Newman and St. Philip Neri: The Quest for Sanctity
Jonathan Robinson, C.O.
Most people who frequent the world of the universities, or who read
scholarly books and learned reviews have heard of Cardinal Newman.
His influence and the fecundity of his thought have spread far beyond
Christianity, and many of those who have read his work have no
particular interest in his Catholicism. Some know him as a great
nineteenth century controversialist, others as a theorist on
educational questions; some are attracted by his style, others by his
contribution to the idea of development and to his theories of
belief. Then, of course, there are those for whom Newman is almost
one of the Fathers of the Church, a great Catholic apologist, and a
brilliant expositor and defender of the Faith.
It cannot, however, be said that St. Philip Neri is either widely
known or greatly valued by many people today. The historian may know
something of him, and those Catholics who retain an interest in and
devotion to the Saints of the Calendar may have a dim recollection of
this contemporary of St. Theresa of Avila and of the other Counter-
Reformation Saints. Yet the Counter-Reformation is hardly in great
vogue today, and neither for that matter is the cult of the Saints.
What point is there, then, in trying to understand Newman, about whom
so much is known, by comparing him to someone of whom so much has
The answer to this is, from one point of view, simple. St. Philip
founded the Oratory in Rome towards the end of the sixteenth century,
and Newman was an Oratorian. Consequently, we can say at least that
insofar as the Oratory was important to Newman he was influenced by
St. Philip, and therefore we must know something about St. Philip to
understand at least some aspects of Newman's life.
Dom Placid Murray in his 1 has edited Newman's
Chapter addresses and occasional papers on the Oratorian vocation.
This book establishes that the idea of the Oratory was central to
Newman's life as a Catholic. His introduction, and even more
Newman's own papers, show how carefully Newman decided on how he was
to live his life as a Catholic priest, and how deep his commitment to
the Oratory was. Father Stephen Dessain has said: "It would be hard
to exaggerate the importance of the Oratory for Newman. It was his
chosen vocation; to found it in England was the first commission he
received from the Catholic authorities; it was the framework for the
rest of his long life, and, as has so often been the case with
founders, through it some of his cruellest trials came."2
What was this idea of the Oratory which so influenced Newman? It was
not St. Philip's idea to found a new order or congregation in the
Church. He wanted groups of secular priests living together without
taking vows, priests who would live with no bond but that of charity,
but who would live a life comparable to that of the best religious.
As the Oratory developed each house lived its own separate existence,
and was situated in a town or city with a church of its own. The
work of an Oratory is prayer, preaching and the administration of the
sacraments. The essential thing about an Oratorian vocation is a
call to the life of prayer. This is clear from the Constitutions or
Traditions of the Oratory (what would be called the Rule in a
religious order); it is clear from St. Philip's own teaching; and it
is clear from the lives of all the great Oratorians. So an Oratory
is supposed to be just that _ a place where people pray.
The Oratory, as an institution, is a testimony to the centrality of
the life of prayer, and thus a witness to the reality of God.
Furthermore, a life ordered around this centrality of prayer is an
object lesson that the acknowledgement of God is required for the
obtaining of that happiness and satisfaction everyone is looking for.
The House and Church of the Oratory are supposed to be a center of
prayer, of preaching, of study, and of learned work. Now, you cannot
have a center without stability, without people who are always at the
center to provide the appropriate services, and do the required work.
Thus the idea of stability and of a life at home are central to
Philip's conception. In 1848, Newman wrote:
The Congregation is to be the of the Oratorian. The Italians,
I believe, have no word for home _ nor is it an idea which readily
enters into the mind of a foreigner, at least not so readily as into
the mind of an Englishman. It is remarkable then that the Oratorian
Fathers should have gone out of their way to express the idea by the
metaphorical word or nest, which is used by them almost
St. Philip founded the Oratory, and Newman having discovered the
Oratory began to learn about St. Philip. This seems to be the
historical progression. Once, however, he began to discover St.
Philip he found someone, as we would say today, with whom he could
identify. Philip was born at Florence in 1515 (the same year as St.
Teresa of Avila). Later, near Naples, while working in an uncle's
business (which he was to inherit) he had a religious experience
which left him without interest in secular pursuits. He renounced
his inheritance and moved to Rome. From this time, when he was about
18, until his early 30's, he lived the life of a poor recluse,
earning just enough through tutoring to meet his simple wants.
During this period he spent long hours, even whole nights, in prayer
in the catacombs where the early Christians had buried their dead,
and where they could safely celebrate the mysteries of their
religion. Those dark and silent galleries were for Philip the living
and speaking image of the ages of persecution. Cardinal Newman, in a
litany he wrote, called Philip "Man of primitive times," and in many
respects he does seem more a man of earlier times than one whose lot
was cast amid the splendors and conflicts of the sixteenth century.
Out of those dark and mysterious catacombs, out of the damp and
dangerous corridors under the earth, a light began to shine for
Philip that took possession of him in a way that left physiological
as well as psychological after-effects. From out of the ruins of a
persecuted and devastated Church a light began to shine not only for
Philip, but Philip. When he was 28, in 1544, on the Eve of
Pentecost, while he was praying in the Catacomb of S. Sebastiano, he
had a direct experience of the Holy Spirit in the form of a globe of
fire that lodged in his heart.
Whatever we are to make of this mysterious happening (all the early
biographers do not hesitate to call it a miracle), there can be no
doubting the effects in Philip's own life. He became, in the years
that followed, the restorer and regenerator of the Church in Rome.
