Wednesday 17 January 2018

Newman: fine fighter for the faith and poet

John Henry Newman
John Henry Newman

Ulick O'Connor

Many are surprised that James Joyce had written of Cardinal John Henry Newman that: "Nobody has written English that can be compared with Newman's cloistered silver veined prose."

But Sean O'Casey follows up with: "Newman was as great a man without his red robe as he was within it", and Elgar, the German composer, wrote how proud he was to have been allowed set Newman's long poem the 'Dream of Gerontius' to music.

The same John Henry Newman must have been some guy to have Joyce, O'Casey and Elgar in his fan club. Though the Irish bishops had asked Newman to head up the new university in Dublin which opened in 1854, they turfed him out of the job six years later. Fergal McGrath, Newman's biographer, summed up the situation.

"Cardinal Cullen and Archbishop McHale were like two old country fiddlers playing on the delicate Stradivarius of Newman's temperament," he wrote.

Like a good Englishman, Newman took his bashing and went on to become one of the great intellects and achievers in the Roman Catholic Church of his time.

All, however, has changed utterly today. Newman was beatified by Pope Benedict in 2010 and any morning now we may wake up and find our John Henry is up there with the boys. You may sense something of his extraordinary personality if you go in on a quiet evening to the exquisite University Church on St Stephen's Green, which was his legacy to Dublin. It nestles between 86 St Stephen's Green and the line of Georgian houses that run towards Cuffe Street.

Newman's best known poem is 'Lead Kindly Light', which is sung today throughout the world by both Catholic and Protestant congregations. Here are the words written by this fine fighter for the faith.

Lead Kindly Light

Lead, kindly Light, amid the 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.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that

Thou shouldst lead me on.

I loved to choose and see my path;

but now Lead Thou me on!

I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,

Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!


Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,

Thyself hast trod,

Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,

Home to my God.

To rest forever after earthly strife

In the calm light of everlasting life

John Henry Newman 1801-1890

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