Cardinal John Newman’s beatification draws attention to his contributions to Catholic intellectual life

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

The beatification of England’s Cardinal John Henry Newman on Sept. 19 is arguably the most notable one for that country since the 1886 beatification of Thomas More and other English martyrs. It is of such note that the Pope is breaking his own rule by traveling to Birmingham to officiate.

Needless to say it also has other Newman admirers from around the world heading for England, and among them are Philadelphians.

For example, Oratorian Fathers Georges Thiers and Philip Bochanski, both priests of St. Francis Xavier Parish, the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, will be in Birmingham for the ceremony. While the Oratory movement was founded by St. Philip in 16th-century Rome, it was John Newman who introduced it to the English-speaking world. {{more}}

Father Thiers, one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Oratory two decades ago, said, “We are thrilled with this. Newman founded the Oratory in the English-speaking world and we mostly follow his traditions.”

Father Thiers recalls his first introduction to Newman was during his seminary years in the late 1960s, at a time when the Church was in turmoil, and “Newman in his writings was a great way to guide oneself.”

Father Bochanski discovered the Oratory through reading about his patron, St. Philip Neri, when he was a seminarian, and joined the Oratory six years ago. He was drawn to the Oratorians, he believes, for the same reasons as John Newman. A convert from Anglicanism studying for the priesthood in Rome, Newman looked at various congregations but hit upon St. Philip’s Oratory because as a congregation each house is independent and the members do not take vows. The lifestyle would not be much different than that which he experienced as an Anglican priest and university professor.

The Oratorians work extensively with young people of college age, although not exclusively. Father Bochanski quotes Newman, who said, “If you don’t give Catholic students in universities serious theology, all you are doing is leaving them open to bad influence from other teachers.”

Locally, the Oratory at St. Francis Xavier will celebrate the beatification through a Mass of thanksgiving celebrated by Cardinal Rigali at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 17.

The preceding week, on Oct. 10, Jack Sullivan, a Boston permanent deacon whose healing of an injured spine was accepted as the miracle necessary for John Newman’s beatification, will preach at the 11:30 a.m. Mass.

Another traveler to Birmingham for the beatification is Edward Jeremy Miller, a Newman scholar and a professor of theology at Gwynedd-Mercy College, who first came upon Newman’s writings while studying at Louvain University in Belgium.

“His views on education formulated in the 1850s on the nature of liberal education and Catholic education continue to be valid,” Miller said. “This is a crucially important subject, and I’m interested in him as a philosopher and a theologian, and he is an exemplar in how he lived out his life.”

Miller will give a presentation on the life and beatification of Cardinal Newman Oct. 20 at Gwynedd-Mercy College.

Philadelphia has another connection to Blessed John Newman. The Newman Clubs and Centers for Catholic students at mostly secular colleges and universities had their birth here in Philadelphia in 1894 at the University of Pennsylvania, just four years after Cardinal Newman’s death. They were named for him because he represented what it means to be both a Catholic and a scholar.

Msgr. Michael Magee, who became a convert to Catholicism while attending Penn’s Wharton School from 1980-84, was a member of the Newman Center.

“It was a Catholic presence, a place for people like me who were serious about their faith,” he said. “I have been watching the Newman Center ever since, and it has become even stronger and more visible as the years go by. A Catholic presence within the structure of the university is very important.”

A Mass will be celebrated Saturday, Oct. 23, at 4 p.m. in honor of Cardinal Newman’s beatification, said Father John Ames, who is director for the Newman Centers in the Archdiocese. Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Thomas will be the main celebrant and homilist and there will be a presentation by Father Thiers on Blessed John Newman. A dinner will follow.

“We are inviting students from the Catholic colleges and the Newman Centers,” Father Ames said.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.