Immediately after Newman’s death in August 1890, countless testimonies appeared about his life and sanctity. His executor, Fr William Paine Neville of the Birmingham Oratory, was hesitant about arranging for a biography of Newman’s Catholic life, but at last in 1905, Wilfrid Ward was named by the Oratory Fathers as Newman’s official biographer, and he produced his magnum opus seven years later. While in the first half of the twentieth century, this and other works gave greater attention to Newman as academic, writer and controversialist, the prospect of his elevation to the altars was alluded to by some, including John McIntyre, the future Archbishop of Birmingham, who expressed in 1907 his ‘hope that our Cardinal will be the first canonised saint of the Second Spring’.
The earliest efforts to preserve Newman’s legacy, however, were directed towards his intellectual and theological work. When Pope St Pius X issued his condemnation of the Modernist heresy in the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, many partisans of Modernism appealed to Newman’s thought in their defence. In response, Bishop Edward Thomas O’Dwyer of Limerick published an essay refuting these claims, showing that ‘there is nothing in Newman to sustain, or extenuate, or suggest a particle of their wild and absurd theories’. ‘Newman,’ he wrote, ‘was a Catholic to the tips of his fingers.’ Pope Pius wrote to O’Dwyer commending his essay and approving of its contents, himself declaring that the Cardinal’s writings were fully in harmony with the Pascendi.
Much archival work was carried out within the Birmingham Oratory. Fr Richard Bellasis, who had been among the first boys at the Oratory School and became the fourth superior of the Oratory (1911-23), was responsible for filing all the Cardinal’s correspondence, a little-known but considerable work, as a result of which those who came years later to study Newman’s writings found all his letters filed and ready for them. Later, Frs Joseph Bacchus and Henry Tristram, also of the Birmingham Oratory, took up the task of promoting an authentic understanding of Newman’s writings. They encouraged and facilitated a deep and scholarly study and interpretation of Newman, and like O’Dwyer, defended him from misrepresentation as a Modernist. Their most important contribution to scholarship was a comprehensive study in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique in 1931.
In this early period, as since, the Oratory was chiefly concerned with archiving his writings and presenting their correct interpretation. Mr Gerard Tracey, the archivist at the Oratory for many years, noted that ‘above all, stood Saint Philip Neri … and the Oratorian ideal of self-obliteration – ama nesciri; “love to be unknown” – and his surviving fellow community knew how insistent he would have been in this matter, even posthumously’.
In the latter half of the century, Newman’s holiness began to draw attention, described by Gerard Tracey as follows:
Sanctity, of course, of its very nature, lives and does not die with the figure in question. Having stayed a live question, it was an American Dominican, Fr Charles Callan, who brought it out into the open by way of an article in America magazine in 1941. The response was overwhelming and positive. In 1942, the Archbishop of Toronto gave his imprimatur to the first prayer for Newman’s beatification. A fervent admirer of Newman, Pope Pius XII’s insistence on the importance of the 1945 Centenary of Newman’s Conversion gave added impetus. English reticence began to give way with a 1952 article by future Vice-Postulator, H. F. Davis, on ‘Newman’s Cause’. In 1958 Archbishop Grimshaw of Birmingham constituted the Court needed for an Ordinary Process for Canonisation. It was not realised that the paucity of living witnesses made such a Process impossible. A year later the Cause was reintroduced as an Historical Cause, and a Commission of experts assembled to gather the necessary documentary proof. The other, pressing, commitments of the Commissioners together with the apparently opaque requirements, meant that no direct progress was made. It was the cherished hope of Pope Paul VI that he would be able to mark the Holy Year of 1975 with the Beatification of John Henry Newman, but the lack of documentary progress obstructed this. It was not until 1980 that a newly reconstituted Historical Commission began the task of gathering all the necessary proofs to complete the Diocesan Process.
