In all his words most wonderful...
...most sure in all his ways.
On the evening October 9th 1841 an Italian Passionist priest trudged through the Oxfordshire countryside in order to reach a small collection of converted farm buildings in the village of Littlemore known as 'the college'. These buildings were the home of John Henry Newman and a small group of like-minded followers who were all devotees of the 'Oxford Movement',
Sometimes referred to as the 'Tractarian Movement', the Oxford Movement was a movement within the Church of England that began at the University of Oxford in the first half of the nineteenth-century. It sought to bring about a fuller understanding of the Church of England as being part of the 'one holy, catholic, and apostolic church'. This manifested itself in efforts to instate aspects of patristic theology and pre-reformation ritual into the Church of England. The movement was spearheaded by three clergymen who were all Fellows of Oriel College: John Keble, Edward Bouverie Pusey, and John Henry Newman. Their efforts, along with those of their followers, continue to shape the theological and liturgical identity of the Anglican Communion to this day.
Anyway, back to this Italian priest. His name was Fr. Dominic Barberi and he arrived at 'the college' in the early evening of October 8th 1841. As he rested by the fireside in the library, John Henry Newman entered the room and asked him to hear his first confession. Newman then asked Barberi to receive him into the Roman Catholic Church. In Newman's mind, this was the logical end of the Movement that he had helped start. However, this was a hazardous move for Newman. As both Fellow of Oriel and Vicar of the University Church, he enjoyed a privileged existence and a platform for scholarly discourse--he was one of the most famous churchmen in the land. Reception into the Roman Catholic Church would totally shatter his reputation.
How so? English Roman Catholics had only been fully emancipated eleven years earlier. Before then, they had essentially been barred from voting and pursuing careers in the civil service and judiciary. Even after Catholic Emancipation, English society still viewed Roman Catholics with a degree of suspicion: where did their loyalties really lie--with England or with the Pope? To the Victorian mind, the Pope was not simply an amiable, inoffensive old man who does laps of St Peter's Square in the 'popemobile'. Rather, he was very much a temporal monarch who directly governed a large part of the Italian peninsula and was actively involved in political affairs.
Newman's decision did indeed shatter his reputation, becoming estranged from many of his friends and academic colleagues. Most famously, he was subjected to what can be best described as a character assassination by the Rev'd Charles Kingsley. Newman responded to Kinglsey's charges by writing his famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) in which he defended his actions. After his reception into the Roman Catholic Church, Newman left Oxford and (aside from his very brief sojourn in Dublin) spent the rest of his life at the Oratory which he founded in Birmingham.
The second reading for this coming Sunday can be read as a commentary Newman's life before and after the night of his Reception on October 9th 1841:
I know how to live in humble circumstances;
I know also how to live with abundance.
In every circumstance and in all things
I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry,
of living in abundance and of being in need.
I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
Newman certainly experienced both humble circumstances and abundance. The decision he made in 1841 to follow his conscience cost him the abundance that he enjoyed in every part of his life. That was (and indeed is) to be expected--after all, there is a real, tangible cost to being a disciple.
Music: Edward Elgar
Words: John Henry Newman (1801-90)
Artists: BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Andrew Davis
Praise to the Holiest in the height
And in the depth be praise:
In all His words most wonderful
Most sure in all His ways.