John Henry Newman was born into an English Protestant world that was, at best, wary of the concept of sainthood. Within the Church of England reverence was paid to the Apostles, Martyrs and other saints of the early centuries, but scant regard was given to the saints of later centuries, for fear of approximating to dreaded ‘Popery’. In a sermon of 1831, Newman reminded his congregation that ‘our Church teaches us to put away from ourselves the title of “saint”.’
Deeply grateful for Newman’s help at a time of crisis, Edward Pusey wrote to him: ‘I pray that He may make you what, as you say, there are so few of, a “great saint”.’ It may be coincidence but it is around the same time, at the end of the 1830s, that we begin to find the first of what were to be countless statements by Newman’s contemporaries of their conviction, that, indeed, they had a saint in their midst. One of those who for a while lived with Newman at Littlemore reflected, after becoming a Catholic, of his surprise at having been with one ‘outside the visible [Catholic] Church’ yet bearing ‘the most evident marks of Christian sanctity’.
A confessed lover of peace, Newman recognised that he was destined to be ‘a man of strife’. Controversy dogged his Catholic years as it had his time as an Anglican, yet a latent recognition of his sanctity continued. At his death in 1890, countless testimonies appeared – even the staunchly Protestant Evangelical Magazine proclaimed that ‘of the multitude of saints in the Roman calendar there are very few that can be considered better entitled to that designation than Cardinal Newman.’
Intimately connected though they ever must be, reputation for sanctity and the process of canonisation present themselves in very distinct ways to the mind. No more so than to the English mind, which has often viewed such canonical procedure as arcane, mysterious, almost magical.
The possibility of formal canonisation was mooted several times at Newman’s death, and, in 1907, the future Archbishop of Birmingham, John McIntyre, wrote of his own ‘hope that our Cardinal will be the first canonised saint of the Second Spring.’ Nevertheless, there were complications such as the Modernist crisis, when some of those who stood condemned sought to invoke support from Newman’s work for their heterodox ideas.
Above all, there was Saint Philip Neri and the Oratorian ideal of ‘ama nesciri’, loving to be unknown, and his surviving community knew how insistent Newman would have been on this point, even posthumously.
Sanctity, of course, of its very nature, lives and does not die with the figure in question. It was an American Dominican, Fr Charles Callan, who brought the question of Newman’s sanctity out into the open in an article in America magazine in 1941. The response was overwhelming and positive. In 1942, the Archbishop of Toronto gave his imprimatur to the first prayer for Newman’s beatification. A fervent admirer of Newman, Pope Pius XII’s insistence on the importance of the 1945 Centenary of Newman’s Conversion gave added impetus. English reticence began to give way, with a 1952 article on ‘Newman’s Cause’ by the future Vice-Postulator, H. F. Davis.
In 1958 Archbishop Grimshaw of Birmingham constituted the Court needed for an Ordinary Process for Canonisation. It was not realised that the paucity of living witnesses made such a Process impossible. A year later the Cause was reintroduced as an Historical Cause, and a Commission of experts assembled to gather the necessary documentary proof. But there were delays. It was the cherished hope of Pope Paul VI that he would be able to mark the Holy Year of 1975 with the Beatification of John Henry Newman, but it was not in fact until 1980 that a newly reconstituted Historical Commission began the task of gathering all the necessary proofs to complete the Diocesan Process.
In May 1986, this task was completed and in the next month the findings were forwarded to the Holy See for examination by Apostolic Process. Father Vincent Blehl, S.J., who had hitherto served as Chairman of the Diocesan Commission, took on the role of Postulator and oversaw the composition of the official case (or ‘Positio’) by which the expert Consultors of the Holy See could judge the completeness and worthiness of the Cause. This Process was completed with unusual speed and unanimous endorsement. In January 1991 Pope John Paul II declared that John Henry Newman had exercised all of the Christian virtues in an heroic degree, and was henceforth to be known as ‘Venerable’.
For Newman to be declared Blessed, a miracle ascribed to his intercession must be recognised by the Church. On 3 July 2009 Pope Benedict XVI recognised in fulfilment of this requirement the healing of Deacon Jack Sullivan in 2001. This decision has meant that Newman's beatification can now take place.