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The Word on the Week

John Henry Newman

On the 13th October Newman was made a Saint of Rome.   The 19th century man who led the way out of Protestantism into Catholicism in 1845 wrote up his conversion in his Apologia whose title translates “Defence of His Own Life”.    This was in 1864.   He had become a Catholic Priest in 1847.

Prior to his conversion he had used his considerable intellect to found, in Dublin, the Catholic University in 1854.   This was the outcome of his desire to foster the Arts over against the then current Victorian model and attempted to staff it with the laity.   In this he was not entirely successful and six clergy were appointed!     

His lectures extolling the virtues of the Arts took place during the famine years culminating in the study of English and other literatures in the curriculum of the new university.  This was the precursor of University College Dublin.    He had a strong friendship with the author James Joyce.   The latter’s writings are said to have been influenced by many English writers but especially Newman’s prose which can be traced in Joyce’s works.  

Newman’s embracing of Rome did not jettison all of his Protestant background.   He had a desire for a priesthood of the laity to be involved as a sort of counter to children raised in Protestant rectories.   The latter he believed were a fertile source of Victorian thought.   When Papal infallibility was introduced he retained the idea of the sovereignty of the individual conscience.    “I will drink to conscience first and the Pope afterwards” was how he put it.

The hymn: Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom; Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home; Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me
.   It has become known as the funeral hymn taking the singer in its two other verses through to heaven where they are united with deceased loved ones.   

Although Jesus is not named in the hymn (some attribute the light to being the column of fire that led Israel by night through the wilderness – Exodus Chapter 13 verse 21) I think it more likely to be St John Chapter 8 verse 12 which reads; – Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  This is the second time in St John’s Gospel where Jesus takes the “I am” of deity (Exodus Chapter 3 verse 14).   This light has an eternal dimension to it as Isaiah says in Chapter 60 verse 19; – The sun shall be no more your light by day,nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.

I like to think Newman had this in mind.