It has been said that the work of St. Ignatius and the Society of
Jesus in turning back the Reformation all over Europe would have been
of no avail without the work of Philip at the center of the Church.
At 35, on his confessor's advice, he became a priest. His Oratory
grew out of the confessional where he spent long hours each day. He
began to have spiritual conferences, and lectures on the lives of the
Saints. A room or oratory was built for these gatherings, and the
priests who helped came to be called Oratorians.
Newman tells us that Philip came not to argue, not to berate, not to
condemn: "He put from him monastic rule and authoritative speech, as
David refused the armour of his King _ he would be an ordinary
individual priest as others, and his weapons would be but unaffected
humility and unpretending love."4 But, whatever St. Philip was, he
was anything but ordinary. Pope John Paul II in our own day has
written very movingly about St. Philip and his work. The Pope said
on St. Philip's feast day in 1979:
St. Philip was a man of culture and charity, of study and
organization, of teaching and prayer. For Rome he was a tireless
confessor, a brilliant educator and a friend of all, and particularly
he was an expert counsellor and a delicate director of consciences.
Popes and cardinals, bishops and priests, princes and politicians,
religious and artists, had recourse to him: illustrious persons such
as the historian Cesare Baronio and the famous composer Palestrina,
St. Charles Borromeo and St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Cardinal
Federigo Borromeo confided in his heart, the heart of a father and
But Philip had not begun with these people; he had begun with the
poor and the lonely and the outcast, and so the Holy Father
That poor little room in his apartment was above all the goal of an
immense multitude of humble persons of the people, the suffering, the
disinherited, the outcasts of society, young people, children who
looked to him to receive advice, forgiveness, peace, encouragement,
material and spiritual aid.6
Newman, having come to know Philip as the founder of the Oratory,
came to love him for himself. Yet on the face of it the reason for
the attraction is not obvious. Dwight Culler has argued that Newman
was able to see in St. Philip the incarnation of his educational
ideals, and I think he is correct.7 Philip's sanctity was built on,
or into, the humanism of renaissance Italy. St. Philip, if he had
not become a saint, might well have been a courtier or a philosopher
instead. In his youth, says Father Bacci, one of his first
biographers, he studied philosophy and theology until "he was
reckoned one of the most distinguished scholars in the schools of
Rome." But, when "he had made sufficient advancement in learning, not
for his own use only, but also for the edification of others . . . he
laid his studies aside and applied himself wholly to that science
which is found in the crucifix."8
Philip lived, as Newman himself said of him, when "pride mounted
high, and the sense held rule . . . when medieval winter was
receding, and the summer sun of civilization was bringing into leaf
and flower a thousand forms of luxurious enjoyment; when a new world
of thought and beauty had opened before the human mind, in the
discoveries of classic literature and art."9 Philip saw the dangers
this presented but he also saw that no matter what might be the
methods of others in meeting them, his own method must be that of
mildness and moderation, of patience and a sweet, attractive charm.
"He preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which
he could not stop, of science, literature, art and fashion, and to
sweeten and sanctify what God had made very good and man had
Professor Culler has, I think, shown us the important truth that in
St. Philip, Newman saw the realization of his educational ideal.
But, there remains the question of the nature of the sanctity into
which the learning was to be incorporated. Dean Church, Newman's
Anglican friend, has given us a clue to the answer of this question
in the following passage about Newman's conversion:
At least the Roman Church had not only preserved, but maintained at
full strength through the centuries to our day two things of which
the New Testament was full, and which was characteristic of it _
devotion and self-sacrifice . . . Devotion and sacrifice, prayer and
self-denying charity, in one word sanctity, are at once on the
surface of the New Testament and interwoven with its substance . . .
He turned to where, in spite of every other disadvantage, he thought
he found them. In S. Filippo Neri he could find a link between the
New Testament and progressive civilization.11
"Devotion and self-sacrifice, prayer and self-denying charity, in one
word sanctity . . ." Newman saw these ideals made real in the life
of St. Philip Neri, and St. Philip became his model and inspiration
of sanctity. This devotion to St. Philip, on Newman's part, was no
merely formal acknowledgement of holiness, no mere conventional
recognition of the sanctity of the founder of the Institute to which
he belongs. "As Christians, he writes, we have given ourselves to
Christ, to make this more sure and definite, we have, as Oratorians,
given ourselves to St. Philip _ we are not our own property, but his,
and we must please, not ourselves, but him."12 In addition to this
devotion to St. Philip as the Founder of the Oratory, there was also
a growing into a more personal relationship with, and a very real
sense of dependence on, the saint:
As years go on, I have less sensible devotion and inward life . . . I
more and more wonder at saints. St. Aloysius or St. Francis
Xavier or St. Carlo, are nothing to St. Philip. O Philip gain me
some little portion of thy fervour. I live more and more in the
past, and in hopes that the past may revive in the future.13
It is thus clear that Newman found in the Oratory not only a way in
which to lead his priestly life, but also, in St. Philip, he found a
model in which he could see the realization of his educational and
The next obvious step would be to discuss the success of Newman's
efforts to follow St. Philip's example in his own quest for sanctity;
but before trying to do this we have to make a fairly extensive
detour. This detour is caused by a question we cannot ignore: what,
it will be asked, is the value or relevance of talking about sanctity
in the present juncture of the Church's history? The whole exercise
would seem, from many people's point of view, just pointless. The
very notion of sanctity, it will be said, understood as a striving
after the acquisition of personal virtue is itself under examination
and will probably be extensively revised. It just doesn't matter
whether or not St. Philip influenced Newman. Why waste time then in
drawing historical connections between an obscure sixteenth century
Italian and a nineteenth century Englishman? Is not the whole
exercise a trip down a blind alley?
