John Henry Newman was not without the witness and companionship of others in his own conversion.
The account of Blessed John Henry Newman's dramatic decision to enter the Roman Catholic Church in 1845 forms a great piece of 19th century English history. Newman himself gives much account of his great conversion story, above all in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. The stature of the man, his monumental intellect, and his radical courage in becoming Catholic might lead us to think that he was an isolated man. In fact, Newman's courage was supported by a group of younger friends who accompanied him into the Church.
When Newman was fifteen years old he experienced a profound personal encounter with Christ that was decisive for his whole life, a conversion experience which was at the root of his lifelong adherence to Christ. He has described it as an inward gift of insight that was in a sense "solitary" — an awareness of the decisive importance of the relationship between God and his own soul. Then Newman began his long and famous journey from evangelical (Calvinist) Christianity to the Oxford Movement (which sought to rediscover and reestablish the apostolic roots of the Anglican Church) to his ultimate conviction that the Church of England had separated itself from the fullness of the Catholic Church.
Newman made it clear that he felt the Church of Rome to be foreign to his sensibilities, that he saw no place for his talents within it, and that he did not "like" what he knew of its ways and manners.
Newman's motives for conversion to the Catholic Church were clearly rooted in the depths of his own conscience, as well as in a long historic and doctrinal investigation, and a difficult period of personal spiritual growth. In his struggle against doctrinal relativism in the Anglican Church he had allies and companions within the vigorous Oxford Movement, but his decision to join the Roman Catholic Church seemed almost to be a lonely leap in the dark. This was part of the special heroism of Newman's conversion. In correspondence from the critical years 1839-1845, Newman made it clear that he felt the Church of Rome to be foreign to his sensibilities, that he saw no place for his talents within it, and that he did not "like" what he knew of its ways and manners. He was English from head to toe, and leaving the English Church meant losing friends and losing an influential position at Oxford where he seemed to be doing so much good.
Still, Newman was not without the witness and companionship of others in his own conversion. When the Catholic question led him to withdraw from Anglican ministry in 1842 and retire to the village of Littlemore, he did not go alone. He gathered a small group of younger men into a kind of community of prayer and study, among whom were John Dalgaims, Richard Stanton, E. S. Bowles, and Ambrose Saint John. These men were all fascinated by Catholicism, and Newman initially tried to hold them back from making a rash decision. But once Dalgaims took the step on September 27, 1845, the others followed: Newman's beloved lifelong friend Ambrose Saint John on October 2, and then Newman himself with Stanton and Bowles on October 9. All four would become Oratorian priests and would support one another over the years in opening up "the Catholic way" in England for many who would follow over the next century and a half.
For all his great probity and profound interiority, Newman needed these friends to help him take the great step into the fullness of the Catholic Faith.
John Janaro "Blessed John Henry Newman." Magnificat (August, 2017).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
John Janaro is Associate Professor Emeritus of Theology at Christendom College. He is a Catholic theologian, and a writer, researcher, and lecturer on issues in religion and culture. He is the author of Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy and The Created Person and the Mystery of God: The Significance of Religion in Human Life. He is married to Eileen Janaro and has five children.Copyright © 2017 Magnificat
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