Beatification of Cardinal Newman

by M. Nelle Carty

If we insist on being as sure as is conceivable…we must be content to creep along the ground, and never soar. ~ John Henry Newman

Just after I came to London to be with my fiancé, I heard that Pope Benedict XVI had been invited by the Queen to make a state visit to the United Kingdom. The British media, which is known for its negative coverage on anything Roman Catholic, portrayed angry British citizens who were against this visit. These critics claimed that taxpayers’ money should not be used for a religious leader who is against gender equality, who is against homosexual marriage and who assisted in the cover-up of sexual abuse by clergy. Critical television programs like “The Trouble with the Pope,” and “What the Pope Knew” were highlighted as the must-see programs during the week prior to the papal visit. As a Catholic American woman who lived in Boston, I have seen how media criticism can bring about awareness and affect change. Somehow, though, it felt different here. The negativity towards the Pope and Catholicism did not feel like it was trying to change the Church as much as it was trying to dissuade the faithful from practicing. In light of this perception, I have found myself more defensive than ever before about being Catholic. Being Catholic here is different than being Catholic in the United States.

Perhaps this is why Pope Benedict chose an anti-secularism theme for his UK visit. His message was not merely a homiletic topic mentioned once during his visit. Instead, it was a plea to Catholics and all people of faith in the UK. This message rained down on parched ears and hearts longing for spiritual nourishment. People were so eager to see the Pope and hear his message that they lined the streets in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Birmingham. The final day of the visit, people traveled through the night from all over England to be present at the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham (a large city in the center of the country). Pilgrims arrived on buses as early as 3am equipped with rain gear, folding chairs and coolers of food. The choir began singing at 7 am, helping maintain the spirit of enthusiasm among a soggy crowd. At 9:30am when the Pope’s helicopter circled overhead, the steady rain became a drizzle, the sun peaked out from behind the clouds and the 55,000 pilgrims who were camped on the sloping hill of Crofton Park cheered as if a rock star were entering a concert venue. The excitement was contagious. A sea of flags–white and gold papal flags created especially for Benedict’s UK visit, British Union Jacks, the Irish Tricolour, and banners saying “Papa We Love You”– replaced the numerous umbrellas. The Popemobile took Benedict XVI from his helicopter through the crowd, stopping frequently to kiss babies and greet the faithful pilgrims. When he finally reached the side of the altar, the liturgical procession of clergy wearing clear rain ponchos over their white vestments began, and the rain stopped.

Following the traditional introductory dialogue and penitential act of the mass, the Archbishop of Birmingham initiated the Rite of Beatification by requesting that the Venerable John Henry Newman be beatified. The Beatification is the penultimate step in becoming canonized a saint, and this marked the first beatification in Benedict XVI’s papacy. We heard an account of Newman’s life and the miracle needed for him to be beatified, and then Pope Benedict XVI declared him “blessed.” The liturgy of the word took place after the beatification and was followed by a moving homily on the Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman. Pope Benedict focused on Newman’s contributions during his life in 19th Century England and the lasting affects of his ministry on us today. These included Newman’s emphasis on prayer as a means of growing closer to God, his “insight into the relationship of faith and reason,” his impact on Catholic education, and his pastoral care for the people to whom he ministered. This eloquently written homily described Newman as an exemplar searching for Truth and living this out on a daily basis.

The mass continued with the Liturgy of the Eucharist and concluded with an ever-enthusiastic crowd waving the Pope goodbye. This event evoked several reactions from me. I was amazed that there was such a sense of holiness at an outdoor mass with 55,000 people. I have been to university-wide masses with several thousand people, but I have never celebrated with as many people as there were at the Beatification mass. There was a period of silence after communion that struck me as particularly sacred. There was a real Presence that made this silence louder than any of the crowds’ cheers.

Although there was an air of excitement present throughout the day, there was also a sense of normalcy and comfort that came with the ever-familiar rituals of the mass. The liturgy parts of the liturgy are the same the world over. There is a sense of being at home at a Eucharistic celebration, even when a person may be very far from their geographical home.

At the conclusion of this two-hour mass, people were left with a sense of joy. They weren’t in a hurry to get home—partially because they came by bus and were not scheduled to leave for another hour or two! Nevertheless, people pulled out their picnic lunches, shared food with one another, talked with one another, and enjoyed the dry weather. This is church. This day affirmed what church is and what I love about being Catholic. The Catholic Church is far from perfect, but it is good. The sheer number of pilgrims who made an effort to come out and celebrate various events around the UK with Pope Benedict XVI spoke louder than any verbal defense of the Catholic faith. The media recognized what a “success” this papal visit was and called the Beatification the “spiritual highlight” of the visit (“The Pope’s Visit” aired on BBC Two, 20 September 2010 19:00 GMT). As a pilgrim fortunate enough to make the journey to the Beatification mass, I found myself feeling less defensive and renewed in my decision to remain Catholic.

M. Nelle Carty is learning about Catholicism outside of the United States.


2 Responses

  1. Nelle, what a beautiful reflection and celebration of truly what it means to be church! It made me remember my own time in England, a time when I felt more Catholic than I ever had before because of the constant apologetics…
    Last night I attended a lecture by James Carroll. After the lecture an elderly gentleman stood up to ask a question, but it quickly became clear that his purpose was to criticize, to pick at Carroll’s rhetoric. And as he continued talking, it also became clear that he loved Carroll enough to come see him speak many times, and that they shared many similar views on politics, the Church, human nature… So what was he criticizing? James Carroll handled it all beautifully. He pointed out that this is a major problem in our society right now – even when we agree, we seek out the negative, picking apart what is good, digging for something to be wrong. Although I felt for the man, as he was rather publicly shut down, I couldn’t help but cheer inwardly, and also chide myself a bit for the growing trend I see within myself of focusing not on critical-thinking that maintains still both hope and growth, but on the stunting power of “what’s wrong with the world today.” James Carroll’s comment, and your own story of the swelling of positive energy about a usually negative subject, is a powerful reminder of hope. I think you and I once talked about the difference between optimism and hope that Henri Nouwen talks about – one being the expectation that things will get better and the other being the trust and knowledge that God will continue to be present in each moment, guiding us in freedom… today I choose hope. Thank you for the gift, my friend!

  2. I love the quote from Cardinal Newman that you chose!

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