England’s new saint would have supported Britain remaining in the European Union, according to the priest involved in the canonisation of the John Henry Newman’s canonisation cause.
Fr Ignatius Harrison, who is Provost of the Birmingham Oratory and the Actor of Newman’s sainthood cause, says that the English cardinal was wary about closing off religion into any national identity.
“If you want me to stick my neck out: I think Newman would have been a remainer,” he said while speaking to reporters in the Vatican today.
He was responding to a question about whether the new saint, who will be canonised by Pope Francis on 13 October, has anything to say to a country which has become divided over Brexit.
Fr Harrison stressed that the English cardinal would have been in favour of staying in the EU “not for economic reasons or political reasons principally” but because he would say: "Why would England want to cut itself off, spiritually speaking, from Christian Europe, from Christian, western civilisation?”
He added: “I don’t know which way he would vote, but I think he would opt for anything that would contribute to a closer spiritual unity to different countries and different nationalities.”
Thousands of pilgrims from across the English speaking world are arriving in Rome for the canonisation ceremony in St Peter’s Square, where Newman will be declared a saint along with four others. Among them is María Rita de Souza Brito Lopes Pontes, known as “Irma Dulce,” and the first female saint from Brazil.
Fr Ignatius Harrison. Pic: Christopher Lamb
Leading the UK delegation is the Prince of Wales, who will be joined by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Holy See, and Rehman Chishti, the UK’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief.
The canonisation takes place as talks between the EU and the UK intensify over trying to find a Brexit deal. Britain is due to leave the EU on the 31 October.
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, said this week: “From an ecclesial point of view, our relationships and our bonds across Europe remain the same, and, in fact, if anything, might be made more resolute.” He said the new English saint would “help to get beyond populism, narrow nationalism, and the forces that might push us towards conflict”.
Newman, who lived from 1801 to 1890, shocked Victorian England when he became a Catholic leaving the Anglican church and priesthood: his canonisation will make him the first Briton to have lived since the 17th century to be declared a saint.
Fr Ignatius, who leads the oratory community founded by Newman in 1849, said that “part of his dissatisfaction with the Church of England, that it was such a national Church", was perhaps less so nowadays.
He added: “Of course British society has changed so much since Newman’s day. From an international point of view, a multi-racial point of view, it’s much richer, it has diversified.”
He continued: “I think the one thing we can say about Newman is that whatever situation he found himself in – culturally, sociologically – he wouldn’t just sit in his study and fret, he would think about it, and pray about it and write about it. It was a mind alive.”
Renowned as a prolific writer; a theologian and a poet described as praying with a pen in his hand, Newman’s contribution to Christian literature has stood the test of time.
Fr Harrison said that the cardinal’s essay on the development of doctrine is now more important for the Church than when Newman penned it.
“It seems to me, this is going to be even more important in the future than it was to him when he was writing,” he said. “The Church is exploring the peripheries, the Church is looking at possibilities and opportunities that we really haven’t considered before, and I think John Henry Newman ‘fine, let’s look at all that in the light of the Church’s tradition, and in the light of our belief that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in every age, and at every moment.
“He wouldn’t be an enemy or a rebel against the Church at the moment. He would say: ‘let us explore this, and let us think about it and pray about it very carefully’.”
He went on: “I think one of the attractive qualities about Newman, and why he draws so many devotees from across the ecclesiastical spectrum, is that it's very difficult – and I would say imprudent – to try and label him as a liberal or a conservative, as a traditionalist or a progressive.
“His whole life was a humble pursuit of truth, led by the kindly light of the Holy Spirit at every step. I see his life not as a neat and seamless tapestry but as a rather motley patchwork quilt with all sorts of experiences, all sorts of ups and downs in the life of the Church.”
As “Actor” of Newman’s sainthood cause, Fr Harrison has been responsible for pushing forward the English Oratorian on the path to sainthood. In 1991 Newman was declared venerable, and in 2010 beatified by Benedict XVI in during his visit to Britain. Two miracles attributed to the new English saint have been investigated and found authentic by the Vatican. One of them concerned a deacon, Jack Sullivan, who testified that Newman’s intercession helped him recover from spinal cord disorder in 2001. In November 2018, the Vatican approved that Newman’s intercession healed Melissa Villalobos, who was bleeding profusely during her pregnancy.
Fr Harrison said that Newman’s canonisation means he belongs to the whole Church.
“He no longer belongs to us exclusively,” he said. “He’s a saint for the universal Church, and for all people of good will, and all people seeking God, and truth, can find Newman a guide.”