The person who says we are wasting our time in trying to talk about
Newman's sanctity judged in relation to his model of St. Philip would
probably tell us that no one was interested any more in this kind of
question. He might well point to the fact that twenty years ago, if
you walked into a Catholic bookshop, you would find a section devoted
to the lives of the saints. Today those same shelves, assuming the
Catholic bookshop still exists, are likely to be filled either with
books on sociology of religion, or on Zen, or on various personages
from the Third World. The example of the bookshop is only an outward
sign of the truth that the cult of the saints (including that of our
Lady) has been removed from the consciousness of the ordinary
Catholic. A whole generation of Catholics has grown up who have
never even heard of most of the saints of the calendar.
This situation cannot be blamed on anything the Second Vatican
Council taught. In clear and unambiguous language the Council tells
us that the saints provide us with examples of Christian living at
its highest, and that these saints are to be prayed to for the
benefits we need:
It is most fitting that we love those friends and co-heirs of Jesus
Christ who are also our brothers and outstanding benefactors, and
that we give due thanks to God for them, humbly invoking them, and
having recourse to their prayers, their aid and help in obtaining
from God through his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, our only Redeemer
and Saviour, the benefits we need.14
If it is "most fitting" that we should love the saints and pray to
them, and if it is true that we do not love them and pray to them, it
might be instructive to find out why this is so. The attempt to
understand is in itself a responsibility of reason and of faith. It
is true that to understand is not the same thing as to condone, but
there is no doubt that trying to understand sharpens the statement of
our own case, and improves our own understanding of what we believe
to be true.
There are, I suggest, three aspects of contemporary Catholic thought
that lead to a neglect of the saints. There is first of
all, an anti-historical tendency that results in an undervaluing of
what is individual and unique in experience. Secondly, there is the
present day tendency to equate mental health and sanctity. This
results in the acceptance of psychological rather than ascetical
standards in the direction of life. Finally, there is the ethical or
political current which holds that the traditional Christian virtues
are at best inward looking and irrelevant to the real problems of
life, and at worst are the reinforcers of an unjust social system.
a) . There are many periods in the
history of the Church, and many individuals in the past that do not
seem to mean very much to us. We can take as an example the life and
times of St. Philip himself. The men and women of the sixteenth
century understood St. Philip, but it is clear that we do not relate
to him as did his contemporaries. After all, does not his world seem
very far away _ not only in time (getting on for 400 years) but also,
if you will forgive the word, in relevance? What have those
tremendous Reformation and Counter-Reformation controversies about
grace and free-will, justification and merit, the number of the
sacraments, got to do with us? That great baroque world of splendid
music, of brava figura, of pomp and circumstance seems further away
from us than the world of the Gospels, or even of ancient Greece. A
world that could get so excited about the correct definition of
external imputation _ or otherwise _ of justification is not a world
in which most of us feel much at home. This has nothing to do with
the question of the intrinsic value of the discussion; I am merely
trying to say what I think is true, that few of us have much
immediate empathy with the Rome of the Counter-Reformation.
The contemporary Catholic method of dealing with this apparent lack
of relevance is to try to strip away what are variously called
historical accidents, or perhaps accretions. What is historical,
positive, contingent, factual is felt to be inconsistent with a pure
and rational religion. Now, for better or worse, Catholicism is not
like that. Newman said that to be deep in history is to cease to be
a Protestant. He meant that once you begin to see the Church as a
living historical entity, then the Protestant view of a trans-
temporal, disincarnate Christianity would have to be given up. If we
could extend Newman's thought we could say that to forget about
history is to cease to be a Catholic. It is in history that we see
the merging together of the divine and the human, it is in history we
see the prolongation of the particularity of the incarnation and the
cross. It is the sheer stubborn particularity of what actually
happened that sets barriers to our passion for generalizing, for
removing differences, for reducing events to general laws.
The saints, after Christ himself, present the ultimate barrier to
this desire of the understanding to codify, to reduce to a system, to
reject the given in the interests of theory, to categorize the human
personality into neatly packaged entities. To insist on history and
its importance is to insist that fact comes before idea, reality
before thought, existence before essence. It was in history that our
religion was conceived and was born. It was in a person and from a
person that it had its origin, that it took its life, that it has its
meaning. "Since the world did not know God through wisdom," says St.
Paul, "it has known about him through the folly of the cross, the
folly of what we preach."15 St. Philip, and each of the rest of the
saints, lived Christ Jesus and him crucified in his own particular,
existential and historical way. Each of the saints is a living
reminder of the uniqueness of the incarnation, and of the folly of
the cross. Each of the saints becomes in his own way that stone of
offence that was Jesus Christ, that stone against which men stumble
and fall when they try to ignore it. When we ignore the saints we
are not coming closer to Christ. On the contrary, we are showing we
have yet to grasp the reality and significance of his Church as the
continuation in time of the glory of the incarnation.
b) . Traditionally, a saint has been
viewed as someone who sought perfection, and to a large measure
succeeded. Usually he is someone who lived the evangelical counsels
of poverty, chastity and obedience in an heroic way. Even when it
was not the case of a vowed life, the saint used to be looked on as
someone who lived a life in which mortification and penance played a
large part. The ascetical life was undertaken in order to achieve
perfection. The conceiving of the Christian life in terms of
perfection goes back to our Lord's words recorded in St. Matthew's
Gospel: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is
The Second Vatican Council, once again, is quite clear that everyone
in the Church is called to holiness. "All the faithful," says the
Council in unambiguous language, "are invited and obliged to holiness
and the perfection of their state of life."17 To talk about
perfection or holiness is to introduce the idea of a standard, a norm
or an ideal into our awareness. And, once we introduce the idea of a
standard, norm or ideal into our existence there is at least the
possibility that we may fail to meet it in one way or the other.
