Deepen your prayer and faith with John Henry Cardinal Newman

Mark Brumley of Ignatius Press on what Catholics can learn from the Anglican priest who became Catholic

Detail, "John Henry Newman" by Sir John Everett Millais, 1881. Photo: Public Domain

In celebration of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s canonization on Sunday, Ignatius Press has released a volume of his most profound devotions titled Prayers, Verses and Devotions (2019).

Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press. Photo courtesy of Ignatius Press

Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press, spoke with Catholic Digest about the collection as well as Cardinal Newman’s significance as a 19th-century religious leader.

Q: What makes Cardinal Newman (1801–1890) such an important figure?

A: Many things. Newman was a major figure in the Church of England who became a Catholic, a significant spiritual and intellectual leader, and later a cardinal of the Catholic Church.

In a sense he is something of an ecumenical figure. Although 19th-century English Catholicism wasn’t “ecumenical” in the way mid- and late-20th century Catholicism became, Newman contributed to the work of promoting Christian unity by his ongoing relationships with Protestant Christianity and his vigorous participation in the Catholic/Protestant discussions.

His involvement with the Oxford Movement led many others into full communion with the Catholic Church and strengthened certain “Catholic elements” within Anglicanism. Newman was also a holy man who passionately and intelligently addressed the challenges to believing in his time, especially challenges coming from rationalist, scientistic ideas. His writings on the subject remain pertinent in the 21st century.

He showed the historical continuity and development of Christian teaching over time, the fullness of which he came to see as belonging to the Catholic Church. He was in many respects a spiritual and theological forefather of the Second Vatican Council, a council of change in continuity and genuine renewal.

[Cardinal Newman] showed the historical continuity and development of Christian teaching over time, the fullness of which he came to see as belonging to the Catholic Church.

Q: What works are included in Prayers, Verses and Devotions ?

A: The Devotions of Bishop Andrewes, various meditations and devotions of Newman himself, and verses on various occasions, including Newman’s famous poem The Dream of Gerontius.

The meditations and devotions were devised by Newman but edited by Fr. William Neville, Newman’s literary executor, who brought together items he thought would form a powerful devotional work based on Newman’s own spiritual practices and items he wrote himself. They include Marian meditations for the month of May (or really any time), meditations on the Stations of the Cross, various prayers, and a series of meditations on Christian doctrine.

The final section is a series of poems (verses) or hymns for various occasions and on different spiritual themes, the final being Newman’s famous, only lengthy poem, which I noted above, The Dream of Gerontius. It gives readers, as Fr. Louis Bouyer notes in his introduction, “a most impressive vision of Christian death as introducing us to eternal life” and a sense of how the trials of this life and the purifications of purgatory in the life to come are bound up with the love of God.

Q: How was it decided what works would be included in the book?

A: The first part, The Devotions of Bishop Andrewes, comes from Newman’s Anglican days, although he continued to use this work throughout his Catholic life. It is included because Newman himself thought it immensely valuable for spiritual growth — so much so that he translated the work, which features texts of Scripture, Church fathers, and various elements of daily devotions and prayers originally compiled by the Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes from the original Greek sources.

Fr. Neville’s editing of Newman’s meditations and devotions is hard to pass up when compiling a book of Newman’s “spiritual exercises.” And the poems of the final part so deeply express Newman’s vision of faith they fill out the devotional work.

“John Henry Newman” by Sir John Everett Millais, 1881. Photo: Public Domain

Q: Who was Bishop Lancelot Andrewes and what is his connection to Cardinal Newman?

A: He was an early 17th-century Anglican bishop. Among other things, he helped create the Authorized Version or King James Version of the Bible. He was what is regarded as a “high church” Anglican — someone whose understanding and practice of Anglicanism has many “Catholic” elements. Of course, Newman himself, as an Anglican, saw movement to recover certain “Catholic” elements as the proper course for the Church of England.

Like Andrewes, Newman in his Anglican days regarded the Catholic Church as “Roman” — as representing an extreme that had distorted key aspects of the original Christian faith. But that didn’t mean rejecting everything “high church.” Quite the contrary. Before he became a Catholic, Newman saw the Church of England as the via media — the middle path between what he then regarded as the extremes of the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism. So he valued the “high church” qualities of Bishop Andrewes, including his devotions.

Q: What is the Preces Privatae?

A: This is a Latin term for “private prayers.” In this context it refers to the private collection of prayers made by Bishop Andrewes and translated into English by Newman. These prayers Newman continued to use in his daily personal devotions after his conversion to Catholicism.

Pope Benedict XVI greets young people on Sept. 19, 2010, outside Westminster Cathedral in London after Mass. Photo: Philip Chidell/Shutterstock

Q: Can you tell us about Pope Benedict XVI’s connection to Cardinal Newman?

A: As a seminarian, Benedict read Newman and was deeply influenced by him. He once referred to Newman as his “hero.” He appreciated deeply Newman’s teaching on conscience. The young Joseph Ratzinger had been forced as a teenager into the German army during World War II. Consequently, he greatly appreciated Newman’s idea of the conscientious embrace of the truth.

Likewise, as a Catholic theologian and later as pope, Benedict affirmed Newman’s idea of doctrinal development, which allows for a growth of faithful understanding and explanation of God’s Word — a developmental kind of “change” — as opposed to altering the divine Word to suit merely human ideas and desires. Benedict also prized Newman’s approach to education, which Newman expounded in The Idea of a University. In 2010, Benedict beatified Newman, which put him on the path to official sainthood.

[Pope Benedict XVI] once referred to Newman as his ‘hero.’

Q: Do you have any favorite inclusions in the book?

A: I find highly profitable Newman’s meditations on Christian doctrine. These are delightful for meditation before the Blessed Sacrament, or even for morning prayer or evening prayer.

Q: What has Cardinal Newman’s path to canonization been like?

A: One can, I suppose, look at it from different perspectives. Newman’s beatification, which of course preceded his canonization, was oddly enough a long time in coming. Many Newman “fans” had been promoting his cause for years. Newman died in 1890 and he was beatified in 2010 — that’s 120 years. Still, by the standard of many blesseds and saints, 120 years is not all that long. And then some nine years after Newman’s beatification he is canonized. In a certain respect, Newman’s canonization proper has been a relatively short process.

Q: What makes Cardinal Newman’s upcoming canonization especially important?

A: Newman’s ecumenical significance is important. Many in the Church of England continue to respect Newman, despite his having entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. His contribution to a nuanced understanding of faith and reason is also key.

And of course Newman helped make the notion of the development of doctrine better understood in the Church, steering a path between the idea of a completely static notion of doctrine, without an appreciation of the Church’s ability to grow in her understanding of God’s full revelation in Jesus Christ, on the one hand, and an open-ended, relativistic idea that doctrine can change into whatever we want, on the other.

Newman is also significant as a man of conscience, as a spiritual guide who emphasized the link between conscience and Christian truth.

Q: What do you hope readers are able to gain from reading Prayers, Verses and Devotions?

A: A deeper faith, more substantial hope, and a greater love for God in daily life. And a deeper communion with St. John Henry Newman.

Newman is also significant as a man of conscience.

John Henry Cardinal Newman: The bridge between Catholics and Protestants

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