Cardinal John Henry Newman is to be beatified in England on September 19. PAUL DOBBYN spoke with an expert on Newman, Fr Rod Strange, when he visited Brisbane recently
WHAT could a soon-to-be-beatified 19th century English cardinal and Catholic convert possibly have to say to people living in modern Australia?
Quite a lot, according to Fr Rod Strange, internationally renowned expert on Cardinal John Henry Newman.
“For a start, he had a hands-on approach to dealing with the day’s problems which strikes me as a very Australian way of doing things,” he said.
“Also statements he made as far back as the 1870s seem particularly prophetic in today’s world.
“In one amazing sermon ‘The Infidelity of the Future’, Newman noted that Christianity had never had to face a society that is completely irreligious.
“The cardinal went on in this sermon to foresee a time when religious faith has evaporated.”
The 19th century cleric also warned of the media’s potential ability to broadcast scandals that could undermine the Church’s authority when, considering its rising influence, he said: “a weak brother is going to affect all of us”.
Fr Strange, also 12 years rector of Rome’s Beda College for late vocations, was recently in Australia to attend the ordinations of two seminarians – Fr John McHugh in Tamworth and Fr John Purnell in Broome – who had completed studies at the college.
Hearing of the visit, his long-time friend Brisbane archdiocese’s Fr John Chalmers invited him to give an evening lecture on Cardinal Newman at the Australian Catholic University on July 14.
Fr Strange spoke with The Catholic Leader before this lecture “Newman’s Ghost: Preparing an Apologia for our Time”.
In his conversation, he referred to Newman’s strong influence on Pope Benedict XVI’s thought, the tough time the convert had in Victorian England from those both within and outside the Catholic Church and of the cardinal’s major influence on some of the thought behind Vatican II.
John Henry Newman’s centrality to Fr Strange’s own life was also quickly apparent.
“The first time I came to Australia was in the centenary year of Newman becoming a cardinal – 1979,” he said.
“I can also tell you exactly when I first became interested in Newman – it was March 30, 1964.
“I was travelling in a bus from Rome to Alban Hills which had a country villa belonging to the English college where I was studying.
“A chap on this trip asked whether I had read any Newman and, learning I hadn’t, said I must.
“So I got into a two-volume biography by Meriol Trevor and have been fascinated ever since.”
As Newman’s September 19 beatification at Birmingham approaches, Fr Strange has become increasingly involved in preparations.
“I’ve lost count of how many articles I’ve done for various publications,” he said.
“This year I’ve also been giving a lot of lectures, similar to tonight’s at the ACU, in places such as England, Italy and America.”
Pope Benedict, by his attendance at the beatification ceremony, is highlighting Newman’s foundational influence on his own thought.
“Current protocol is that the pope sends a delegate, say a local cardinal, along to such an event,” Fr Strange said.
“So it’s quite extraordinary that Pope Benedict himself will officiate.
“This is because of his own personal devotion ever since he heard of Newman from a senior seminary student mentoring him in 1946.
“The young Ratzinger was struck by Newman’s notion of an informed conscience being the voice of God giving firmness and objectivity to faith.
“The young man who would become pope saw this as a way out of the moral morass which had afflicted Nazi Germany.
“Pope Benedict, as for example he did at a special Newman centenary conference in Rome in 1990, sometimes quotes Hermann Goering’s saying from this time: ‘I have no conscience; my conscience is Adolf Hitler’.”
For Fr Strange, Cardinal Newman’s perseverance in his priestly vocation, despite extreme opposition and lack of support for his vision, is one of his most admirable traits.
“After his conversion in 1845, Newman spoke of his entrance into the Catholic Church as being like coming into port after being tossed about on a rough sea.
“But his personal life actually became a lot harder after his conversion.
“It was a time of prejudice against Catholicism in English society and those belonging to this Church were a despised minority.
“Those who opposed his conversion such as novelist the Reverend Charles Kingsley accused him of dishonesty – this led Newman to write Apologia pro Vita Sua, an eloquent defence of his conversion to Catholicism.”
Neither did Newman’s newly acquired religious family make his situation any easier.
“The Catholic Church didn’t know what to do with him,” Fr Strange explained.
“He was given tasks, for example to set up a university.
“But he received no resources and the projects failed, so for more than 20 years he believed he was a failure as a Catholic.
“For this alone he is a great inspiration, persevering in his faith despite this great sense of failure.
“Newman showed real discipleship in the fortitude with which he carried this cross.”
So how might anyone wishing to know more about this holy man and great thinker become more acquainted with his work and thought?
“For those who haven’t got a lot of time to read books by the shelf-load, books such as my own Newman101: An Introduction to the Life and Philosophy of John Cardinal Newman are a good starting point.”
Meanwhile, Fr Strange’s immersion in all things Newman continues with a major engagement to address the September 6-9 conference of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain.
The association has selected the topic “Newman the Pastor” ahead of his forthcoming beatification.
“I’ll be working on this lecture when I get back home to Rome,” Fr Strange said.
“However, it’s always a pleasure to prepare presentations on a man whose profound influence continues through to this very moment.”