Perfection or holiness can then become, so it is argued, a block or a
burden to the flowering of our human nature. The very idea of saying
no to ourselves in the interests of something higher is seen as a
sure way of producing inhibitions, complexes, double-think,
hypocrisy, self-deception and breakdowns.
It is a strange fact that many people in the Church today argue
against striving for sanctity in the same way Luther did. It is a
strange fact not so much because Protestant thinking has affected
Catholic thought, but because Luther's argument against the ascetical
life was based on theological considerations. He thought that
mysticism and the spiritual life were founded on Pelagian or semi-
Pelagian presuppositions. Nonetheless what he said has a curiously
modern ring to it. In his he wrote
that "The saints of the Papists are like to the Stoics, who imagined
such wise men as in the world were never yet to be found. And by
this foolish and wicked persuasion . . . the schoolmen brought both
themselves and others without number in (horrible) desperation."18
I think it would be wrong to deny that the quest for holiness has its
dangers, and that it can lead to abuses. Yet, there is a tendency
nowadays to look on the failures rather than the successes.
Perfection can be viewed as an abstract word to be imposed on a human
personality with little respect for the differences and values which
distinguish one person from another. The result can then be a group
of people who are recognizably the same. Yet these people, often
enough, possess little of the interest or individuality which they
once had before they began their training. Thus it was said (without
irony) of the members of a great religious order in the Church that
"they meet without affection and part without regret." The self-
conscious striving after holiness has its dangers. People today have
a sense that they do not want to end up as people who, because they
have tried to follow our Lord in a serious way, are less than human;
they do not want to be turned into individuals who are cold,
forbidding and austere with very little that is lovable about them in
any ordinary sense of the word.
St. Philip and St. Teresa of Avila seem to have been conscious of
this danger. St. Philip took great pains not to edify people in any
conventional sense of that word, and St. Teresa once shocked a pious
visitor who was introduced into her presence, and found her eating a
partridge. To his protests that this was hardly what was expected of
a saint she is supposed to have fixed him with an amused glance as
she replied: "There is a time for partridge and a time for penance."
Saints we believe, and believe correctly, should not be less than
One does not want to be simplistic, but surely we have to remind
ourselves of the old Latin tag . The effort
to love and serve God may have at times produced crackpots or
zombies, but it also produced the saints. Because something can be
badly used it does not follow it should not be used at all.
Similarly, it does not follow, because the search for perfection has
traditionally involved mortification and penance, that these should
be given up for fear they produce a strain on the psyche of modern
man that he is unable to bear, or turn him into a stereotyped amalgam
of a nexus of abstract virtues.
No one, either as an Anglican or as a Catholic, was firmer on the
necessity of the ascetical side of Christianity than was Newman. In
this he showed himself as a true son of St. Philip. Newman exposed,
it is true, the hypocrisy of apparently religious people, and had
very hard things to say about self-deceit and secret faults, but
nonetheless "it was he who popularized in English the word
detachment."19 And detachment for Newman means the self-denial that
is necessary to live a Christian life.
A great saint, St. Philip Neri, said that if he had a dozen really
detached men, he should be able to convert the world. To be detached
is to be loosened from every tie which binds the soul to the earth,
to be dependent on nothing sublunary, to lean on nothing temporal; it
is simply to care simply nothing for what other men choose to say or
think of us, or do to us; to go about our own work, because it is our
duty, as soldiers go to battle, without a care for the consequences;
to account credit, honour, name, easy circumstances, comfort, human
affections, just nothing at all, when any religious obligation
involves the sacrifice of them.20
The psychological argument that striving for perfection is inhibiting
and repressive only gains cogency by concentrating on the failures.
To suggest that St. Philip, for example, was inhibited or blocked by
the effort to strive after what he knew he did not as yet possess is
to deny the plain evidence of history. The same can surely be said
of most of the great saints. There are some who appear to manifest
one set of virtues rather than others, but to say of St. John of the
Cross, or St. Teresa of Avila, precisely saints who insisted most on
mortification, that it destroyed their humanity is to prefer theory
the science of the saints has suffered another attack in recent
years, an attack which is in some ways the completion of the one just
mentioned. Rather than arguing that the traditional doctrine of
sanctity is psychologically harmful, the modern critics, many of them
Catholics, maintain in effect that it is either useless, or socially
harmful. Mortification, patience and the rest are associated in the
minds of many today with an outmoded, a pietistic and inward-looking
vision of Christianity; a Christianity that is ill-equipped to deal
with the great issues of war and peace, of nuclear disarmament, and
of starvation on a worldwide scale. Furthermore, so we often hear
nowadays, it is precisely the Church's concentration on virtues such
as patience, endurance and long-suffering which has produced
generations of Catholics who are more interested in themselves than
in the world in which they live; Catholics who are timid and
irresolute when faced with the challenges of modern life; Catholics
who have used their faith to band together so as to hide and defend
themselves against the harsh demands of the real world.
