Today, for the first time, the Catholic Church will celebrate in its liturgical calendar the feast of the well-loved Victorian theologian, philosopher, poet, and pastor, John Henry Newman, declared ‘blessed’ during Pope Benedict’s recent visit to Britain.
October 9th is the 165th anniversary of Blessed John Henry's historic entry into the Catholic Church. Having made up his mind to take this step, and having heard that the Passionist priest, Dominic Barbieri, whose holiness had deeply impressed Newman, was to be travelling through Oxford, Newman invited him to nearby Littlemore, where he was living. Such was Newman’s fervour that, when the priest arrived late in the evening of 8th October, shivering and soaking wet from his journey, the convert immediately knelt down in front of him, and asked to be received into the Church. He made his general confession there and then, and became a Catholic on the evening of 9th October. Newman never regretted his decision, and, not only in his Apologia pro Vita Sua, but also in many letters, witnesses to the interior peace that always accompanied him as a Catholic, despite the well known fact that he was not spared difficulties not only from outside the Church but also within it.
His helicopter against the cloud-bossed sky,
then, giant, Benedict appears electronically,
smiling, shy, somewhere ‘off’.
An answering sea of plastic macs
swivels, cheers; perplexed, all try to match
the images projected on high monitors,
with reality: ‘He’s near some flowers.’
A hot love-wave stutters forward, down
the natural amphitheatre slope to
the temporary Sanctuary, set for Mass.
Communication’s made by tannoy
and strange silent script onscreen:
‘The Holy Father will now move
amongst us… do not push…or rush…’
Pushing, rushing, crowds swell sideways
against light restraints; a baby’s lifted,
pressed, blessed; and other mothers surge
to proffer theirs. But later, after Mass,
blessings like fresh-cut sandwiches are there
for all to pack and take and share.
Praise to the Holiest in the Height,
sung now for Maker but sung too
for poet, who devised it: one who loved
and walked these Lickey Hills: religious
genius… distinguished countryman… struggler
for truth. Wind gets up during the sermon, its ice
bites through to an unfamiliar core. With rain and sun
it feels as though the ‘wild…world-mothering air’
engenders something new. Fifty-five
thousand souls drop silent (has everyone
gone home?) while blessings fall
which stay around the heart, still. Present
at each drawing breath, like the press
of lambswool shift against the chest,
a kind of pallium, to breast the winter.
Cramped hearts dilate. And when
the gauze slipped from the familiar
painted face, John Henry Newman was
‘Beatus’, and we too—running, slipping,
reaching up— we too, beati were.
Cofton Park, Birmingham, 19th September, 2010
G. B. Clarkson, a Catholic poet, lives and works in the UK Midlands. This poem was written on the occasion of Newman’s Beatification at Cofton Park, Birmingham, on 19 September, 2010.