Friends and Saints: Newman’s Last Mystery

The great Cardinal demanded to be laid to rest surrounded by the holiest of his close companions

Before he died, Cardinal Newman left specific instructions. He wished to be buried at Rednal, outside Birmingham, in the ground reserved for the Fathers and Brothers of the Birmingham Oratory. “I wish with all my heart,” he wrote on July 23, 1876, “to be buried in Father Ambrose St John’s grave — and I give this as my last, imperative will.” On February 13, 1881, he added a postscript: “This I confirm and insist on, and command.”

Why this imperative? Did Newman have an intimation that his body might at some time  be exhumed, in accordance with the practice of the Church for the beatified? Did he fear that his remains might be translated for veneration in the City Church of the Oratorians at Birmingham? Did he wish to circumvent that, per impossibile

Apparently so. Why?

Newman was in no doubt about the intercession of the saints. His deep sensitivity to the spirit of a place, its genius loci, extended to the cemetery. His studies in the early Church had impressed upon him the centrality of the “holy places”, where the saints were buried. Just as the catacombs, outside the city, were the natural gathering place of the faithful for prayer and mutual support, so did they become the supernatural ground of posthumous miracles and healing. The saints’ burial places became the focal points of the nascent Church. And in the Early Church, the faithful wanted to be “buried near the saints”.

The practice of burial ad sanctos shaped the history of the Christian Church for centuries to come. It was a practice inscribed in the Annals of the Christian Year. Newman was intimately familiar with, and imaginatively rooted in, these sources of Christian community, recorded in the lives of the Saints and remembered in the Church’s Breviary. We, who are less familiar with these sources, may do well to consult a single page taken from the Lives of the Saints (ed. Alban Butler, 1894) under the entry for January 4:

St Gregory, Bishop (died c.541): 

St Gregory was one of the principal senators of Autun, and continued from the death of his wife a widower till the age of 57, at which time, for his singular virtues, he was consecrated Bishop of Langres, which see he governed with admirable prudence and zeal 33 years, sanctifying his pastoral labours by the most profound humility, assiduous prayer, and extraordinary abstinence and mortification.

An incredible number of infidels were converted by him from idolatry, and worldly Christians from their disorders.

He died about the beginning of the year 541, but some days after the Epiphany. Out of devotion to St Benignus, he desired to be buried near that saint’s tomb at Dijon; this was executed by his virtuous son Tetricus, who succeeded him in his bishopric.

In dying, Newman sought to enter the world of St Gregory and St Benignus. He wanted to be buried ad sanctos. He believed that nobody became a saint on their own. He believed not only that Father Ambrose St John was a saint, but that he had become a saint and given his life through the stress of overwork, in translating from the German Father Fessler’s account of the First Vatican Council of 1870.

 Father Ambrose St John had thereby enabled Newman to build a formidably effective explanation of what Papal Infallibility actually meant. In the inflamed atmosphere of polemic about “Roman Claims” triggered by the First Vatican Council, Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1874) persuaded English public opinion that there was no just occasion to launch a kulturkampf against Catholics. Newman had allayed fears and suspicions rooted in centuries of bitter mutual recrimination between Protestants and Catholics.

Burial ad sanctos: Father Ambrose St John was not alone in putting his health at risk in a work for the Church which only Newman could complete. Father Joseph Gordon had suffered likewise and died young, in 1853, from travels which had undermined his health. Under intense strain during the years 1851-1853, he had performed vital and  necessary work in gaining evidence against the false witness of an Italian  priest in England, Father Achilli, who had engaged, while in Italy, in the sexual abuse of innocent women, and was now, in England, engaged in a public assault on the “Church of the Inquisition”. 

Newman had publicly unmasked Father Achilli, who fought back with a libel action. There followed a trial and a struggle for the truth which involved the credibility of the Catholic priesthood. It ended in a nominal fine for Newman, and in his public vindication, which was, correspondingly, a vindication of the Catholic priesthood. Between 1850 and 1853, Newman, at the cost of great personal suffering, had helped to protect the Catholic Church in England from a potentially destructive resurgence of anti-Popery. Nobody else could have succeeded.