Nietzsche wrote that "there is nothing very odd about lambs disliking
large birds of prey, but there is no reason to hold it against large
birds of prey that they carry off lambs."21 Morality, and Christian
morality in particular, Nietzsche thought, was the product of people
who are lamb-like in their weakness and resent the strong. "So the
oppressed, the down-trodden and the violated whisper among themselves
with the wily vengefulness of the impotent"22 and take refuse in a
morality that is founded on resentment. Such a morality teaches the
importance of patience, of forgiveness and respect for others. But
it teaches these virtues not because they will help us in our
striving for the good, but because they will hobble the strong and
make the world safer for the weak.
This kind of thinking is much older than Nietzsche. It finds an
early and articulate expression in Plato's portrait of Thrasymachus
in the Since at least that time it has been a constant
theme among those who wonder about the nature and destiny of man.
But it is only one theme and until fairly recently it would have been
thought to be a theme that runs counter to the Christian view of
life. Nowadays, however, the traditional virtues are often looked
upon, especially by those concerned with peace and justice, as part
and parcel of an amalgam of oppressive social and political concepts.
Patience, long-suffering, modesty, are at best irrelevant to the real
problems of life, and at worst the reinforcers of an unjust social
system. It is clear that with this view of existence there is little
room for paying attention to people whose whole lives have been
devoted to the cultivation of these very virtues; whose whole lives
have been dominated by what would nowadays be called an "otherworldly
Once again, we cannot deal with all the implications of this sort of
criticism. Its roots seem to me to lie in a view of life
incompatible with historic Catholicism. Our faith tells us that "we
are wanderers and sojourners here, as all our fathers were" and that
"here we have no abiding city."23 It may, for a time, be more fun
without the four last things, but what is Catholicism without death,
judgment, heaven and hell? Whatever it is, it is not Catholicism. I
think we have to admit that sometimes faith has been used as a
crutch. I would add, first of all, that this proves nothing, because
everyone in fact needs crutches. Surely we have had enough of the
Ubermensch in our time, whether he comes in Nietzsche's garb, or with
the rags of a theology of evolution. Secondly, though, it is the
saints, and those who have led saint-like lives, who have been most
effective as human beings. The modern age confuses gentleness with
weakness and ineffectiveness. But, when the chips are down and
reality has to be faced, it is those who have tried to put God first
who do not succumb. I have recently been reading Edith Stein's book
on St. John of the Cross,24 a book she left incomplete on her desk
when the S.S. came to the Carmel in Echt to take her away forever.
Evelyn Waugh has written a beautiful passage on this holy Carmelite
which still has a lesson for us:
Her spirit shines out, very clear and lonely; a brilliant
intelligence; a pure, disciplined will; a single motive power the
grace of God. The circumstances of her death touch us for they lie
at the heart of contemporary disaster. The aimless impersonal
wickedness which could drag a victim from the holy silence of Carmel
and drive her, stripped and crowded, to the gas chamber and the
furnace, still lurks in the darkness. But Edith's death is perhaps
an irrelevant horror. Her life was completed in Carmel. She did not
sit waiting on God. She went out alone and by the God-given light of
her intelligence and strength of purpose, she found him.25
That is the sort of thing sanctity is about, a daily dying to self in
order to find the Lord within; a daily dying to self that can prepare
our humanity to triumph over the worst that man can do; a daily dying
to self so that in St. Paul's words, words that St. Philip made his
own: "I became all things to all men, that by all means I might save
Our age may have little time for sanctity, but that is a judgment on
our age, not on the saints.
Let us grant, then, that the quest for sanctity is still relevant in
the last part of the twentieth century. Let us grant _ as we surely
must _ that it was relevant to John Henry Newman in the nineteenth.
He believed that, as the old catechism formulated it, to know, love
and serve God was the one thing needful. Let us grant with the
Second Vatican Council that we can learn from the saints in our own
quest for sanctity. If we work within this framework we will see
that there are many modes in which the saints can inspire us.
Chesterton said, (before the widespread neglect of the saints
appeared) that each age spontaneously gravitates to the saints who
exhibit the qualities the age needs. I would be prepared to argue at
great length that St. Philip Neri is such a saint for our own age,
and that we would do well, as Pope John Paul has suggested, to take
him as our guide and model. It is clear in his own quest for
sanctity, John Henry Newman take St. Philip as such a guide.
How far did he succeed in following him?
Before I say any more, let me emphasize that I think Newman to be a
man cast in an heroic mold. Morally, intellectually and spiritually
he outshines many of those closest to him. Whether he is canonized
or not his example of patient suffering and loyalty to the Church
will remain an inspiration and example. But was he a saint?
I think it is clear enough, from what I have said so far, that
Newman's search for holiness was undertaken under the inspiration of
St. Philip, and within the framework of an Oratorian vocation. The
consideration of his sanctity will have to include his fidelity to
this vocation as one of its aspects. Furthermore, if it is true that
the Oratorian vocation lies close to the heart of his search for
sanctity, then it would seem to me that he will have to be shown to
have been a superlatively good Oratorian, a superlatively good
Oratorian who succeeded in practicing at least some of St. Philip's
virtues in an heroic degree. It is here my own difficulties begin.
