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John Henry Newman

A Mind Alive

Author(s): Roderick Strange

ISBN13: 9780232527230

ISBN10: 0232527237


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  • Pope Benedict XVI is soon to beatify John Henry Newman, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican church who was received into the Catholic church in 1845, and later became a cardinal.
    Rod Stranges introduction to John Henry Newmans life and significance is aimed at the student and thoughtful general reader, and draws out Newmans relevance to issues facing the Church in our own day.
    John Henry Newman is an authoritative new study of Newman of great economy and elegance that will also appeal to a wider range of readers looking for books about Catholic belief and practice and spirituality, and
    models of Christian living.

  • Roderick Strange

    Roderick Strange is the Director of the Beda College in Rome. He is a former chaplain at Oxford University, parish priest in Cheshire, and Chair of the National Conference of Priests.

  • Be the first to review this product

    Writing for those who are curious about Newman, Roderick Strange delivered lucidly and magnificently for this reader. More than an historical overview of Newmans long, labyrinthine life, this book drew this reader into a rollicking adventure, landing forensically, yet lightly on the various influences that shaped Newman and his writing. From the blessing of friends, through the role of the laity in the church, to an understanding of infallibility and the development of doctrine, this book walks the reader, or rather canters the reader through what Strange calls the three main stages of Newmans intriguing life: searching for self; living within lifes crucible, and grappling with the consequences of becoming a Catholic.

    There are innumerable heartening glimpses of Newmans (and Stranges) lively mind at work in John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive. I name but one. The last chapter, titled The Flame of Love, along lives consonant with Pope Benedict XVIs second encyclical, Spe Salvi, explores the composition of The Dream of Gerontius: "When we die, we do not pass away, nor are we diminished. Rather, we are at last our true selves. We are overcome by a love which, like a fire, refines us, transforms us, and draws us into its perfect light." Powerful and moving as this is, stranger than fiction is the concluding story. As Strange tells it: "a copy of The Dream of Gerontius with General Gordons markings, which Newman was so moved to see, was among the wedding presents given in 1899 to Edward Elgar." Today, The Dream of Gerontius is counted among Elgars finest works. John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive is perhaps Stranges finest work.

    - Fr. John Chalmers, Brisbane, Australia




    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 Newmans 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 Newmans 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 Newmans 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 Newmans words about Gods hidden saints and their influence: Say they are few, such high Christians; and what follows? They are enough to carry on Gods 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 Newmans influence on me, his part for me in Gods 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 Colleges villa, for a weeks 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 Trevors 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 Newmans 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 Newmans 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 periodicals 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) Mannings 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 Newmans 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 dont 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 cant move, because the ship is moving, and when you finally make your berth, the door wont 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 Wilberforces 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 Newmans 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 worlds affairs, while Newman was regarded as intellectual and remote (4). But the reality was very different. I was struck by Newmans practicality, his commitment to pastoral matters and the administrative skill that went with it.

    When he took up his first curacy at St Clements 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 Gods 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 Gods 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 Newmans 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 Gods existence and presence and the call to prayerfulness went Newmans sense of Gods providence: the Lord is not only close to us; lie cares for us. No one can read Newmans 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 Gods 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 Newmans 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 Newmans understanding of providence more fully later (6).

    Fascination with the English Newmans 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 Churchs 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 individuals 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 Churchs 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 Newmans approach (7).


    Many other aspects of Newmans 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. 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).


John Henry Newman