Saint John Henry Newman – Man and Portrait

By Professor Edward Porcella, Saint Mary’s College

     In the little guide book distributed at his canonization in Rome on October 13, 2019, we are shown a serene and smiling portrait of John Henry Newman attired as Cardinal.  It seems to reflect what he said to his fellow Birmingham Oratorians in 1879, upon learning Pope Leo XIII was to make him Cardinal, “The cloud is lifted from me forever.”

Newman Cardinal

     But the Newman gazing at us from the banner in Saint Peter’s Square on canonization day, as well as from the altar of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore at a vigil on the eve of canonization, and from the altar at Santa Maria in Vallicella at a musical oratory on the following evening, and yet again at the Mass of Thanksgiving in Saint John Lateran on the next morning, is better suited to remind us, that for many years after converting to the Catholic Church, Newman’s standing with authorities in Rome was dubious.  His Apologia in 1864 did much to dispel the resentment and prejudice against him among Anglicans and the English generally, arising from his conversion in 1845. But observations he made during his brief editorship of the Rambler magazine in 1859, and the miscommunications regarding them that followed, seem to have led some influential English Catholics to suspect him and keep him long in the shade at Rome.  The cloud was not lifted until 1879.


     The portrait of Newman, apparently from around 1876, is informal rather than iconic.  He appears caught in the moment, his hair and clothing not perfectly in place, interrupted perhaps in the middle of work, under stress rather than at rest. To one acquainted with Newman’s heart and mind through the still-living voice of his writing, the image shows him as he likely looked and felt through much of his life.  Newman was anchored in serenity, but so energetic and conscientious that he enjoyed little of it as he faced anxiety and disappointments one after another.  Early in his Oxford years, as he tells us in Apologia, he had adopted for himself the proverb “Holiness before peace.”

Newman Banner copy

     The solitary image of him on a stand at the altar, looking tentative and even forlorn, was in stark and mysterious contrast with the multitudes arrived in Rome to celebrate him so abundantly over three days in programs and places of such lavish beauty—from the joy-screaming organ during the long entry of bishops and cardinals at Saint John Lateran, to the piercing, train-whistle notes of the London Oratory School boys choir after Communion.


      Being made Cardinal by Leo XIII was welcome but late and unforeseen vindication for Newman. But he was Newman long before he was Cardinal, and if canonization is a posthumous recognition of sanctity attained with help of grace in this life, then it seems a reasonable surmise, that Newman was Saint before he was Cardinal.  If so, it is especially right that the image of him displayed most widely and prominently upon his canonization should call to mind the cloud under which he faithfully labored on his long and difficult road to sanctity, rather than the cloud forever lifted.  Very late in life, the grandson of his sister Jemima asked him “Which is greater, a Cardinal or a Saint?”  His reply, full yet succinct, was “Cardinals belong to this world, and Saints to heaven.”


Newman Canonization


photo credits: Edward Porcella

2 thoughts on “Saint John Henry Newman – Man and Portrait

  1. JOHN MR MORRIS says:

    Thank you Ed Porcella. This is an outstanding reflection on a great saint and scholar. What a pity that our campus ministries are no longer associated with the Newman movement. He was an inspiration to many of us.


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