Dom Placid Murray in says that "though in a
sense Newman shared the Oratorian venture with his
companions, yet he revealed himself in the Santa Croce papers as the
thinker, the leader gifted with a far-seeing sense of strategy . . .
none of his companions could really be called a co-founder with him
of the English Oratory."27 Part of Newman's work as founder was a
revision of the Rule of the Oratory for England . . . "I considered,"
he wrote later, "that the lapse of three hundred years, changing
external circumstances, made changes necessary in the religious
instruments which are their correlatives . . ."28 One of these
changes was anything but minor and concerned a paragraph which stated
that Oratorians were not supposed to hear the confessions of nuns
(), nor were they to have the care of seminaries or
universities. Newman added to this: .29 In
other words, given a grave necessity, the Fathers, because of
changing times, could engage in work the original Rule had forbidden.
In the spring of 1851, Cardinal Cullen opened negotiations with
Newman with a view to securing his services as the head of the new
Catholic University in Ireland. Before the summer was out he had
agreed to accept the position, and to give several years of his life
to launching the new project. He asked that permission be secured
from Pius IX to be absent from his Oratory in Birmingham (which had
just been installed in its new house in Edgbaston) for such periods
each year as the task required. Newman remained as Rector until
November 1858, although his tenure of the office during the last year
was purely nominal.
The reasons for his resignation from the University, the success or
failure of the Irish project, are not germane here. In writing of
Newman's leaving Dublin, Father Dessain says: "When Newman grasped
that (the University) was to be a purely Irish affair, and still more
when he found that his presence in his own Oratory, , was urgently required, he returned to Birmingham . . ."30
I want now to ask, if Newman's first duty lay in Birmingham, then why
did he ever leave it? It is clear from the example of St. Philip and
of the Oratorian tradition itself that what the Benedictines call
is an essential part of the Oratorian way of life. This
stability was one of the major means of inculcating an apostolic
spirit of charity into the Institute and each of its members, for it
is mutual charity _ rather than vows, as for Religious _ that binds
the Oratory together. Newman himself was, of course, aware of this,
as can be seen in everything he wrote about the Oratory being based
on the idea of a family. In a Chapter Address, written ironically
enough in Dublin, he wrote the following:
(The vocation of an Oratorian) is to a , and I may say,
to a particular body. Regulars may consider themselves wanderers
upon the face of the earth; such is not a Father of the Oratory. In
spite of that detachment, which St. Philip esteemed so highly, he
bids us, in his rule, "bind ourselves more closely to each other in
love," by "daily intercourse," and "daily knowledge of one another's
ways," and even by the very look of "familiar countenances."
Accordingly, each house is said to be a "family," and the Superior is
In going to Dublin Newman secured the proper legal permissions. The
very fact he asked for these permissions, however, prompts the
question as to how high up the list of his priorities was the "daily
intercourse," "the daily knowledge of each other's ways" and the
"familiar countenances." If Newman's sanctity is to be determined in
relation to his Oratorianism, then his fidelity to the Institute,
when other interests were at stake, will have to be considered.
This leads naturally to the next question. One of the reasons that
Newman's presence was required at home was the existence of a
monumental and singularly nasty battle between Newman's Oratory at
Birmingham and the one he had set up in London under Father Faber's
leadership. The origins of the row with the London Oratory are to be
found, strangely enough, in the very paragraph of the Rule to which
we have already referred, that same paragraph to which Newman had had
appended the words The Fathers, this
paragraph says, are not to hear the confessions of nuns. The London
Fathers were scarcely in their new home when Cardinal Wiseman (their
own Archbishop) wrote a long letter to them asking them to do just
that. Wiseman pointed out the good the Fathers could do, and Faber
felt he could not honestly refuse this request. The Fathers differed
as to whether it was lawful or not to accede to the Cardinal's
wishes. It could even be argued that if Newman's clause allowed him
to be in Dublin, then perhaps the same thing applied to them. In any
case, they referred the matter to Propaganda in Rome. They asked
first for an interpretation of the Rule on this matter or for
permission, if necessary, to relax it.
The London Fathers maintained that Newman knew of their application.
Newman later said he thought the application was only to the Roman
house of the Oratory which, as such, would have no legal force.
London, because of Wiseman's request and not because of their own
preferences, applied for the permission. Birmingham did not want the
permission, and was afraid it would apply to them.
The row developed to extraordinary proportions. I think the fairest
summary is to be found in Ronald Chapman's book, 32
and there is much to be said legally on both sides. The question,
however, cannot be judged by legal criteria alone. The promoters of
Newman's Cause will have to show that Newman's violence, and that
seems to me the only word for it, a violence that caught the London
Fathers completely off guard, was prompted by a desire to safeguard
the integrity of the Oratory. Charity does contain an aspect of
justice, and some saints have been called to show the justice of
charity, and others its mercy. But, as Cardinal Capecelatro, the
nineteenth-century Oratorian biographer of St. Philip, says: "While
charity is ever in substance the same, it sometimes assumes a form so
gentle, and tender and loving, that it seems almost a new virtue, or
rather a special outward and visible perfection of the virtue."33
Newman certainly did not exhibit this merciful side of charity in the
present instance. This does not mean he was never merciful; but when
we consider his long life of controversy, a life in which he gave as
good as he got, we will have to conclude, if he exercised charity in
an heroic degree, then he was called by God to show the justice of
charity and not its mercy. Academic controversy is not noted for its
kindness, and to be on the wrong side of Newman over a matter of
principle was to receive very harsh treatment indeed. Hampden,
Kingsley and Father Faber could all attest to this.
