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Word of the week: Newman

Earlier this month Cardinal John Henry Newman was canonized in Rome. The ceremony took place on Sunday 13 October, the Feast of St Edward the Confessor. I wasn’t there, but I was at the mass in September 2010 when Newman was beatified. It was the first such mass on English soil for many hundreds of years. That event, in a muddy field in Birmingham, on a cold, wet Sunday morning, gets a mention in this piece from November 2016. It compared the papal visits of 1982 and 2010, but does not mention the beatification itself. Newman became the fifth Londoner to be made a saint, and the first Briton to be canonized since John Ogilvie in 1976.

Newman’s “Soul of Gerontius” was selected as the Guardian’s “Poem of the week” over the weekend. You can read it here, along with analysis by Carol Rumens. That article was prompted by the canonization but another mention of Cardinal Newman in my recent reading matter does not appear to be related to it. In Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments”, joint winner of the Booker Prize last week, Aunt Lydia hides her testimony in a copy of one of Newman’s books:

“I took my nascent manuscript out of its hiding place, a hollow rectangle cut inside one of our X-rated books: Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Sua Vita: A Defence of One’s Life. No-one reads that weighty tome anymore, Catholicism being considered heretical and next to voodoo, so no one is likely to peer within …

“I have chosen my title advisedly, for what else am I doing here but defending my life.”

Reading the poem, and coming across Margaret Atwood’s reference to the Apologia, made me realize how little I know about Newman’s life and work, little more than I knew 40-odd years ago when I first encountered his surname. My brother was in Newman House at the Catholic Grammar School he attended in the 1970s. Other West London schools were named after various Catholic Cardinals: Newman, Vaughan and Wiseman. I had no idea how different these three places were. Only a handful of boys from my Catholic primary school made it to “the Vaughan”. Many more went to Cardinal Newman Secondary Modern. The schools were worlds apart. The latter was closed many years ago, the former remains a target school for local parishioners, along with The Oratory.

My time at Catholic schools ended at the age of 8, and until my 20s I assumed that all the local educational establishments that began with the word “Cardinal” were broadly similar. I was put right on this by my contemporaries who had attended Cardinal Newman: none of them had a good word to say about it. By contrast, all the alumni from “the Vaughan” that I have met have been complimentary about their alma mater. Still, at least those who attended that long-closed local Secondary Modern can reflect that their school was named after someone who has now been made a saint. Cardinal Vaughan (Archbishop of Westminster 1892-1903) is a long way further back on the road to canonization.



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