A saint for our times

A saint for our times St John Henry Newman
Cardinal Newman – Special Supplement
Newman speaks as clearly to us today as to his peers in the 19th Century, writes Bishop Fintan Monahan

“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often” – John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman will be canonised as a new saint of the Catholic Church on October 13 by Pope Francis in Rome. A saint is a man or woman who is recognised as having an outstanding degree of holiness, likeness or closeness to God.

Saints are made by official Church declaration or by popular acclamation (a folk saint). Newman may fit into both categories because of the impact he made on the teachings of the Catholic Church and the popular appeal of his devotional writings. Many of his prayers and hymns are very familiar to us and are part of the treasure of our faith for many generations.

So who is John Henry Newman? He was born on February 21, 1801 to a well-to-do family in London. As a young student of 15 years old while in boarding school in Ealing he underwent a spiritual conversion that would lead him on the journey in the direction of perfection, the journey towards “a perfect peace” as Newman described the goal of his pilgrim journey.

After studying in Oxford he was elected a fellow of Oriel College ordained in the Church of England and became Vicar at St Mary’s Oxford where he was much loved as conscientious, diligent and faithful pastor. In the 1830’s he became the leader of a spiritual renewal movement that became known as the Oxford Movement.

His studies of the Fathers of the Church, returning to the source, led him to the conclusion that Roman Catholic Church was the “one fold of Christ”. After a long interior struggle he was eventually received into the Catholic Church by Dominic Barberi at Littlemore and for a time there he retired to live a monastic type of life, having been ostracised by his family and friends.


Having been ordained a priest in Rome, Newman returned to Birmingham and set up the first Oratorian Congregation there and another soon followed in London. At the invitation of the Irish Bishops he became rector of the Catholic University in Dublin. While some would describe the University project to be a failure, nevertheless it was instrumental in the eventual founding of UCD and a famous set of lectures on the nature and theory of education in The Idea of a University.

Soon afterwards he composed his famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua, his spiritual autobiography in which he vindicated his honesty in the Church of England and defended the Church of Rome.

Newman continued to write on many religious issues of the day and carried on an enormous correspondence with so many, Catholic and non-Catholic. He suffered much from misunderstandings, suspicions and opposition from a number of sources. In 1879 Newman was made a Cardinal and by the time of his death in Birmingham in 1890 it was said that more than any other person he had changed the attitude of non-Catholics towards Catholics in England.


In 1991, Newman was proclaimed venerable by Pope John Paul II, after an examination of his life and work by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. In 2000, Jack Sullivan, a man studying for the diaconate in Boston, USA was on the verge of paralysis and claimed to have been miraculously healed after praying to Newman. The miracle was investigated and confirmed by the Vatican. Newman was beatified on 19 September 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.

A second miracle, necessary for canonisation, was approved by the Vatican in November 2018. This miracle concerned the healing of Melissa Villalobos from Chicago. She and her unborn baby had a life-threatening illness and it is believed that through the intercession of Newman both she and her baby survived. On July 1, 2019, with an affirmative vote the canonisation was authorised and the date for the canonisation ceremony was arranged for October 13, 2019.

There are so many ways that Newman connects with us today: in our spiritual reading, through our Faith, in the understanding of theology, in the celebration of our liturgy and as a resource for our prayer lives. Well over a century after his death, we are drawn to Newman as a religious leader, a writer, an educator, a theologian and a philosopher. Newman was a gifted preacher, a dedicated pastor and a tireless worker for the poor in the parishes he served. There would seem to be something for everyone in Newman’s vast body of correspondence, his works of theology, devotion, poetry, novels and theological scholarship.

My introduction to John Henry Newman was as a seminarian enthusiastically reading the spiritual classics. I was very taken by his Apologia – his life story. For me it ranked up there with St Augustine’s Confessions, St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, St Teresa of Lisieux’s Journey of a Soul and Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain.

I loved Newman’s style of writing, his clarity, the way almost every sentence was dotted with scriptural allusions, all drawing one in a subtle way into the spiritual and theological mystery he was so immersed in and one felt was anxious to share with his readers. It is little wonder that his biographer described him as a “master of musical English prose” and “one of the liveliest letter writers of the Victorian era”.

The cult of the ‘hero’ or outstanding person was always a part of peoples’ lives and is still important for people today. We humans seem to need ‘great’ people or so called ‘superstars’ to look up to in many walks of life. They serve to inspire us by very often showing that the extraordinary is possible. Saints shine a light to show us a clearer pathway to God and we benefit from their example and guidance. Every generation, in the kindly providence of the Lord seems to throw up inspirational figures who assist us on our spiritual journeys.

In recent times we celebrated the example and outstanding faith of great figures like St Teresa of Calcutta, St John XXIII, St John Paul II, Oscar Romero, saints for our time. It would not be making light of the subject of saints to say that they are the heroes and heroines of our lives of Faith. We need saints as much today as ever before and John Henry Newman is in my opinion a great example of a Saint for our time. He lifetime may have spanned the 19th Century, but his message speaks loudly for us today in the 21st Century.


Newman may have been deeply mourned on the occasion of his death but the Catholic Church worldwide was not left deprived by his passing. He left behind in an enormous number of publications his ideas on education, the role of the laity, the understanding of conscience, papal infallibility and many more groundbreaking ideas.

It has been observed that he sowed the seeds for much of the thinking that was to emerge in the Second Vatican Council, almost a century after Newman’s time. His ability to combine the intellectual, the spiritual, the moral and to make it relevant to the current situation is truly remarkable. It should come as no wonder that he is now being granted the Church’s highest accolade of sainthood. It would appear that it would only be a matter of time before he will further to that be declared a ‘Doctor’ of the Church.

My intention for this short article on Cardinal Newman is to introduce him to those who don’t know him, and to re-introduce him to those whose familiarity with Newman may have waned with the passage of time.

First introduction or reacquainting, I hope a happy relationship with our new saint’s life and work will develop and endure. Likewise, may it be an added joy for all of us that we may now pray to him as a saint for our time.

Bishop Fintan Monahan is Bishop of Killaloe and author of A Perfect Peace: Newman – Saint for Our Time, published by Veritas.


The motto chosen by him when he was made Cardinal was Cor ad cor loquitor (‘Heart Speaks to Heart’). This motto was chosen because Neman admired its use in St Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life. 
    It captures the interior space he had come to at that point in his life, in retirement, harvesting a lifetime of experience in deep contemplation and in anticipation of the beatific vision.
On his memorial tablet the words Newman had chosen Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (‘Out of shadows and phantoms into the truth’). It expresses in a succinct way similar to his Cardinal’s motto the searching and seeking of out pilgrim way and its eventual destination in union with God, the ultimate truth.