Newman and the Venerable English College
The canonization of John Henry Newman (1801–90) is an event of major importance for the universal Church, bringing many pilgrims to Rome for the celebrations. Though we most naturally associate the new saint with Oxford and Birmingham, it is worth remembering that he visited the Venerable English College at several key moments in his life and, indeed, that he was for a brief time a Roman student.
Newman’s first visit to the College was on 6 April 1833, while making his ‘grand tour’ through the Mediterranean with his friend Richard Hurrell Froude (1803–36). His feelings about the Eternal City were mixed: it was the first of all cities, of course, with its many historic and spiritual associations, and yet also a place of superstition and corruption, even the abode of the Antichrist himself. Let us not forget that, according to the Apologia, Newman’s imagination was ‘stained’ up until 1843 by the belief that ‘the Pope was the Antichrist predicted by Daniel, St Paul and St John’ (Apologia pro vita sua, Penguin 1994, p. 25).
On 6 April 1833 they visited the College and met with the Rector, Mgr Nicholas Wiseman (1802–65). Newman wrote to his sister, ‘I ought to tell you ... about our communication with Dr Wiseman head of the English College ... Oh that Rome were not Rome; but I seem to see as clear as day that a union with her is impossible’ (LD III, 284). Unbeknown to them, their paths would often cross in the years to come. It was Wiseman’s article on the Donatists in the Dublin Review of July 1839 that contained the quotation from St Augustine that rocked Newman’s secure belief that the Church of England was a Via Media between the extremes of ‘Popery’ and Protestantism. It was Wiseman who, following Newman’s conversion on 9 October 1845, gave Newman and his followers the use of Maryvale as a ‘continuation’ of Littlemore. It was Wiseman, also, who would encourage Newman to set up the Oratory in England.
In 1846 Newman, together with his friend Ambrose St John (1815–75), began studies for the priesthood in Rome – not at the Venerable English College but at the Collegio Urbano. This seems to have been at his own request, wanting a ‘regular education’ and to be ‘strictly under obedience and discipline’ (LD XI, 43). They were given certain concessions given their age, fame and experience, including pleasantly decorated rooms and the freedom to leave the college whenever they wished, but they insisted on following the strict seminary timetable. It required a great deal of humility to sit alongside seminarians, most of whom were half their age, at the compulsory lectures, at which, St John noted, Newman ‘goes to sleep and nods’ (Ian Ker, John Henry Newman, Oxford 1988, p327).
Newman frequently visited the Venerable English College. At Christmas 1846 he attended vespers and the customary theatrical productions. He was a regular attender at theological debates and dinners and on at least one occasion visited the college villa at Monte Porzio. On 5 June 1847, following his priestly ordination, Newman celebrated his third Mass in the College chapel, at the altar of St Thomas, after which he attended a reception nearby hosted by another future saint, Vincent Pallotti (1795–1850).
On returning to the English Mission, Newman was an occasional visitor to Rome, often for reasons of controversy and dispute. A member of the Church of Scotland remembered hearing Newman preach at the College during his visit in 1856:
Never will I forget the aspect of the preacher — that weird countenance of his — as he hurriedly entered from the sacristy, nor the intensity of his obeisance as he passed the altar on the way to the pulpit. It was not that he knelt, but that he seemed to crush himself down before it in brief, earnest prayer. His sermon was touching in the highest degree…More than once, as he read illustrative passages from the Acts and the Epistles, the half-suppressed sob showed how deeply the preacher was moved. However widely he might differ from Newman, his would have been a callous nature which could refuse its sympathy, or not feel all that was best in him quickened by the self-revelation given by this sincere and pure-hearted man (quoted in Jerome Bertram, ‘John Henry Newman and the English College’ in The Venerabile, vol.32, no.2, p.6).
Newman’s final visit to Rome and to the Venerabile was, of course, in 1879, when he came to receive the cardinal’s hat from Leo XIII. His stay was marred by poor health; influenza confined him to his rooms for much of the stay though he was able to attend a reception organised by the English-speaking Catholics of Rome at the College on 14 May. On this occasion he was presented with a fine set of vestments, including a jewelled mitre and pectoral cross. An illuminated address was read by another prominent convert and writer, Lady Herbert of Lea, and in his response the new cardinal noted:
most men if they do any good die without knowing it; but I call it strange that I should be kept to my present age – an age beyond the age of most men – as if in order that, in this great city, where I am personally almost unknown, I might find kind friends to meet me with an affectionate welcome and to claim me as their spiritual benefactor. (Tablet, 17 May 1879, p. 627)
We read that ‘the large antechamber, or hall of the library, was prepared with much taste, a bust of Cardinal Newman, taken when much younger, being placed in a conspicuous position, and adorned with laurel’ (Tablet, 24 May 1879, p. 658).
Newman came to the Venerable English College at several key moments in his life: as an Anglican discerning the path ahead, as a student for the priesthood, as a pastor harassed by the disputes and controversies of the day and, finally, as a cardinal given the recognition that he deserved in his old age. Now, the Church crowns him with the laurel of sainthood, making John Henry Newman a friend and guide to Christians everywhere.