not see that role as a matter merely of intellectual instruction. And later as vicar of the University Church and leader of the Oxford Movement, he was full of pastoral energy. His preaching from that time has become legendary. ‘It is of the essence of the Movement,’ Owen Chadwick has observed, ‘that its best writing should be enshrined in parochial sermons’ (5).

After his reception into full communion with the Catholic Church in 1845 the same energy drove him on. He established the Oratories in Birmingham and London and founded the Catholic University in Dublin. He also set up the Oratory School. In all these projects, his administrative gifts as well as his pastoral instinct were fully engaged. That pastoral instinct was also evident decisively in his vast correspondence with an astonishing range of people and found further expression in his other writings where his devotion to what was real, as he would say, rather than the merely notional was always evident. He had no time for theories, however splendid, if they could make no impact. ‘I say plainly I do not want to be converted by a smart syllogism;’ he wrote in A Grammar of Assent which he published in 1870, ‘if I am asked to convert others by it I say plainly I do not care to overcome their reason without touching their hearts’ (GA p. 425 [273]).

Such pastoral commitment could hardly fail to inspire me as a young man as my own preparation for ministerial priesthood gathered momentum. And then there was something else, something interior.


Effective pastoral work needs to be more than activity. It must be in tune with the man within; it must flow from spirituality. Reading Newman I soon became aware of his extraordinarily vivid sense of God’s existence and presence. His pastoral instinct and energy were undeniable; in no way was he in flight from practical demands; nevertheless, it could be said that there was a sense for him in which the unseen world had a greater reality than the seen. Early in his Apologia he described himself as coming to rest when young ‘in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator’ (Apo. p. 4 1181). In other words, he was as sure of God’s existence as he was of his own. Few of us would probably be able to make such a claim, or at least we would not make it in those terms. All the same, it is wonderful to be encouraged, as I was by Newman at that time, as I prepared myself for priestly ministry, to look beyond the visible world and nurture a sense of the world unseen. Sensitivity to the unseen stimulates that longing for God which is indispensable for a life of prayer.
Styles and approaches in prayer are very varied. Some people love the company of others when they pray, and the stimulus of words and music. My usual preference would be for stillness One image of Newman’s has never failed to help me. In a sermon called ‘Equanimity’ he asks: ‘Did you ever look at an expanse of water, and observe the ripples on the surface? Do you think that disturbance penetrates below it?’ He goes on to speak of tempests and scenes of horror and distress at sea, but remarks, ‘The foundations of the ocean, the vast realms of water which girdle the earth, are as tranquil and as silent in the storm as in a calm.’ He uses it as an image for the souls of those who are holy: ‘They have a well of peace springing up within them unfathomable’ (PS v, p. 69). As the passage continues, he acknowledges how troubled we may sometimes be in fact, and indeed the tsunami at Christmas 2004 may seem to qualify the image further; but that tragic event cannot simply cancel it altogether. The appeal to tranquillity in the deep has given me encouragement to persevere in prayer beyond immediate difficulties in order to discover the strength and stillness of God.

Hand in hand with this belief in God’s existence and presence and the call to prayerfulness went Newman’s sense of God’s providence: the Lord is not only close to us; lie cares for us. No one can read Newman’s life carefully and believe he thought otherwise. The idea may seem bewildering to many people today, implying divine intrusion into the natural course of events, or their manipulation. But that was not how Newman saw it. He believed that God has a plan for each of us, a plan made real by his presence abiding amongst us, a plan and a presence which we see as providential when we recognise the divine presence within the events that are taking place. We call providential those moments or occasions in our lives when we become aware of God’s will for us. They are privileged perceptions of his abiding presence.

It took a long while for my own appreciation of providence to reach this stage, but I remember clearly how it began. I was reading one of Newman’s sermons and came to these words: ‘God beholds thee individually, whoever thou art. He “calls thee by thy name”. He sees thee and understands thee, as He made thee.’ And so it went on, concluding, ‘Thou dost not love thyself better than He loves thee’ (PS. iii, pp. 124-5). If time has mellowed the initial impact of those words, it has not diminished their reality for me. We can explore Newman’s understanding of providence more fully later (6).

