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Meeting a lively mind

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN: A MIND ALIVE

Roderick Strange (2008), Darton, Longman and Todd.

Reviewed by Fr John Chalmers

NEARLY 120 years after his death, the Church will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman later this year.

For those who are curious about Newman, Roderick Strange has written a riveting, even rollicking story that charts the soul-searching turns of Newman’s long and influential life.

Strange arranges this accessible and alluring book across three formative phases in Newman’s life: searching for self, living within life’s crucible, and grappling with the consequences of becoming a Catholic.

Given that these are questions that perplex any Catholic, Newman’s life and times, as described by Strange, are worthy conversation partners and guides in any age.

In writing a book which, like the Cardinal’s life, “revolves around the twin ingredients of controversy and surprise”, Strange has convinced this reader that “Newman’s life is enthralling”.

I particularly like Strange’s comparison between John Henry Newman and Thomas More, both of whom had striven for fidelity.

“One died on the scaffold; the other in bed, but both had nourished their interior lives to grow in holiness and had been confronted by external crisis.”

Described by one of his contemporaries as “a learned man of no charisma and little charm”, Strange’s Newman is, nevertheless, a riveting story, told by a master.

Timely and timeless are the issues considered: conversion, infallible authority, serving the laity, seeking Church unity.

Each of these and more, Strange ponders with typical elegance and clarity, imaginatively site-ing the discussion within the curious circumstances, self-induced and other, that shaped Newman’s life and thought.

Having often and appreciatively made Newman’s words my own in prayer, “Lead Kindly Light” takes on even greater significance when Strange tells the story of its composition during a twisting Sicilian holiday.

Conversion, education, preaching; none of these is possible, according to Newman “without touching (people’s) hearts”.

What became Newman’s motto as a Cardinal – “heart speaks to heart” – is equally crucial in our RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) programs, catechesis and preaching, today.

In 1829, Newman wrote of the “blessing of friends, which to my door, unasked, unhoped, have come”.

In 2008, those words of Newman express this reader’s delight in pondering the magnificent, wry cover photo before meeting John Henry Newman’s lively mind.

When this book passes through your door, you will meet a flawed human being whose thought, nevertheless, Pope Paul VI described as “the most meaningful ever travelled during the modern era, to arrive at the fullness of wisdom and of peace”.

We are indebted to Roderick Strange who, having made Newman his life’s work, has produced the book to read on the occasion of Cardinal Newman’s beatification.

Note: The first edition of this book is out of print and the release of a second edition is pending.

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