Father Faber and the London Fathers may have been everything the
defenders of Newman say they were (although I have to say I do not
think they have been fairly treated in recent years), but it is about
time someone made the point that the denigration of Father Faber and
his Oratory does not prove the sanctity of Newman. All it shows is
that Newman was presented with a difficult situation, with a trial.
With the opening of the Cause, though, the question is no longer the
beastliness or otherwise of Father Faber, but the quality of Newman's
response to the difficulty; did Newman handle the matter heroically,
or just well? Did he handle it badly or unjustly?
The row got out of hand, at least in part, because Newman was in
Dublin. At one point, it seems clear the London Fathers felt Newman
was too busy to bother. In any case, Newman was not living as an
Oratorian. It is clear he realized this,34 no doubt he agonized
about it, but the fact remains that he judged that the chance of
founding a University took precedence over his Oratorian commitments.
I am convinced that Newman's loss of moral authority over the London
Fathers is directly connected with the Dublin venture. It might even
be suggested that Newman had a bad conscience about being in Dublin;
certainly, he was uneasy about it. People who are uneasy about their
own line of conduct are wont to act badly when others step out of
Furthermore, Newman did not like Faber, and never had. It is also
clear that Faber in turn both idolized and resented Newman. Faber
must have been a pain in the neck for Newman. Once again, though,
how did Newman handle it? He didn't handle it very badly; but then
again, he didn't handle it very well either. In his autobiographical
writings he speaks of "the thousand whisperings against me at the
London Oratory."35 I have argued in the past that if the
justification for Newman's letters and attitude towards the London
House was the ultimate good of the Oratory, then he ought to have
defended his own Oratory and its reputation. To this I have been
told that Newman was aware of the good the London Oratory was doing
and was therefore unwilling to attack it in public. If this is true,
then his silence was indeed heroic, although it meant the slowing
down of his own Oratory and resulted in no new Oratories being
founded. There is a factor in all this that has not been worked out
or properly identified. Chapman may be correct when he says that
there was an element of jealousy on Newman's part at the success of
the London House. In any case, there are times when Newman's
attitude seems more like a good old-fashioned case of the sulks than
anything resembling the heroic practice of charity _ even charity
understood as justice.
St. Philip was insistent that his sons should not accept
ecclesiastical honors and dignities, and forbade them to accept any
such promotion unless ordered by the Pope himself. is a book written before 1749 which sums up about two
hundred years of Oratorian history and practice. It was written when
the Oratory was still a well-known and influential Institute in the
Church and before its rapid decline in the nineteenth century. In it
the author has the following to say about the avoidance of
I consider it a great happiness and a signal prerogative of the
priests of the Oratory that they are far removed from (the) great
danger which ecclesiastical dignities bring with them, being unable
to aspire after them, or to receive them, except in obedience to the
sovereign Pontiff, both in order to remain deeply rooted in humility,
and to imitate our holy Father St. Philip, who with such constancy
always refused the dignities, canonries, mitres, and even the Roman
Purple, so often offered to him.36
Newman knew this book well, and there are echoes of it in the As Rector of the University, so the evidence
shows, he was offered a titular-bishopric. The matter was public and
he was given presents suitable to his new state (including two mitres
from the London Oratory), and was ceremonially treated as a bishop-
elect in the Cathedral in Birmingham. But the mandate for the
consecration never came, and Newman had no use for his new finery.
It seems that Cardinal Cullen was of the opinion that one mitre in
any diocese was enough. The whole episode does little credit to
anyone, and is often adduced as another example of Newman's heroic
resignation, as well as of the moral turpidity of anyone who crossed
him. No one has asked, though, so far as I know, why Newman agreed
to the suggestion in the first place. St. Philip would not have been
pleased. Of course, Newman did not want the mitre for ambitious
reasons, but because it would give him clout as Rector of the
University. Yet if the Rectorship led to the Episcopacy this is only
one more proof he should never have gone to Dublin in the first
No doubt it will be said that these are counsels of perfection and so
imply that I am being unrealistic, and too harsh on Newman. But is
not this precisely the point? We are supposed to be talking about
the sanctity of an Oratorian, and I am suggesting that we have to ask
if he acted as a saintly should. The Blessed Sebastian
Valfre of the Turin Oratory, much to the displeasure of all
concerned, refused the Archbishopric of his native city, and what is
more, made his refusal stick. There have been lots of Oratorian
Bishops and Cardinals, but there is only one beatus among them. The
Blessed Juvenal Ancina spent three years trying to run away, at times
quite literally, to escape his promotion. He had known St. Philip,
and knew what he would have said. Did Newman even think of saying
no? Nothing in his autobiographical writings suggests he did so.
Finally, there is the question of Newman's temperament. We are told
that St. Philip was never troubled with morbid melancholy, but was
bright with a serene and sunny gladness. Yet, says Cardinal
Capecelatro, his life was not one that would naturally tend to make
him cheerful. "He lived in evil days; he was always amidst the
throng of the evil and the sick, his own illnesses were many and
severe; he had his full measure of persecution and wrong. Yet,
Philip saw God always and in everything, and hence flowed his abiding
peace of soul, and the cheerfulness which nothing earthly could
Once again it is not clear that Newman managed to be cheerful in
anything like St. Philip's style. The testimony is at best
conflicting. It seems to be the case that Newman was cursed with
shyness that often made him tongue-tied and aloof. With those he
liked and trusted he was evidently irresistible and spread good cheer
to those around him. But even in his own house he was sometimes
reduced to writing notes to people in order to say he was sorry he
couldn't find anything to say to them at recreation. Furthermore,
there are accounts which suggest that a strain of heaviness or gloom
was an element in his makeup. The famous judgment of Baron von Hügel
is well known and is usually met with an attack on the Baron.
