Newman’s European Voyage

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By Fr Juan Velez Blessed John Henry Newman had close friends and mentors at Oxford; one friend, Richard Hurrell Froude, helped the young Newman in his search for religious truth, his journey of faith.

In December 1833, these two friends, Newman and Froude embarked on an extended voyage through the Mediterranean with Froude’s father, an archdeacon in the Anglican Church. Newman wanted to accompany Froude who had been advised by doctors to go to warmer climates for health reasons; he was suffering from tuberculosis. Newman, who also needed rest after stressful years as a tutor at Oriel College, thought this might be his only occasion to go abroad for an extended period.

One of the stressful situations at Oriel was a result of Newman attempting to institute a reform of the tutorial system which had become a lifeless academic role. In keeping with the educational philosophy that he would later develop, he argued that the tutor must help to form not only the minds but the characters of his students, while assisting them in their religious beliefs and practices. Hurrell Froude and Robert Wilberforce were tutors with Newman and supported the reform that he attempted to carry out.

Later, aboard the steamship on this special voyage following Oriel, Newman and his small party visited Gibraltar, Malta, Zante and Corfu, and he wrote to his mother, sisters, and friends about the lands they saw and their peoples and customs. In these detailed letters he commented on the state of the Church in England and his impressions of external practices of the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. They were the best kinds of letters, a sort of conversation with his friends, rich in descriptions, ideas and sentiments. With the letters he included religious verses written each day during his voyage.

The young Newman was very concerned about the state control of the Anglican Church, and the loss of spiritual fervor and doctrinal teaching authority. His letters indicate that he was greatly impressed with the beauty of the Catholic cathedrals in Malta and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; and yet he was convinced at that time in his life that the Roman Catholic Church had abandoned the true Christian faith. Still, he could not reconcile how a Church that had given so many martyrs and saints could have fallen so low.

Newman was on a spiritual journey, a spiritual aeneid which would at length take him away from his home, the Anglican Church, to a new home, the Roman Catholic Church. On this journey he was very much influenced by his friends. Froude especially played a significant role in Newman’s spiritual development, helping him appreciate elements of the Roman Catholic faith, such as the sacrificial character of the Mass, the vocation to celibacy, and the beauty of the Roman breviary. It would be twelve years before Newman would accept Catholic beliefs and become Roman Catholic, but already he was beginning to dispel prejudices towards the Roman Church.

After a visit to Rome with the Froudes, he decided to travel on his own to Sicily to visit famous Greek sites. But once he arrived in the Graecia Magna he fell sick with a serious fever that almost cost him his life. During a lengthy convalescence, he had what he called his third conversion. The first had been as a 15-year-old, to a belief in an ever present and personal God, and the second as a 26-year-old college graduate, from an incipient rationalism to religious faith and humility. This third conversion was more of an imperative sense of God’s calling or mission. He felt that God had work for him to do in England; that together with his friends and others he must work for the spiritual renewal of the Church of England. Thus, as soon as he returned to England, in a meeting with Froude, John Keble, Hugh Rose and two others, he began what became known as the Oxford Movement.

In the meantime, while waiting for a ship to return to England from Palermo, he visited some churches, but he mostly tried to obtain news from England and to write to his friends. In particular, he worried about Rogers, one of his best students, who was competing to become a tutor; while in Palermo, he was happy to read in a newspaper of Rogers’ election.

It was aboard ship on the return to England that Newman wrote his now famous Lead Kindly Light, a prayer to the Holy Spirit asking for light, placing his trust in God. In these verses we see Newman’s confidence that God will truly lead the way, one step at a time. The sea journey was coming to its conclusion but a greater, more momentous journey was beginning. However, it was a continuation of his relentless effort to find answers to doctrinal and spiritual questions, in the desire to do God’s will.

The Oxford clergyman worked tirelessly, writing tracts to stir others to practice the Catholic principles of the Anglican faith. He also preached memorable homilies to strengthen the spiritual lives of his listeners, moving them to greater faith in God and obedience to his will.

Newman’s spiritual aeneid continued during his years as leader of the Oxford Movement. He suffered doubts, misunderstandings and slander. Like Aeneas, who escaped burning Troy, which Virgil had Aeneas describe as “a grief too deep for words” and whose difficult journey would lead to the future Rome, Newman recounted his past grief at leaving his spiritual home to travel to Rome. In the Apologia pro vita sua he wrote about his own “venturing again upon the ‘infandum dolorem’ of years, in which the stars of this lower heaven were one by one going out.” This, his fourth and last conversion, took place in 1845, at the age of 44, at which time he wrote that becoming a Roman Catholic was for him like a ship on stormy seas reaching safe port.

Isaac Withers