Pontifical Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving for Saint John Henry Newman

Read Bishop Byrne's full homily from the pontifical Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving for Saint John Henry Newman.

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A Pontifical Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving took place on Monday 14 October 2019 at the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome the day after John Henry Newman was declared a saint by Pope Francis.

His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols presided and Bishop Robert Byrne C.O. preached. Here’s Bishop Byrne’s homily:

Full Homily

Today we give thanks to God for the canonisation of John Henry Cardinal Newman. The Church has given us in St John Henry a saint with a great love of the Church and a great pastor of souls. Unlike saints such as Padre Pio or Therese of Lisieux he will probably not be the kind who will capture the popular imagination. He was above all a priest and engaged for most of his life in the ordinary duties of his vocation. At the same time, his intellectual gifts engaged him in engaging with the theological and philosophical issues of the day which opens him to interpretation and misunderstanding. His greatness lies partly in his intellectual ability to approach the questions of the day from a different angle and a broader perspective. Like his spiritual father St Philip Neri we cannot put Newman in a box; we must let him speak for himself and he will teach us much.

I am sure that no one would be more surprised than Newman to find himself a canonised saint. In his own life time it was suggested that he led a saintly life – his response was typical. “I have nothing of the saint about me as everyone knows and it is a severe and salutary mortification to be thought next door to one.” Touchingly he concluded, “it is enough for me to black the saints’ shoes – if St Philip uses blacking in heaven”. Nonetheless the Church thinks otherwise after due deliberation and the approval of two miracles brought about by the intercession of the saint, John Henry Newman, the Londoner born in 1801 and who died a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church in Birmingham in 1890 is now raised to the honours of the altar. He is held up to us as a model of Christian life and virtue and as our intercessor in heaven.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves what kind of saint Newman is and what he can say to the Church in our day. It was Pope St Paul VI, who said: “guided solely by love of the truth and fidelity to Christ he arrived at the fulness of wisdom and peace.” It was in other words the saintly Cardinal’s relentless and heroic search for truth and holiness which brings us to this morning’s celebration. 

It was while the young John Henry was still at school in Ealing that he underwent what he later called his first conversion. In 1816 he became in his own words convinced of the existence of “myself and my creator”. This was no mere intellectual realisation but an inner conviction that he was subject to a divine authority and bound by a definite dogma. He surrendered himself completely to God’s will and began his lifelong search for truth and holiness. He now had “that vision of the Unseen which is the Christian life.” He felt himself to be God’s creature, and responsible to Him – God’s possession not his own. It was this first conversion that was to inform the life of our new saint.

We often think of the turning point in Newman’s life to be his reception into full communion with the Catholic Church in October 1845 but it was for him a natural progression of growth into his ideals. It cost him much to give up his family, friends and a career but his lifelong dictum was “Holiness rather than peace” and it is this determination that made him a saint. The pursuit of holiness and truth were for St John Henry the driving force of his life. We see throughout his long life how he championed the cause of revealed truth and was fearless in proclaiming it not only by his many writings but also by the institutions he established. He did much to promote the Christian cause in bringing the Congregation of the Oratory to England, founding a University in Ireland and a school in Edgbaston. He worked tirelessly as a Parish Priest and had a fatherly care for his Oratorian community. He guided countless people with letters of spiritual direction and counsel. He gave light to those who were searching for the truth and continues to do so through his published works of theology, philosophy, sermons and prayers.

Newman also had a great gift of friendship. His motto “Heart speaks to heart” shows that like Philip he achieved his aims through friendship as well as a spirit of prayer and promoting the importance of beauty in art and music. There are those who see him as the dry intellectual in opposition to the charismatic and joking Philip Neri. Nonetheless John Henry who was firstly a son of St Philip was imbued like Philip with a charism of making personal contact with individuals together with a profound psychological insight and love of each of them in order to bring them to a deeper friendship with God. Both made this the major pillar of their apostolate.

St John Henry Newman was buried on 19 August 1890. 20,000 people lined the streets of Birmingham to pay their last respects. The Times gave him a full-page obituary and messages of condolence poured into the Birmingham Oratory from every corner of the world. A hundred and twenty-nine years later he still commands the same love and respect. His gift of friendship continues.

It is moving to see so many people from different nations and backgrounds giving thanks for the Canonisation. The presence of many bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful gathered here in Rome over the weekend is itself a fitting tribute to this great son of the Church. Today is a great day for the Congregation of the Oratory throughout the world and for the Church in England and Wales. John Henry is the first English Confessor to be canonized since the Reformation. More importantly, Newman now belongs to the whole Church, to all those men and women from many different parts of the world who draw inspiration and help from him. We welcome especially the representatives from the Church of England which formed the new saint in faith and was so dear to him for half his life.

Newman speaks to us in different ways as preacher, writer, theologian and pastor. But however he speaks to us we are united in giving thanks that his life and legacy is now a gift to the Universal Church.

Many of us believe that Cardinal Newman made a unique contribution to the Church’s understanding of herself especially in terms of the role of the laity, the place of conscience and the development of doctrine. The Church has yet to decide on giving Newman the accolade of Doctor of the Church but it is something we can now pray for and work towards.

I would like to pay tribute to the many friends and scholars of Newman, impossible to innumerate, who over the years have promoted his Cause of Canonisation.  One person I feel constrained to remember is the late Fr Gregory Winterton of the Birmingham Oratory, known to many of us, whose indefatigable work and dedication to the Cardinal’s Cause was monumental. We are truly grateful to him and to so many others for helping to make this celebration possible.

So we go from here this morning rejoicing that St John Henry Newman is at last acclaimed a saint of holy Mother Church and probably already polishing St Philip’s shoes!