Nonetheless, attacks are not going to change the fact that the Baron
could praise Newman, but found him depressing; and in this he was not
alone. "I used to wonder," he wrote in 1921, "in my intercourse with
John Henry Newman, how one so good, and who had made so many
sacrifices to God, could be so depressing." This judgment was not
prompted by an inability to appreciate the Cardinal:
A temperament . . . like Cardinal Newman's who . . . has been little
understood, much persecuted, has nearly always been in the right and
with a mind a dozen times deeper and broader than his opponents: but
who also had a most impressionable temperament, easily affected by
the pricks which at the end even flies seemed to give him: a
temperament to which he more or less succumbed.38
In another place the Baron spoke of "this sad and sombre character"
in reference to Newman.
Newman was what Hegel called a world historical figure.
Intellectually, and in so many other ways, he dwarfs all those around
him. But was he a saint? I do not know, and await the Church's
judgment. His love and devotion to St. Philip are beyond question,
but Newman's sanctity, if indeed it was vouchsafed to him, was in his
own unique mold. Perhaps, that is the way it was.
1Placid Murray, O.S.B., (Dublin, 1969).
2C. S. Dessain (of the Birmingham Oratory),
(London and Edinburgh, 1966), p. 93.
3Murray, , p. 192.
4J. H. Newman, , "Duties of the Church
Towards Knowledge" (Image Books, 1959), p. 239.
5Pope John Paul II, , in
, weekly edition, June 8, 1979.
7A. Dwight Culler, , "The Religion of Philosophy" (New Haven, 1955),
8Pietro Giacomo Bacci (of the Roman Oratory), , first published in 1622. English translation and Edition by
F. I. Antrobus (of the London Oratory) (London, 1902), p. 19. (Cited
by Culler, , p. 242.)
9, p. 238.
10, p. 239.
11R. W. Church, , II (London, 1897), pp. 470-4.
Cited in Dessain, op. cit., p. 86.
12Newman's Oratory Papers No. 26, in Murray, , pp. 347-8.
13J. H. Newman, (London and New York,
1955), p. 249. Quoted in Murray, op. cit., p. 108.
14 ed. Flannery (New York, 1975).
Constitution on the Church, No. 50.
151 Cor. 1:21.
17 The Church, No. 42.
18Cited in John Passmore, (London, 1970),
19C. S. Dessain, (Dublin, 1977), p. 127.
20J. H. Newman, , Vol. III (London, 1903), p.
21, Sec. XIII.
23Cf. Lev. 25:23; Heb. 13:14.
24Edith Stein, , tr. H. Graef (London,
25Evelyn Waugh, , "Edith Stein" (London, 1977), p.
261 Cor. 9:22.
27Murray, , p. 93.
28Newman's Oratory Paper No. 25, in Murray, ., p. 339.
Romae 1847. Decretum LXX.
30C. S. Dessain, , p. 107.
31Newman's Oratory Papers No. 25, in Murray, op. cit., p. 329.
32Ronald Chapman, Father Faber, "Troubles in the Oratory," Ch. X
(Westminster: Maryland, 1961).
33Alfonso, Cardinal Capecelatro, "St.
Philip's School of Christian Perfection," New Edition, Ch. XI
(London, 1926), p. 231.
34"There can be no doubt at all, for instance, that my own present
position in Dublin is distinctly incompatible with the Oratory, nor
should I have taken it if left to myself. At first I wished to be a
mere Prefect of Studies, and at the very time of my appointment at
Rome I was writing to Dr. Cullen to see that I was made nothing more
than Pro-Rector. And I felt, as you know, that I could not be absent
from the Oratory at all, after my appointment without an express
permission from the Holy See to that effect. What I have observed in
my own case I wish to apply to others. For this reason I consider
that any occupation which carries a Father often or for a
considerable time from the Oratory, is inconsistent with its spirit .
. ." Oratory Papers 24 and 25. Murray, , p. 306.
35"First in 1853, came my mistake of asking for Dalgairns from the
London House; then my going to Ireland, in order to impinge on Dr.
Cullen, while Dalgairns intrigued at home in my absence, then the
great plot of him, Faber, etc. _ and my going to Rome _ and the
treatment I met at Propaganda. Then the thousand whisperings against
me at the London Oratory, which have succeeded in prejudicing the
Catholic body to a great extent against me." , p. 256.
from the Italian and abridged by F. I. Antrobus (London, 1881), p.
37Alfonso, Cardinal Capecelatro, op. cit., p. 247.
38Michael de la Bedoyere, (London,
1951), p. 32.
, C.O. earned an M.A. from McGill
University and a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh where he
subsequently taught philosophy. After serving as secretary to
Cardinal Leger in Montreal for four years he taught philosophy at
McGill University for many years. Father Robinson organized the
first Oratory in Canada in 1975. He also served on the first
Historical Commission for the cause of Newman's canonization.
This article was taken from the Winter 1989 issue of "Faith & Reason". Subscriptions
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