The most important theologian to write in English, John Henry Newman surprised religious England by leaving Oxford and a life he loved to enter the Church in 1845, at the age of 44. He went on to found the Oratory in England, presiding over the Oratory in Birmingham, and to write many enduring works, like The Development of Doctrine, Grammar of Assent, and The Idea of a University. He endured criticism and attacks from Catholics as well as Protestants, including the vicious sneer of a liberal Anglican that led Newman to write his classic autobiography Apologia pro vita sua.
Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal in 1879. He died in 1890, on Monday, August 11th, of pneumonia. Benedict XVI beatified him in 2010. Francis declared him a saint on 13 October 2019.
Newman’s Five Insights on Death and Dying can be found here.
We have no report of now soon-to-be St. John Henry Newman’s death. No death bed story. He had been declining over several years when he died. His biographer Ian Ker reports that his body began to fail in 1886, when he was eighty-five. But he kept up his intellectual work till only a few months before he died.
Newman died in the presence of his brothers of the Oratory and his two doctors. He had last preached in the Oratory chapel on Easter three-and-a-half years earlier. Newman celebrated Mass for the last time on Christmas day, 1889. He had last worshipped with his brethren two weeks before, when he had to be carried in to the chapel on a chair. A couple days later he watched the school play and gave out prizes to the students.
On Saturday evening, he suddenly got chills and a fever. On Sunday, he got worse, but still recited the Breviary with his chaplain. On Monday, he sunk into unconsciousness, and the other Oratorians seems to have spent the day with him. He received the last rites from another Oratorian and later. the bishop came and made the commendation of the soul. Newman died, surrounded by his brothers, at 8:48 p.m.
The Way He Lived
We have no great death bed story, but we do have stories of the way he lived as he began to die.
One of his old allies, Bishop Ullathorne, visited him in the fall of 1887. As he was leaving, the cardinal asked the bishop, in “low and humble accents,” for “a great favor.” Ullathorne asked him what it was. “He glided down on his knees, bent down his venerable head, and said, ‘Give me your blessing.’ What could I do with him before me in such a posture? I could not refuse without giving him great embarrassment.”
The cardinal who could have flaunted his rank didn’t. He asked the bishop for a blessing.
Ullathorne blessed Newman. “As I walked to the door,” he said, “refusing to put on his biretta as he went with me, he said, ‘I have been indoors all my life, whilst you have battled for the Church in the world.’ I felt annihilated in his presence: there is a Saint in that man!”
Another story. Near the end of Newman’s life, a visitor remembered that “the look of almost anxious searching” he’d seen on Newman’s face decades before, when he was still an Anglican. That anxious look “had passed into the look of perfect peace. His mind was not only as bright as ever, but with the cheerfulness and humor of youth.” His visitor was moved by Newman’s “great and perfect humility” in thanking him for visiting, when (he implies) it was he was visiting the great man.
Newman’s Burial and Memory
John Henry Newman was buried eight days later, at the cemetery at the Oratory’s house in Rednal, outside Birmingham. He was buried with his dear friend Ambrose St. John. On his grave the Oratorians inscribed the words Newman had chosen: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem, out of shadows and phantasms into truth, or as Ker puts it, out of unreality into reality.
In his homily at the beatification Mass, Pope Benedict said: “He lived out that profoundly human vision of priestly ministry in his devoted care for the people of Birmingham during the years that he spent at the Oratory he founded, visiting the sick and the poor, comforting the bereaved, caring for those in prison. No wonder that on his death so many thousands of people lined the local streets as his body was taken to its place of burial not half a mile from here. One hundred and twenty years later, great crowds have assembled once again to rejoice in the Church’s solemn recognition of the outstanding holiness of this much-loved father of souls.”