Fascination with the English Newman’s long life and his pastoral instinct, on the one hand, and his profound spirituality, on the other, have had their influence on me. Before continuing further, however, let me mention one other way, specific and practical, in which I have found myself following his example over the years.


When Newman published the first volume of his Parochial Sermons in 1834, the custom was to include in some way the whole range of Christian doctrine, but he was criticised because he had placed emphasis on some aspects of the Church’s teaching and ignored others. His friend, Samuel Wilberforce, took him to task. He wrote to complain that Newman was too severe in his demands for an evident change of heart, and that he had not made sufficient allowance for the work of the Spirit in bringing sinners to repentance. But Newman remained unmoved. It is not necessary to go into the details of that controversy here. It is enough to recognise that Newman was not intending to deny the power of the Spirit working in people; however, he felt the need at that time to bring out the importance of an individual’s response to grace. That was the aspect he wished to emphasise. There would be opportunities for other aspects at other times. And the particular point that impressed me was his assertion that he could not deal with everything at once. As he told Wilberforce: ‘I lay it down as a fundamental Canon, that a Sermon to be effective must be imperfect.’ He could not bring in every doctrine everywhere. At one time certain elements would be considered, at another time others. However,he claimed, ‘No one, who habitually hears me, ought to have any other than the whole Scripture impression’ (LD v, p. 38). The plan was to proceed part by part; the result would be an account of the whole. Working in very different circumstances, that is precisely what I have tried to do.

Both as a priest in a parish and particularly as a university chaplain, I have sought to supply a whole account of the Church’s teaching. It has not generally been practicable to do so by offering a series of extended lectures. Instead it has had to be done gradually, through homilies and talks, assembling little by little the pieces of the jigsaw. And there is evidence of the outcome. In 1986 I published a small book. Called The Catholic Faith, it was essentially a reworking into a whole of homilies and sermons, lectures and talks, which I had been giving at the Oxford University Chaplaincy. It treats of Christ and the Church, the sacraments and the virtues, Mary and the Trinity. A later book, Living Catholicism, published in 2001, emerged in much the same way. They have generally been well received, and the material in them was gathered by following Newman’s approach (7).


Many other aspects of Newman’s life, like the valuing of friends and of his thought, like the role of theological reflection, , and of his experience, like love and care for the unity of the Church, have made their mark on me over the years. They will become evident as this book unfolds. And there have, of course, been other influences besides Newman, some of them no doubt qualifying and adapting what I have learnt from him, but it would be dishonest of me to disclaim the impact he has had on my life and priestly ministry.

Some years after I had been ordained and while I was studying him in Oxford as a graduate priest, a friend asked me why I did not quote him more often when I preached. The question took me by surprise and I had to think carefully to find the answer. Then I realised that in fact I was quoting him frequently, but rarely word for word. His influence goes deeper. My debt is incalculable, my gratitude profound.




1 See L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, 7 February 2007,  p. 11.


  1. Placid Murray, Newman the Oratorian, (Dublin, 1969). 
  2. Meriol Trevor, Newman: the Pillar of the Cloud (vol. I); Newman: Light in Winter (vol. ii), (London, 1962).
  3. See Trevor, Newman: Light in Winter, p. 486. For more on this theme, see Joyce Sugg, ‘Did Newman Have a Sense of Humour?’, The Clergy Review, lxviii (1983) 100-5.
  4. To correct the caricature, see David Newsome, The Concert Cardinals: Newman and Manning, (London, 1993).
  5. Owen Chadwick, The Mind of the Oxford Movement, (London, 1960), p. 42. 
  6. See below, pp. 109-22.
  7. See Roderick Strange, The Catholic Faith, (Oxford. 1986, reprinted London, 2001); and idem. Living Catholicism, (London, 2001).


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