Neither are the souls of the pious dead separated from the Church which even now is the kingdom of Christ. Otherwise there would be no remembrance of them at the altar of God in the communication of the Body of Christ. -- Saint Augustine of Hippo from “The City of God

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Guest Post From Father Juan R. Vélez : Blessed John Henry Newman

Blessed John Henry Newman, A Great Teacher and Catechist

During the Year of the Faith convoked by Pope Benedict XVI we can draw inspiration from great teachers and catechists. One of these was Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890) who founded both a school for boys and a university.

Today Catholic parents are sometimes confronted with the dilemma of choosing a school for either its catholic identity or for its academic excellence and sports programs. This is a sad and unacceptable dichotomy. As gifted educator and catechist, Newman paid equal attention to educating the both intellect and the soul.

A catechist is someone who teaches others the Faith while embodying the beliefs and practices himself. The Greek word katecho means to hold on to or to teach. A catechist is a person who holds on to what he has received and transmits it faithfully to others (not only in word but by their example). John Henry Newman was a true catechist. He knew the Faith very well and taught it with great clarity and abundant examples. Just as importantly, he did so with gentleness and charm. Newman worked as a teacher and catechist at Oxford, Dublin and Birmingham.

Newman studied at a boarding school just outside of London and then at Trinity College, Oxford. Afterwards he became a tutor, what we call an associate professor at the prestigious Oriel College, Oxford. He soon had a following of students who looked up to him. Newman was concerned not only with their intellectual life, but also with their character formation and their spiritual life. When he became Roman Catholic in 1845 some followed his footsteps; others had preceded their teacher who was more cautious and deliberate.

During his teaching time at Oxford Newman was pastor of St. Mary, the University Church, and its chapel at Littlemore. Newman preached hundreds of sermons on Christian life to the college students and professors. Many of the sermons focused on the mysteries of Christ, in His death and Resurrection, and the daily practice of following Christ in prayer, sacrifice, and on the Christian virtues. Newman also preached on the individual lessons that the Apostles and Martyrs, exemplars of the Christian life, give us. As a good teacher, Newman covered almost all the subjects of the Christian Faith.

Newman developed his sermons from Sacred Scriptures and frequently quoted it, explaining the figures of the Old Testament and resolving apparent difficulties (between the Old Testament and New). He spoke quietly from the pulpit of St. Mary's but with such depth and conviction that (the congregation remained deathly silent). All ears and eyes were on this teacher who was gentle and exacting at the same time. Newman was teaching the listeners and helping them to lead virtuous lives.

In addition to caring for the intellect and the spirit, Newman was concerned for the physical needs of his students, old and young. At Littlemore there was a Sunday school for children. Newman was concerned with the children's hygiene and appearance. He asked his sisters for advice on the girls' dress, and bought them aprons. He arranged for the children to learn how to sing religious hymns, and rehearsed with them. He installed beautiful stained glass windows in the little church at Littlemore which helped those attending to give fitting praise to God.

Once he became a Roman Catholic on October 9, 1845, founded the English Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham through which he aspired to be of service in the education of many youth. In 1852, while directing the Oratory, he began one of the most important and difficult projects of his life: the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland. At the petition of the Irish bishops he prepared study plans, hired professors and sought students. He was the founder, rector, administrator, fundraiser, and builder, all in one.

Newman had the extraordinary vision of university education as formation of both the mind and character. He explained the need for theology studies for a university to aspire to universal learning (comprising all learning, not just some spheres of learning). And he indicated what the usurpation of theology in a university would do for learning; the place of theology would be falsely occupied by another science. He extolled the value of knowledge for knowledge's sake. Newman transmitted these ideas in various lectures before the actual opening of the University, and they were later published in his seminal work, Idea of a University. Newman knew from his years at Oriel College that men need real mentors. He established houses or residences in which the students would live with a mentor who would take them under his wing. Students were offered guidance in the proper exercise of their freedom.

Newman's extraordinary work at Dublin was not well appreciated, and it was hampered by the very ones who had asked him to carry it out. In 1858 he returned full time to his home at Birmingham. As a born educator, however, he was anxious to communicate the truth, and soon undertook another important work, the foundation of the Oratory School. At the time the only secondary schools (or high schools) were the Protestant public schools and some Catholic colleges. The public schools were primarily for children from wealthy families. The few catholic colleges were run by various religious orders such as the Benedictines and the Jesuits. In the former there was a lack of discipline and poor religious formation. In the latter, students who were seminarians were mixed together with lay students, and the education was not academically as rigorous as in the public schools.

Urged on by his friends, Newman forged on with plans to start something like a Catholic Eaton (Eaton being the premier English Public School). He and his friends Edward Bellasis and James Hope-Scott worked hard to secure the necessary funds, support, and students. (A Catholic Eaton? Newman's Oratory School, Paul Shrimpton, Gracewing 2005). In May 1859 the school opened. Newman was not the headmaster; he had appointed an Oratorian Father, Nicholas Darnell to this role, but Newman was the inspiration and soul of the school. His prestige drew the students and patrons. The school had serious difficulties due to the faults of the headmaster, but Newman was able to set it back on good track.

The students were all boys. Newman made sure that the younger ones had the care of a woman, and that the headmaster exercised appropriate discipline. He insisted that the students receive both a good religious education as well as a classical liberal arts education. This was the very reason for the school, namely providing youth with a complete human and spiritual formation. Their intellect should be formed and they should learn piety. Running a school was a difficult task, and Newman persevered in the endeavor. He participated in school events, including arranging classical plays which the students acted. Some famous persons were associated with the school. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom Newman had received in the Church, was a teacher (1867-1868) and Hilaire Belloc was a student in 1887.

Some years later Belloc wrote: They [the boys] were taught to be as free - as self-reliant and as free - as any of the young Englishmen who were growing up around them in the great public schools; but with it there was an atmosphere of healthy religion, an unconstrained frequency in the approaching of the Sacraments, a sincere faith and high code both of morals and of honour, which appeared so natural and so native to the place, that it would have been called spontaneous by anyone who did not know that the founding of the school, its influence, and its spirit were due to Cardinal Newman. ('John Henry Cardinal Newman,' The Lamp 39, 1890, pp. 138-139 quoted from A Catholic Eaton? pp. 284-285).

Through his entire life Newman led by example. He taught what he first practiced, and people were drawn by that unassuming and committed life. After many years of teaching university students, and a short time teaching children at the Littlemore Sunday school, he ended teaching boys at Birmingham Oratory School. He was an educator and a catechist all his life. Those who knew him felt his affection and influence. Thus, Cardinal Newman's knowledge of the faith was lived and transmitted to others with the gentle persuasion of the truth. He truly was a great teacher, catechist, and mentor.

Fr, Juan R. Vélez, author of Passion for Truth, the Life of John Henry Newman (TAN/St. Benedict's, 2012)


This guest post was graciously written by Father Juan R. Vélez, author of "Passion for Truth, The Life of John Henry Newman". Father Vélez is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei who resides in San Francisco. He holds a doctorate in dogmatic theology from the University of Navarre. His doctoral thesis was on John Henry Newman’s Eschatology.

His interest in the life and works of Cardinal Newman began with his doctoral studies under Prof. José Morales, author of John Henry Newman (1801-1890).

Fr. Vélez has a medical degree, also from the University of Navarre, and was previously board certified in internal medicine.

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