Tracey himself was one of the three historians of this new Commission, set up by Archbishop Dwyer of Birmingham. They set about collecting material, which would fill 19 volumes and amount to almost 6,500 pages. Meanwhile, work at the Birmingham Oratory continued under the archivist, Fr Stephen Dessain. In 1960, as superior of the Oratory, Fr Stephen published an article emphasising the catholicity of the Cardinal’s Anglican sermons and the holiness of his life. From 1961, he and his assistants began to publish Newman’s Letters and Diaries at regular intervals. By the time of his unexpected death in 1976, only 21 volumes had been completed, and the rest of the 32-volume set was completed under a further six editors: Edward Kelly, Thomas Gornall, Vincent Blehl, Ian Ker, Gerard Tracey and Francis McGrath.
Other important works were Meriol Trevor’s two-volume biography of Newman, published in 1962, drawing from unpublished writings in the Birmingham Oratory archives and presenting his life as a search for objective truth and sanctity; and the definitive biography published by Fr Ian Ker in 1990.
In addition to these scholarly efforts, Fr Gregory Winterton of the Birmingham Oratory, encouraged by papal interest in the Cause, devoted considerable time and energy to attracting international interest and popular devotion for Newman by producing pamphlets and prayer books, in addition to giving numerous talks and lectures throughout England. By his efforts, the Cause was thus greatly revitalised. He oversaw the founding of the Friends of Cardinal Newman in 1976, and after a 1975 Symposium, the International Centre of Newman Friends was established on the Via Aurelia with a specialised library. Here, the spiritual family Das Werk organised symposia, congresses and commemorative lectures, and many other such centres were established throughout the world.
Finally, in May 1986, the Historical Commission presented its work to a Birmingham diocesan tribunal appointed by Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville, and the findings were forwarded to the Holy See for examination by Apostolic Process. Fr Vincent Blehl, S.J., who had previously served as Chairman of the Diocesan Commission, was nominated Postulator of the Cause, and oversaw the composition of the official case, the two-volume Positio super virtutibus, which was presented in December 1989 to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. This synthesis, by which the expert Consultors of the Holy See could judge the completeness and worthiness of the Cause, was examined and approved by various commissions of theologians and cardinals with unusual speed and unanimous endorsement. Tracey concludes:
In January 1991 Pope John Paul II declared that John Henry Newman had exercised all of the Christian virtues in an heroic degree, and was henceforth to be known as ‘Venerable’. There remains the final question of miracles, one for Beatification and a further for Canonisation – hopes have been frustrated on several occasions but prayer must go on.
Jack Sullivan, a former court official from Marshfield near Boston, Massachusetts, was in training to become a permanent deacon, when he was struck by crippling back pain. His orthopaedic surgeon diagnosed severe stenosis, whereby his lumbar vertebrae and discs were causing the compression of his spinal cord, and recommended a laminectomy to remove a part of the spinal bones that was causing the problem. The procedure was carried out in August 2001, but surgeons encountered serious complications. The dura mater or protective lining surrounding his spinal cord was badly torn, and for days after the surgery, Jack suffered extreme pain such that he could not sleep and had trouble breathing. There was no prospect of relief, and one surgeon judged that he was on the brink of complete paralysis.
Concerned that he should be able to resume his studies in the coming term, Jack tried to get out of bed just days after his operation, on the feast of the Assumption. Having taken an excruciating few minutes, with a nurse’s help, to get his feet to the floor, he leaned on his forearms and asked the intercession of our Cardinal, to whom he had prayed regularly in the preceding year. He said, “Please, Cardinal Newman, help me to walk, so that I can return to my classes and be ordained.”
Jack felt a sudden intense heat and a strong tingling sensation throughout his body, together with an indescribable feeling of joy and peace, where moments before he had felt hopeless. When he came to himself again, he was standing upright and felt no more pain. His doctors were unable to provide any medical explanation for the change in his condition. Jack wrote at once to the Birmingham Oratory, and a year later, the Father wrote to notify him that the process of Newman’s beatification, centring on his case, had been formally initiated.
