John Henry Newman – soon to be declared Blessed in a ceremony by Pope Benedict XVI in Birmingham – once wrote that we should be able to pray that Britain would lose all its greatness, its status in the world, if only it would return to the Catholic Faith.
When he wrote that, the country was at the height of its imperial power. Britain was a great nation in the world. Queen Victoria was Empress of India, and revered in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and much of Africa as monarch. At home, Britain was a churchgoing nation, and beginning to be a highly literate one – Charles Dickens’ books, today regarded as serious classics and quite challenging, were a popular read, and newspapers and magazines of all sorts thrived, with column after column of print offering features on all sorts of topics and hobbies, fiction, political analysis, and correspondence from readers. People sang in choirs, attended evening lectures, played the piano at home, and were active in all sorts of newly-formed groups and organisations ranging from the Salvation Army to reading-circles and musical groups, and societies to fund foreign missions.
Queen Victoria’s Britain would have found today’s unimaginable. A Prime Minister who supports same-sex marriage. Mosques as a major – and growing – feature of major town and cities. Just over half of all children born out of wedlock. Church attendance regarded as a minority pursuit. The Church of England set to ordain women as bishops, and deeply divided over the issue. And a high rate of crime, teenage drunkenness, abortions, and sexually-transmitted diseases, all things that during the Victorian era steadily decreased.
But something extraordinary: a Pope coming to Britain to declare John Henry Newman to be Blessed, the first step along the road to canonisation as a saint. Newman’s writings on so many issues have proved to be prophetic, and his understanding of the Church, its reality, its essence, to be crucial to the Church’s mission in the 20th and 21st centuries. He has been called the “Father of the Second Vatican Council”.
There was something slightly tragic about Newman’s life: converting to Catholicism when there was still a great deal of deep-rooted anti-Catholic feeling produced by years of propaganda; he was misunderstood, libelled, and derided, called a liar, regarded as odd. Within the Catholic Church, he was mistrusted by those who felt challenged by his insights and fresh perspectives. His plans to start an Oratory in Oxford were thwarted; he was unable to complete the project of a Catholic University in Ireland; his project of translating the Bible was blocked. But he accomplished so much – his beautiful writings, his hymns, meditations, sermons, his grasp of history, his ability to communicate the search for truth.
Even his beatification has shown this tension – controversy surrounding the exhumation of his body, tensions over the State Visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain, worries over attacks on the Pope by terrorists, or attempts by militant homosexual campaigners to disrupt some of the Papal events.
In these weeks leading up to the Papal visit and the beatification of Newman, there is much to ponder. We could usefully seek his intercession as we pray for a fresh outpouring of grace on our country, and beg God’s mercy on a Britain that, in so many ways, is turning its back on all that is good and true and beautiful, a Britain that is ripe for a fresh start, for true conversion.