Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Newman News

There has been quite a lot of debate following the course of the projected beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. As everyone now knows, his grave, when opened, revealed no body, but only some tassels and a coffin plate. Most of the debate on the internet seems to presume that these, together with a lock of his hair, will be placed into the great sarcophagus that has been prepared in the Birmingham Oratory church.

It has, however, been decided that this will not now take place, though many—including some senior clergy—wanted it, feeling that even a mere cenotaph would be a fitting place to honour Newman. The Oratory has, in my opinion, made the right decision. An empty sarcophagus would always be a focus for bathos, for some cheap giggles, and it will be the fact principally remembered about Newman's burial for years to come. Tours seeing the splendid marble sarcophagus would be told 'well, of course, it isn't actually his body; just some tassels and a bit of hair'. Much better that he rests at Rednal as he wished. The Oratory Church can stand as his memorial; it was, after all, built for that purpose.

One suggestion is that there will be a new, small, reliquary placed in St Philip's Chapel, which adjoins the Oratory church. Here the plate, the tassels and the hair, and maybe some other bits and pieces would be able to be seen, and perhaps honoured, for simply what they are. One father has commented that this would be 'more in keeping with the Cardinal's own humility and Oratorian sense of amare nesciri' [love to be unknown]. The sarcophagus would then be otherwise disposed of suitably (anyone need a sarcophagus?): perhaps it will be placed in the Visitors' Centre.

The other news is that the commission in Rome have, it seems, decided not to approve the hoped-for miraculous cure of that deacon in the US—or, at least, have decided that it is not sufficiently beyond question that this cure was due to the intercession of Newman. I don't know the details. This is a sad setback for Newman lovers, and no doubt for Fr Chavasse and the fathers at Birmingham. St Philip Neri, however, would have approved. He said that he wanted all his sons to be saints, but none of them raised to the altars, presumably lest they be tempted to pride. And maybe we should simply do some concentrating on seeing Newman as a hugely influential scholar and stop trying to squeeze him into a plaster statue, which, in some aspects might be a tight fit. Forgive the metaphor. But it takes me to another point.

I have long wished that the Fathers at Birmingham would build a really good Newman study centre, perhaps on the site of the former St Philip's College. There they could locate all the Newman items that at present clog rooms and corridors all over the Oratory house. They might even consider installing Newman's own library there, and move his entire room, rebuilding it exactly as it is (this has been done in other cases) inside another building, so that people could see through the windows and doorway into the room without actually entering (because this is deleterious to the contents) or, more to the point, without having to go through the Oratory House. There could be a couple of rooms with self-catering facilities for visiting scholars, and perhaps even a little flat for a librarian. I had once thought that perhaps they might construct a purpose-built Little Oratory there too, and even bury Newman inside it. This last is, of course, now impractical. 

(I do not, of course, presume to tell the fathers what to do with their own place: it's only an idea.)

10 comments:

ben said...

Only an idea ... but one that was being freely discussed when I was working at the Oratory in 2003. Apart from anything else, it would be an opportunity to house and conserve the Newman archive securely and worthily. It proved impractical to keep all these invaluable papers in the Oratory house, and I understand that they are temporarily housed at the archdiocesan archive. As you suggest, Newman's historical importance already demands a facility of this sort, even if his sanctity (of which I am thoroughly convinced, by the way) is not yet recognised officially by the Church.

Anonymous said...

I think I should point out that the Roman theolgians have asked for one or two clarifications. They have not refused to accept the miraculous cure. A vote will follow in due course.

Jackie Parkes said...

Interesting points! At Newman's grave yesterday..

Anonymous said...

It would be good if the weight attached to your making public the news of the rejection of the miracle could be indicated, eg: well-founded, probable opinion, definitive judgement, guess, horse's mouth, third hand, as this news is not what has been offered by the competent authorities. They adopt the position of anonymous, (15 Oct 21.46)

Pastor in Valle said...

My source was one I believe to be trustworthy: not knowing who 'Anonymous' mk1 is, I can't judge. He/she may, of course, be perfectly right, but I have no means of telling. We must, I suppose, await more news.

pelerin said...

What a pity Cardinal Newman did not receive a stone coffin similar to those in which the Merovingians buried their dead. On the French TV news today they showed several which have been dug up in Angers after having lain there for 15 centuries. The skeletons inside are still there dating from the 5th century! I am finding it harder and harder to believe that he has simply vanished.

Victoria said...

I too am puzzled that the bones weren't in the coffin. Has this -bones disappearing- been known to happen before?

Pastor in Valle said...

Not just no bones — no coffin, either. And yes, sometimes this sort of thing does happen.

pelerin said...

I wonder why it was thought originally that a lead-lined coffin was used? Surely there would be written details somewhere of how he was buried and this information would have been common knowledge among the fathers? Or were the original plans for a lead-lined coffin not followed and nobody was told of this?

Discussing this with a friend the other day, he was intrigued by the news and his comment was 'perhaps it proves that Newman is 'up there' after all! And he is a Methodist!

Tom said...

While accepting the veracity of the situation, it does seem rather odd that some bits of material managed to survive, but no trace of any bones whatosever - not even impressions in the ground? One hopes that the exhumation team also included archeologists specialising in this type of work.

Whatever, we need to keep praying for the success of Newman's Cause.