September 15, 2010 // Uncategorized

Feast day for Cardinal Newman has ecumenical implications

By John Thavis

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — When Pope Benedict XVI beatifies Cardinal John Henry Newman in mid-September, he’ll announce the new blessed’s feast day as Oct. 9 — not the date of his death, which is typical for feast days, but the date of Cardinal Newman’s passage from Anglicanism into the Catholic Church.

The feast day is a small aspect of Cardinal Newman’s beatification, but one with ecumenical overtones. How it came to be chosen is a lesson in the sometimes-labyrinthine ways of Vatican decision-making.

Pope Benedict will celebrate the beatification Mass in Birmingham, England, Sept. 19, the final day of his four-day visit to Great Britain.

Cardinal Newman, a 19th-century theologian and one of modern England’s most respected spiritual figures, is revered by Anglicans and Catholics alike. In the run-up to the papal visit, leaders of both churches have emphasized that although Newman’s faith journey led him to Catholicism, the beatification was not being viewed as an act of triumphalism by the Vatican.

In fact, Cardinal Newman is already honored as a saint on the Anglican calendar — on Aug. 11, the day of his death.

Speaking to reporters Sept. 9, the Vatican’s ecumenism experts underlined that fact and said it was possible that the Catholic Church would also adopt the Aug. 11 feast day as an ecumenical gesture.

“Obviously there are sensitive issues over someone converting, but his beatification is being received in a very positive way,” Msgr. Mark Langham said of the Anglican reaction.

What the ecumenists had apparently not been told, however, was that the Vatican’s liturgy experts had already designated Cardinal Newman’s feast day as Oct. 9, the day of his conversion. Informed of this fact by reporters Sept. 12, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said he had no comment on the reasons for the choice of date.

Anglicans also had not been informed. The Rev. David Richardson, director of the Anglican Center in Rome and the archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Vatican, said there was a chance that some people might view the Oct. 9 feast day as an ecumenical provocation, but that he didn’t see it as a huge issue.

“Certainly it would have been a generous gesture had we been on the same date, but I don’t see it as ecumenically significant,” he said.

The decision on feast days falls not to the Vatican’s saintmakers but to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, which is responsible for the church’s liturgical calendar. It evaluates recommendations made by the postulator of the cause.

Informed sources at the congregation said the Oct. 9 date for Cardinal Newman was approved primarily for practical and pastoral reasons. The Aug. 11 date would have meant that Newman Centers at public universities in the West would not have been able to commemorate Cardinal Newman during the academic year, they said.

Rev. Richardson said that was not a very convincing argument. In his native Australia and in half the world, he noted, the academic year includes August.

The Vatican’s regulations on feast days generally favor the day of death, but if that’s problematic — for example, falling on a major church holy day or a day already crowded with saints — then other “significant dates” in a blessed or saint’s life may be chosen, such as date of ordination.

The postulator for Cardinal Newman’s sainthood cause, Andrea Ambrosi, said in written responses to questions from Catholic News Service that the Oct. 9 date was chosen because “in this case, Cardinal Newman’s having embraced the Catholic faith at a mature age, in full knowledge and awareness, was considered the predominant event.”

He added that Cardinal Newman’s universal significance included his role, past and present, as an “ideal bridge between Catholics and Anglicans.”

English Msgr. Roderick Strange wrote in his book, “John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive,” that while the idea of Cardinal Newman as a bridge figure might strike some as improbable, he remained influential in ecumenical debate after his entry into the Catholic Church.

“His loyal Anglican friend, Edward Pusey, spoke of the conversion as ‘perhaps the greatest event which has happened since the communion of the churches has been interrupted.’ And he explained that by saying: ‘If anything could open their eyes to what is good in us, or soften in us any wrong prejudices against them, it would be the presence of such a one, nurtured and grown to ripeness in our church, and now removed to theirs,'” Msgr. Strange said.

In his briefing, Father Lombardi emphasized that Anglicans have not felt offended by the church’s decision to beatify Cardinal Newman, but he added that “naturally this depends on how one talks about and presents Newman.”

“If he is presented as a great witness of the faith in our times … this is not at all offensive, because the Anglicans, too, are seeking great witnesses. If I say we’re beatifying him only because he converted, or changed sides, naturally that could create controversy,” he said.

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