Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Newman's Big Move

The story might've gotten lost in the heat of the campaign's final days (at least, on these shores), but over the weekend the remaining remains of John Henry Newman were transferred to the Birmingham Oratory in expectation of the cardinal-convert's beatification, which is expected at some point over the next year or two.

After a two-day vigil before the reliquary (left) containing the intact pieces taken from Newman's grave -- most importantly, a lock of his hair and a piece of linen marked with his blood -- the remains were placed in a side-chapel until a planned sarcophagus is completed and his beatification is secured.

Royals and prelates of all stripes might've converged to hail Newman over the course of the vigil, but the climactic liturgy for the transfer of the remains was preached by the postulator of his cause, the provost of the Birmingham shrine Fr Paul Chavasse:
[A] great and holy man is honoured today. We keep this Sunday as the Feast of All Saints and in doing so we honour all the holy men and women of every age and place now with God in Heaven. This celebration therefore teaches us, if it teaches us anything, that holiness is what we are all called to show forth. It is not the preserve of the few, not even the vocation of the many; it is the call given to us all without exception. The Gospel we have just heard tells us of the Beatitudes – it lists for us the graces and virtues, the attributes and behaviour we must manifest if we are to be recognisably on the way to being holy. Hearing the Beatitudes on this feast should make us reflect as to whether this is a description of my life today. Is it a more accurate picture of me today than it was this day last year? Do I at least recognise in it a list of the things I struggle to be, want to be, with Christ as my guide and with His grace transforming me? If we take our Christian vocation seriously, if we truly want to become what Christ calls us to be, then the Beatitudes must forever remain the foundation charter for our lives. We should not say: "This could be me" but "This will be me", even if not completely here on earth, then at least after Purgatory has done its job and I am with God in heaven. We do know of course that even here on earth there are those who show forth the life of the Beatitudes to a high degree. Cardinal Newman himself wrote of them as the ones who "have set up a standard before us of truth, of magnanimity, of holiness, of love". They are "raised up to be monuments and lessons, they remind us of God, they introduce us into the unseen world, they teach us what Christ loves....". In 1991 the late Pope John Paul II recognised that this was true of John Henry Newman himself, and, in declaring the Cardinal "Venerable" - that is "able to be venerated" - he was saying that this great Englishman had indeed lived the Beatitudes, the virtues of the Christian life to an heroic degree. Not to perfection, of course not, but to a degree quite out of the ordinary – that is what a hero is – and that his example is worthy of being imitated by us. "A Saint in the making" who already calls others to aspire to a similar state of life.

Some may say that this role of Cardinal Newman rests on all his life's work: his writings, his sermons, the encouragement and advice he gave to others in his letters, his tireless work for educating the laity, his service of the poor here in Birmingham – the list goes on and all of it is true. We don't need physical remains in order to be inspired by a man like that. And yet: despite it all the human heart still longs for the visible, for that special tangible reminder of the one who has touched and shaped our lives for the better, whether it is Cardinal Newman or someone else whom we love or hold in veneration – how we will treasure that particular photograph, that special letter, and, yes, that lock of hair. But that said, it is as well that the Church's process does not depend on the presence of the physical remains of those she advances as her canonised saints. Those of us who were present at Rednal just a month ago, when the Cardinal's grave was opened, will never forget the range of emotions through which we passed: Bewilderment that the "shallow grave" reported in 1890, should now be eight feet deep; frustration that foot after foot of earth revealed precisely nothing; worry that perhaps after all and incredibly we might be in the wrong spot; shock at what little was eventually found, and then at the end and most strangely, a sense of the rightness of what had transpired, a feeling of peace, peace of mind that after all Cardinal Newman's fondest wishes had actually been fulfilled. That experience shows too that even after 118 years since he died Cardinal Newman still wanted to teach us a lesson. What is it?

It is surely the lesson the month of November speaks to us about: it is the lesson that our common end, be we who we may, is death and decay and the dissolution of all things. The month begins with All Saints and All Souls: we will all be swept up into that great mass of all the faithful departed, and we hope to become, sooner or later, one with the saints of God. But November ends with the Feast of Christ the King – to remind us who it is we must love and serve, to remind us whose is the Kingdom to which we truly belong, to remind us whose gentle and all persuasive rule calls us from the transitoriness of this life to the glory of the life of the Resurrection. That path to the Kingdom is not always easy: as Cardinal Newman himself wrote: "All God's providences, all God's dealings with us, all his judgments, mercies, warnings, deliverances, tend to peace and repose as their ultimate issue ... after our souls' anxious travail; after the birth of the spirit; after trial and temptation; after sorrow and pain; after daily dyings to the world; after daily risings unto holiness; at length comes that 'rest which remaineth unto the people of God'. After the fever; after weariness and sicknesses; fightings and despondings, languor and fretfulness; struggling and failing, struggling and succeeding; after all the changes and chances of this troubled unhealthy state, at length comes death, at length the white throne of God, at length the Beatific Vision." The lesson we must learn is that, as the Cardinal also said: "He knows what He is about", and that life's trials and difficulties, its joys and its beauty all have the object of shaping us to be friends with God, to be at one with Our Lord: this is the aim and purpose of life. That is what John Henry Newman put into practice his whole life-long; it is what he taught others to do, it is what he is calling us to do today. Cardinal Newman has left us but few earthly remains as focal points for our devotion, as if, and quite explicitly, to point us to that higher goal – as a son of St Philip should – to lead us away from himself and, as he put it in his hymn to St Philip, "towards the bright palace where our God is present throned in high heaven." That is what we would want for us as for himself, and the poignancy of his all but empty grave speaks loudly of it.
In late September, the Holy See announced that the scheduled vote of the resident experts at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on a proffered miracle for Newman's beatification was being delayed, citing a need for more time for the panel to reach its decision.

Yet in something that not a few might see as a miracle all its own, no less than The Times ran in its pages the prayer for Newman's beatification:
Eternal Father, You led John Henry Newman to follow the kindly light of Truth, and he obediently responded to your heavenly calls at any cost. As writer, preacher, counsellor and educator, as pastor, Oratorian, and servant of the poor he laboured to build up your Kingdom.

Grant that through your Vicar on Earth we may hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into the company of the canonized saints.”

May you manifest your Servant’s power of intercession by even extraordinary answers to the prayers of the faithful throughout the world. We pray particularly for our intentions in his name and in the name of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
In the latest twist, however, a study of the acidity of the Rednal grave indicates that it may never have contained Newman's remains to begin with.

PHOTO: Archdiocese of Birmingham