Newman, however, remained deeply aware that his success was dependent on the help of his Birmingham Oratory confrères. In 1864, he proclaimed his debt in the moving conclusion to his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. In this book, he had once more defended the credibility of the Catholic priesthood. Thanks to Newman, it was becoming harder to regard Catholics as traitors to the nation. The cost, however, was registered in the sickness and death of Father Ambrose St John.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in 1876, in stipulating his requirements for burial, Newman wanted permanently to leave a sign, redressing the balance, pointing away from himself, towards his community and under the one Cross.

In wishing to be buried in the same grave as Ambrose St John, Newman was conscious of being buried also alongside the adjoining grave of Father Joseph Gordon. Then, in 1878, there followed the death of Father Edward Caswall. His labours had built up the community and the parish from the outset. It was Caswall who, together with Ambrose St John, had taken on so much, and had thereby enabled Newman during the years 1852-8 to spend time in Ireland, not without some cost to the Birmingham community. Newman was never forgetful of the cost paid, both temporally and spiritually, by his brethren. As death approached, he signalled his intention of commemorating their contribution by drawing up a document illustrating his idea of the graves under a cruciform plan. He wished to be buried near the saints, in the plural: in the company of Father Joseph Gordon, Father Edward Caswall, and Father Ambrose St John.

Newman was well aware that in the fourth century St Ambrose had transferred the bones of the martyrs from their burial place to his Milan basilica. The relics of the saints reinforced the Bishop in his mission to the poor and needy. The patronage of the saints was a protection for the city and people in the struggle of the Church against the worldly power. Newman’s Oratorian vocation, more-over, committed him to the tradition of St Philip Neri and of Cardinal Baronius. In 16th-century Rome, the Oratorians had revived the practice of the veneration and translation of relics from the catacombs to the churches of the city and beyond. The relics of the martyrs, taken from the catacombs, were transferred to the holy places of Christendom and the newly-emergent territories overseas.

Contact with the relics was contact with Rome; contact with Rome was contact with the early Church; from the Church’s holy places, beginning with the tombs of the Apostles and Martyrs, and the basilicas built over them — St Peter’s, St Paul’s, Santa Croce, San Lorenzo — Christianity had extended from Rome to the barbarian world and, with it, the practice of burial ad sanctos. The shrines of Christendom had become the cradle of Christian 

Europe. Now, in the 16th century, a “New Church”, the Chiesa Nuova (1575), arose amid the ruins of Rome. Through relics “translated” from the catacombs, Catholic Rome rediscovered its contact with the early Church, Christian Europe recharged its Catholic identity, and a new religious energy  linked its missions overseas, in a Communion of Saints uniting the living and the dead. The Christian cosmos was resumed.

All this Newman knew. He had publicised it all his life: first in projecting the Lives of the Saints, promoted from Littlemore after 1841, and then under the auspices of the Birmingham Oratory, as a means of awakening the English-speaking world to a history deeper and more truly communitarian than the contemporary Whig interpretation of the English past. To rediscover the saints was to rediscover the holiness of God. God, as the Church proclaimed, was “glorious in His saints”.

If we are to grasp the significance of Newman’s determination to remain in his burial place ad sanctos, we should not lose sight of his appreciation of the “entry of the saints” — the legitimacy of “translating the Saints” to the city churches. It is just that he did not want it “for himself”. He wanted to point away from himself to the community of the Oratorians in the Communion of Saints. 

There was, inevitably, a tension between these twin desiderata. Newman’s settled determination to remain ad sanctos was perhaps designed to remind the Church of  something she had tended to forget. Saints do not become saints on their own. Saints have a way of getting their way. When his grave was opened in 2009, Newman’s coffin was found to have disintegrated. His mortal remains had returned to dust. Those who were present recorded an awed, inward sentiment of recognition. There was, so to speak, a revelation of the grave as not, after all, a final resting place, but a gateway to the resurrection. At that moment, as by a trick of Providence, the final volume of Newman’s Letters and Diaries was published. The editor, Dr Frank McGrath, quietly pointed to a document which seemed to make the point without fuss: Newman had requested that his body be allowed to return, as in the Church’s prayer, “dust to dust, ashes to ashes”. 

The Church, however, also got her way. A reliquary containing some shreds of Newman’s hair and part of his coffin was placed in a side-chapel at the Birmingham Oratory, where the faithful have not hesitated to welcome his “entry” and to pray ad sanctos.

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