Blessed John Henry Newman is important today for many reasons, but if I would have to single out only one it would be Newman’s revolutionary emphasis on the role of the layperson in the church as his most important contribution.
Newman abhorred clericalism and emphasized the need for a well-educated and active lay faithful, insisting that holiness and evangelization are—or should be—the goals of all in the Church.
Largely because of his prescience in this regard, Newman was quoted in the preliminary documents in the preparation for the Second Vatican Council more than any other theologian. How did he come to these history-making insights?
Newman was a profoundly religious man by temperament. This much is quite clear from his famous autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864). However, unlike many of his contemporaries in the Oxford Movement, he did not come from a long line of clergymen. During his university years at Trinity College, Oxford, he clearly felt a call not only to the clerical life but to celibacy, which was not common for Anglican clergy at that time. (Newman was ordained an Anglican Deacon in 1824 but was received into the Catholic Church on October 5, 1845.)
Yet in many other ways he was a man of the world. He had a keen interest in the world of music, literature, and politics. He chose the wine for his college. He played the violin, a hobby to which he returned in later life. He exercised vigorously with frighteningly long walks, enjoyed the fresh air of the sea by sailing. (His close friend, Hurrell Froude, an Anglican Priest, caught a chill on one of those excursions which hastened his death in 1835 from tuberculosis.)
He was also a poet, a novelist, a Latinist of the highest order. Vatican curial officials were astonished at the level of his classical Latin in their correspondence with him. He was able to express in a paragraph what took them a page! All of this simply serves to emphasize that while Newman was eminently religious, he was not at all monastic.
His choice of the St. Philip Neri’s Congregation of the Oratory as the best setting for himself and his followers to live their priesthood following his conversion to Catholicism was predicated in part on the idea that it was most suited for men from university backgrounds who chose to live their dedication more clearly in the world.
St. Philip was the great Roman saint of the Baroque and the Catholic Reformation, and any of his followers would have a deep appreciation for the secular. In short, Newman was in the world but not of it. As such, his views on the role of the laity were not simply theoretical but based on experience and observation.
Newman waged a life-long struggle against liberalism in its religious sense, which he defined simply as religious indifferentism. Indeed, he wrote in his “Bigllieto Speech” on the eve of receiving his cardinal’s hat from the Holy Father, Pope Leo XIII:
And I rejoice to say; to one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself. For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! It is an error over spreading, as a snare, the whole earth. Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another. . . it is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. . . . (May 12, 1879)
As a student in the 1970s at Columbia University, I was told by professor and noted literary critic Lionel Trilling, a man of Jewish background and hardly a Christian, that John Henry Newman was the greatest writer of English in history! There is so much more I could tell you about Newman, but I hope you will read about him, and his writings, for yourselves.
Now beatified, Newman’s canonization could have an enormous impact. For in addition to his importance in recognizing the role of the lay faithful, his urgent relevance today is also as a timely catalyst that Christ’s desire, expressed on the night before his death, “that all might be one,” might be realized as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.
Sad to say, throughout the world more and more are falling away from both Christian belief and the morality that Christ brought to the world in the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s true that Christianity (depending on how it is defined) is growing, but nonetheless many millions are leaving that Church for a life of hedonism, living for this life and not preparing themselves for the next.
Newman would be neither surprised at where we have ended up in pursuing religious indifferentism nor afraid to engage our increasingly hostile culture in pursuit of the truth.
Many fine biographies, such as the one by Ian Ker, have been written about Newman, but I suggest that you first pick up his classic autobiography, which has never been out of print, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. (Here is a free online version of what can be translated, In Defense of One’s Life.)
In the meantime, pray to Blessed John Henry Newman if you need a real a real miracle! You may put him over the top to sainthood! And we can all be present at his canonization in Rome with the Holy Father.