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John Henry Newman: when Truth and Conscience smell of Holiness

In 2013, at the age of 36 and already mother of 4 other children, Melissa became pregnant with Gemma. The management of the family was almost totally entrusted to her; her husband often had to leave Chicago, where they lived, for work reasons. Pregnancy was high risk from the start. A partial detachment of the placenta and various hemorrhages prompted the doctors to prescribe to Melissa absolute rest, in bed. However, the young mother could not obey the prescription thoroughly, since she had to take care of the children. On May 15 of that same year, Melissa, alone in the house with her children, the oldest of whom was only 6 years old at the time, suffered a severe hemorrhage. She immediately understood the seriousness of the situation and the life risk for both her and her child. While moving with difficulty towards the bathroom, she collapsed. She fell to the ground half fainted and the hemorrhage continued unabated. A few years earlier, in 2011, she had received from her husband a small image of Blessed John Henry Newman. She kept the image with her, and addressed the Cardinal of Oxford from time to time in prayer. At that very moment Melissa had just the strength to pronounce a heartfelt request: “Please, Cardinal Newman, stop the bleeding.” Instantly the losses stopped and the young woman gradually recovered her strength. The rest of the story and the ensuing events are collected in the documentation produced in Chicago and that gave rise to the process of canonical recognition of the second miracle attributed to the intercession of John Henry Newman. Gemma was born on December 27, healthy, with a weight of 3.9 kg. There were no trace of the placenta detachment and of the consequences of bleeding.

As approved on February 13, 2019 by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, this is the miracle that will allow the Catholic Church to include the English theologian and pastor to the list of the saints on October 13 in St Peter's Square in Rome. Benedict XVI had proclaimed him Blessed on September 13, 2010, during his visit to the United Kingdom. Thomas More and John Fisher, who were martyred in London in 1535 during the well-known events relating to the separation of the Anglican Church from Rome, were the last English men to be proclaimed saints. It was Pius XI who declared More and Fisher saints, 400 years after their execution, in 1935. It is noteworthy that the last three saints England gave to the Catholic Church were all intellectuals, two humanists (Moro and Fisher) and one historian, theologian and philosopher (Newman). It seems as if the echo of the prestige of the great medieval universities of Oxford and Cambridge would sound through them. It is precisely the intellectual dimension of Newman's life, his activity at Oxford and then at Birmingham, that makes the canonization of the Fellow of Oriel College a “university” event (Newman’s works exceeds 50 volumes) and not only an ecclesial one.

A look at Newman's philosophical and theological production, but also at his historical and literary works, immediately highlights the presence of two important and challenging words. They cross his writings and reflections like a recurring refrain: truth and conscience. The search for truth motivated his historical inquiry titled The Aryans of the IV Century (1833), which would have gradually led him to appreciate Catholicism and doubt Anglican convictions; the desire to recognize how truth can become explicit and develop along the course of history suggested him to write The Development of Christian Doctrine (1845).

The Cardinal Newman Library
The Cardinal Newman Library

The love of truth, sought in university education and in the integration of the various disciplines, inspired his Idea of University (1852), and the study of the ways in which the intellect can approach the truth, making logic and life-experience converge, guided the patient and ingenious drafting of his The Grammar of Assent (1870). Love for the search for the truth, in all circumstances and in any case, in spite of everything, assuming with courage the consequences thereof. Analogously, many among Newman’s works are wonderful hymns to the value of conscience. So are the Apologia pro vita sua (1864), in which Newman defends his choices and the coherence of his intellectual and religious journey, the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1874) pleading the primacy of conscience over any other extrinsic authority, as well as the touching novels Callist and Loss and Gain, whose protagonists choose to obey the moral law engraved by God in the human heart, although this implies the loss of privileges and even of life itself.

Yet, all that raises a question. Why are these two words – so old-fashioned as they may seem today doubted and often mistreated – the ones that bring a university scholar to the altars? Doesn’t that mean that, in spite of everything, we can't really avoid them? Doesn’t that mean that even in the face of the epochal changes we are witnessing, we are still interested in dividing the true from the false, in separating what convinces us and can motivate our choices, from what, on the contrary, is not able to do so? Science continues to be interested in recognizing what is true. Even if it deals with "penultimate" certainties, what organizes and values these certainties is precisely their relationship with truth, their correspondence with what has become irreformable knowledge, one on which new studies can be eventually based. History is still interested in knowing what happened, what really happened, distinguishing it from what did not. This is what jurisprudence does in its procedures, when it strives to reconstruct events, testimonies, statements, to justify the conviction or acquittal of a defendant. And the truth still appeals to all of us when we commit ourselves to extract from the web what corresponds to the truth, trying to skip what is, instead, merely fake. In many of these processes, truth certainly remains an objective to which we can only aspire, a direction toward which we must move. We never possess it completely. Yet, truth is an objective and a direction the missing of which would prevent us from acting, thinking and living. Truth makes us human.

In the end, we feel we must obey our conscience, always and in any case, as Newman has taught all his life. A conscience that could remain dormant for a long time, but sooner or later will not fail to make its voice heard. It pushes us to do what, in consciousness, we judge right, rejecting instead what is unfair, what outrages us, what we do not want others would do to us. Conscience, like truth, also makes us human. Why, we wonder then, might truth and conscience be defended and loved at the same time, as they were in Newman’s life? The postmodern milieu in which we all live and move, often sees them as opposed to each other. Many think that, freeing ourselves from an objective truth could finally allow us to act according to our conscience. Affirming the truth or giving it too much weight, people say, would force us to lose our freedom. Yet the author of the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk did not think so. If we have a duty to follow our conscience, Newman maintains, it is because conscience shows us the truth of our nature, of our being the image of God, an image shared by everyone. The pagan girl Callista speaks of her conscience as a voice that she listens in the depths of her heart, a voice which we are not the origin, but the recipients. And it is listening to this voice that she, not yet a Christian, will refuse to worship the emperor, because the emperor is a man and not God. Human conscience does not oppose the truth; rather, it guards truth, it makes us listen to truth, it puts us in contact with its uncreated foundation of being, of our being human. Newman's optimism is comparable to that shared by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. All these authors seriously maintained that when seeking the truth in the depths of the human heart, people would not come to dissimilar and contrasting conclusions, but to the same certainties of life. Noli foras ire, in teipsum redi: in interiore homine habitat veritas (Do not go out but come into yourself: truth dwells within the human being), exhorted Augustine in De vera religione, XXXIX, 72.

Newman Room
Newman's room. Littlemore, Oxford.

What if this were the gift the canonization of John Henry Newman had in store for our time? The gift of reminding us that truth and conscience can appeal to each other and feed on the same sap. Defending and loving them does not lead us along different paths, tearing and breaking us into pieces; on the contrary, it reveals to us our creaturely condition, as listeners of the Word of truth. We are unable to adequately pronounce it; it is the Word who pronounced us, calling us to existence. Looking at Newman, who will be declared a saint on October 13, perhaps we understand that truth and conscience both rhyme with holiness and that all together they form an extraordinary harmony, without blunders. A harmony capable of restoring the human being, his beauty, his perfume. Perhaps that scent of roses that Melissa Villalobos perceived when, on May 15, 2013, the bleeding that without doubt would have brought her and her baby to death suddenly stopped. Surprised, she had the strength to ask herself, "Cardinal Newman, did you create this perfume? And immediately afterwards," Melissa said, "there came a second wave of perfume and I realized that it was him".


Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti