On October 8th, 1845, Fr Dominic Barberi, an Italian Passionist priest who was in England as a missionary, arrived at Littlemore in the pouring rain. By this point, many of those who lived there had already converted, and Newman had now resolved to do the same. While the guest dried himself by the fire, he suddenly found one of the greatest minds in the established church kneeling at his feet and asking to be received into the Church of Christ.
Newman’s confession went on so late into the night that Fr Dominic insisted that they go to bed and resume it in the morning. When it was completed, John Henry Newman was at last baptized conditionally and received into what he now professed to be ‘the one fold of the Redeemer’. This had huge personal consequences. By converting, Newman lost most of his friends from the Church of England, and he was ostracised even by members of his family. He lost in an instant the standing he had built up as a fellow at Oxford. He would later describe how the trials of this period moved him more completely to surrender his life to God.
He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me in among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me – still He knows what He is about. Meditations and Devotions
His conversion was accompanied by a great sense of interior peace. He wrote:
I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any change, intellectual or moral, wrought in my mind. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of Revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea. Apologia pro Vita Sua
The year after his conversion, Newman was sent to Rome to further his studies, and here discovered the model of community life pursued by the Oratorian sons of St. Philip Neri. St. Philip was a saint of the sixteenth century, and Newman saw in him a great example of cheerful witness. He also saw in the shape of the Oratorian life something deeply familiar. He once wrote:
The nearest approximation in fact to an Oratorian Congregation that I know … is one of the Colleges in the Anglican Universities. Takes such a college, destroy the Head’s house, annihilate wife and children, restore him to the body of fellows, change the religion from Protestant to Catholic, and give the Head and Fellows missionary and pastoral work, and you have a Congregation of St Philip before your eyes. Chapter address of January/February 1848
On February 1st, 1848, with the approval of Pope Pius IX, Newman established the first Oratory of St. Philip Neri in the English-speaking world at Maryvale near Birmingham. The year after that, the community moved to Alcester Street near the town centre, where a disused gin distillery was converted into a chapel. Meanwhile, Newman founded a second Oratorian house in London, sending several members of the community there, led by Frederick William Faber. In 1852, the Birmingham community moved to its present home in Edgbaston.
In these years, Newman began to address those who had formerly been involved in the Oxford Movement to convince them that they, too, belonged in the Catholic Church. Newman’s conversion had prompted many in the intellectual spheres of Oxford and Cambridge to convert, but now, having returned and established communities, Newman set about writing to those he had once led, encouraging them to continue seeking for the spirit of the true Church. He wrote essays entitled ‘Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching’, and gave a series of lectures on the ‘Present Position of Catholics in England’. The next phase of his journey, however, would call him beyond his beloved England and to a new endeavour altogether.