November 2020: Book Reviews

A Short Biography

Fr Michael Collins

Dublin: Messenger Publications, 2019


Newman – Saint for our Time

Bishop Fintan Monahan

Dublin: Veritas Publications, 2019

Two short books, quite different in style and approach, but each one an excellent introduction to the life and thought of Cardinal – now Saint – John Henry Newman. Whether you are a newcomer to Newman, feeling that it’s about time, given his recent canonization, that you learned something about this literary and theological colossus, or you already have a degree of familiarity with him but would like to have some pastoral resources to hand, either or both of these books could fit the bill.

At just 135 pages, Fr Collins’ book is the larger of the two. It is written with flair and care, and manifests a heartfelt interest in the subject. While it is neither necessary nor possible here to rehearse many details of Newman’s pre- and post-conversion life, suffice it to say that Collins captures the slow drama of Newman’s conversion, with his gradual intellectual drift towards Rome, under the tutelage of the early Fathers.

John Henry preached his last sermon as an Anglican priest in September 1843, resigned his fellowship of Oriel College in October 1845, was accepted into the Catholic Church four days later, and was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome on May 5th, 1847. His relatively peaceful post-ordination life, during which he set up communities of the Oratory in England, was disrupted, in July 1851, by one Dr Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Armagh. Dr Cullen (soon to be Archbishop of Dublin and later created a cardinal) visited Newman at the Oratory in Birmingham, and invited him to come to Ireland to set up a new Catholic University, as its first rector.

Newman agreed, and was appointed rector of the new university the following November. That enterprise would not make for one of the sweeter chapters of his life, but a wonderful spin-off would be the eventual publication of The Idea of a University, one of his major works, in which he elaborated his thinking on the nature and significance of a liberal education, one which might by all means be guided by a religious ethos, but which would not be bound by either pragmatic or dogmatic considerations.

This, of itself, was enough to put Newman on a collision course with the Irish Bishops, who did not have the intellectual security afforded by Newman’s intelligence and theological range. In addition, there was the fact that, as Fr Collins puts it, ‘for most Irish bishops, Newman still represented a foreign occupying power.’ One can begin to imagine that, whatever fondness he may have had for his Irish hosts, Newman experienced some purgatory during his time here.

In effect, Newman was ousted from his position as rector by Archbishop Cullen, and in November 1856, he left Ireland for the last time. He was, of course, subsequently vindicated by the extraordinary success of his Apologia, and was created a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII, on May 15th, 1879. However, in claiming Newman as one of our own, we should do so with a certain humility!

Bishop Fintan Monahan’s biography, produced in a small, pocket-book format, includes (after a fine Forward by Professor Éamonn Conway) 66 pages of biography and 35 pages of prayers and other quotations. Brevity does not prevent the author from offering some fine personal insights into the saint, including his post-conversion frustration (‘before long, this intellectual giant felt cramped by the general mediocrity of Roman intellectual life’).

Given the painful relationship he had with the Irish hierarchy (not least the ‘Lion of the West,’ John MacHale, Archbishop of Tuam, who was curt and mistrustful in his dealings with Newman), it is heartening to note Newman’s love for the Irish, whom at times he appears to have found quite amusing. Bishop Monahan quotes from a letter in which Newman describes the antics of his housekeeper, letting us know, in the process, that the eccentric clerical housekeeper is not a trope devised by recent entertainers!

The author does not shy away from Newman’s personal struggle as a Catholic – a struggle not with Catholic faith but with Catholic culture: ‘O how forlorn and dreary has been my course since I have been a Catholic! Here has been the contrast – as a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life – but, as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion.’

Like Fr Collins, Bishop Monahan regards his subject with both esteem and affection, describing Newman as ‘a placid, noble, polite personality of a sensitive disposition.’ After the biographical section, there is a collection of Newman’s prayers and reflections, including a few lesser-known quotations, to entice one to get better acquainted with the new Saint. This very small book closes with a surprisingly detailed bibliography and, finally, with a prayer, as Gaeilge, to St John Henry Newman, a line of which is reminiscent of ‘Lead Kindly Light’: Stiúir go talamh slán muid le cuid de shíocháin idéalach Ríochta Dé.

The Editor