In 2008, Newman’s coffin was exhumed from his grave in our cemetery at Rednal. It was discovered that his body had completely decomposed. He had been buried in a wooden coffin in very damp ground, and at his own prior request, the coffin had been covered with a layer of mould that was softer in composition than the clay and lime of the Rednal cemetery. This was deliberate, so that his body would disappear from this earth as quickly as possible, an intention consistent with the modest way he had lived his Oratorian vocation, faithfully adhering to Saint Philip Neri’s maxim, love to be unknown.
On 3 July 2009, Pope Benedict XVI recognised Jack Sullivan’s healing as a miracle resulting from the intercession of John Henry Newman. Our Cardinal was beatified by Pope Benedict in Cofton Park, Birmingham, on 19 September 2010.
Video from the beatification
Melissa Villalobos was a lawyer and mother of four living near Chicago, who had first encountered our Cardinal through the Newman Centre, and again after graduating through the EWTN programme Newman at 2000. She was moved by watching the beatification in 2010, and having been given a prayer card with his image, she began to read our Cardinal’s works on the Internet, growing in devotion and turning to him often in prayer for favours and inspiration.
In May 2013, Melissa was in the sixth week of her pregnancy, when she began to experience loss of blood. Her obstetrician conducted an ultrasound scan that revealed a subchorionic hematoma from bleeding from a torn placenta, but that the embryo had a normal heartbeat. The subchorionic hematoma was two-and-a-half times the size of the embryo. Melissa was advised to rest, to have weekly ultrasound scans to monitor her condition and to go to the hospital immediately if it grew worse. The bleeding did grow worse, and on 10 May she admitted herself to the emergency ward of the local hospital. She was told not to do anything unless it was absolutely necessary. She would need strict bed rest for many months, the doctor said, in order for the ripped placenta possibly to begin to heal. If the baby survived, she would likely be small and born prematurely. She was told that a miscarriage was very likely. She returned home, and the blood loss continued without ceasing or slowing down.
On 15 May, Melissa awoke at 7am aware that she was bleeding significantly. Her husband, with a very heavy heart, was already on a flight from Chicago to Atlanta for a mandatory work trip, and her four children (aged six, five, three and one) needed breakfast. Melissa got up and managed to seat her children for breakfast, before realising that she was bleeding even more profusely, and had to visit the bathroom urgently so as not to upset the children. She told them to remain seated in the kitchen, and went back upstairs to her bedroom, closing the door. She made it into the adjoining bathroom, again closing the door, and then collapsed on the floor. By now it was 10 in the morning. Even though she was lying quite still, the blood continued to flow heavily. She felt that she could not even shout for help, for fear that this exertion of abdominal force would make her bleed even more copiously. She did not have her phone to hand. She was afraid firstly for the life of the baby she was carrying, and then for her own life, with such a loss of blood. She was also worried that her children, whom she had left downstairs, would find her on the floor in a pool of blood, and would be left in alone and in a traumatic state, not know how to contact their father on his flight.
At this point, she invoked our Cardinal, saying, “Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop!” At once, the bleeding stopped. She was able to hurry downstairs and check on her children. The same day, she visited her doctor, who confirmed with an ultrasound scan that Melissa had been cured of her condition. Her placenta was no longer torn, and the bleeding never returned. She at once resumed all her normal activities, and her daughter Gemma was born normally, as were two further children since.
After an initial investigation carried out by the Archdiocese of Chicago, the account of the miracle was submitted to the Holy See in 2018. The theologians studying the case voted unanimously that the healing of Melissa Villalobos was a miracle performed by God through the intercession of Blessed John Henry Newman. The miracle was finally approved by Pope Francis on 13 February 2019, paving the way for the canonisation of our Cardinal in St Peter’s Square on 13 October that year.
Listen to Melissa’s account of the second miracle
Photographs from the events surrounding the canonisation
Video from the canonisation of St John Henry Newman