Friday, August 29, 2008
Cardinal Newman is set to become Britain's newest saint. First he must be exhumed from the grave he shares with another man - the greatest love of his life
By Geoffrey Wansell
The Daily Mail
Last updated at 1:58 AM on 29th August 2008
The precise time and details are still a closely guarded secret, but the plans are already well under way. At some stage - possibly before the end of the year - a small party of priests, gravediggers and officials from the Vatican will arrive at the small cemetery at Rednal, near Birmingham, to conduct their sombre business.
There they will make their way to a headstone bearing the Latin inscription 'Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem' - 'out of shadows and phantasms into the truth', which marks the resting place of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, the revered Catholic priest, thinker and writer, who died in 1890. And then they will start digging.
For in a decision that has provoked controversy in the Catholic church and beyond, Cardinal Newman is due to be exhumed and his body moved to a far grander sarcophagus inside Birmingham Oratory as part of the final preparations before the London-born priest is beatified by Pope Benedict - a process that will set him on course to become the first English saint for more than four decades.
By any reckoning, it will be a somewhat macabre process. The coffin itself will not only be disinterred, but opened so that 'relics' from Newman's body, which may be bones from his fingers or fragments of cloth from his priestly vestments, may be taken in order to distribute and display in other Catholic churches. But that's not what's provoking such outrage.
No, what offends many campaigners is that this process of exhumation will take place contrary to the explicit wishes of Newman himself, whose dying wish was to be buried in the simple grave at Rednal - alongside the body of his lifelong friend, Father Ambrose St John.
For more than three decades, the two men were inseparable - living almost as a married couple - in what many now believe to have been a homosexual relationship.
Just how close the two men were can be judged from Newman's statement shortly after Father St John's death in 1875.
He declared: 'I have always thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that anyone's sorrow can be greater than mine.'
Subsequently, the Cardinal repeated on no fewer than three occasions his firm desire to be buried with his friend.
He wrote the following just weeks before his death in the summer of 1890. 'I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St John's grave... I give this as my last, my imperative will.'
And for the past 118 years, that is exactly how it has been, with the two men's bodies sharing the one simple grave. Now, though, if the Roman Catholic church gets its way, the two men will be separated for eternity in what some protesters have claimed is an act that amounts to blatant homophobic persecution.
On Sunday, Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner, waded into the debate, claiming: 'The Vatican's decision to move Cardinal Newman's body from its resting place is an act of grave robbery and religious desecration.
'It violates Newman's repeated wish to be buried for eternity with his life-long partner Ambrose St John. It's a shameful, dishonourable betrayal of Cardinal Newman by the gay-hating Catholic Church.'
His argument has been bolstered by a recent poll in the Church Times newspaper, which found that 80 per cent of respondents were opposed to Newman's exhumation.
But the Catholic church is insistent the move is part of the standard process in preparation for beatification, and has nothing to do with Newman's private life.
They accuse the gay rights lobby of hijacking the debate to suit their own agenda. Austen Ivereigh, former adviser to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, told BBC's Radio 4 Sunday programme at the weekend: 'I don't think anyone disputes that Cardinal Newman loved Ambrose St John... But it is simply wrong to read back from today's categories into the Victorian periods when these very intense, passionate, but totally celibate relationships among the Anglo-Catholic community were very common.'
But the very act of exhumation - and the removal of Newman's body from his friend's side - will add fuel to the controversy over the role of homosexuality in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church.
So what is the truth about Newman? Was he gay, or were his close friendships with male colleagues simply deep friendships of an innocent nature distorted through the prism of time?
Born in London in 1801, the son of a baker, Newman was ordained into the Anglican Church in 1823, but converted to Catholicism in 1844 and went on to found the first English Oratory in Birmingham, as well as establishing what is now known as University College, Dublin.
Subsequently, he became a figurehead for all Catholic converts everywhere and was made a Cardinal in 1879.
Even in his own lifetime, though, Newman's sexuality attracted controversy. The novelist and historian Charles Kingsley launched a famous attack on him in 1864, which provoked Newman to write his Apologia Pro Vita Sua - which contains a defence of Newman's sensitive view of 'masculinity'.
The softly spoken Newman was also attacked by other 19th century contemporaries for a 'lack of virility' and a 'feminine nature', and in 1933 author Geoffrey Faber portrayed him as a homosexual - 'with feminine characteristics'.
Newman had several friendships with women, but none of them could be regarded as close. And there is no real evidence that he ever consummated a heterosexual union - quite the reverse.
From the age of 15 he was convinced it was the will of God that he should lead a single life. While he was an undergraduate, and later a priest in Oxford, he taught that celibacy, for the priesthood, was 'a high state of life, to which the multitude of men cannot aspire'.
Few deny, however, that his deepest emotional relationships were with young men who became his disciples, including the flamboyant Richard Hurrell Froude, who died in 1836, and Ambrose St John, who lived with Newman from 1843 until his death.
What undoubtedly made matters more awkward for Newman was that the other most significant 19th century English churchman, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, embodied the very antithesis of Newman's character and outlook.
Although Manning was similarly a convert from Anglicanism, who ascended to the heights of the Catholic Church's hierarchy, he delighted in the outdoors and championed the working man.
There were certainly no doubts over his sexuality - Manning became a priest after his wife's death, quite unlike the bookish Newman who remained forever cloistered in an all-male world.
Ultimately, the precise nature of Newman's close relationship with St John is impossible to prove one way or the other, though many see the inscription above their shared resting place - 'out of shadows and phantasms into the truth' - as a posthumous 'coming out'.
In an ideal world, of course, it shouldn't matter either way. The controversy should not be allowed to diminish Newman's great contribution to the Catholic Church in this country.
British Christians of all denominations should be proud that he is set to be beatified. By December this year, Pope Benedict XVI - a keen supporter of Newman's work and beliefs - is expected to confirm that a miracle can be attributed to Newman.
This represents the first formal step towards his beatification, and will mean that he will be called the 'Blessed' John Henry Newman.
The miracle in question involves the fate of 69-year-old Jack Sullivan, a married Deacon from Boston in the U.S., who claims that he was cured from crippling back pain after praying to Newman.
But the Pope would need to attribute a second miracle to Newman's name for him to be canonised, and thereby finally become a saint - although the suspicion remains in church circles that Newman's sexuality may yet count against him when it comes to this final hurdle.
One thing is sure, the intensely shy, humble and bookish Newman would almost certainly have preferred to remain buried in that humble grave alongside his friend rather than be transferred, alone for the first time in decades, to a splendid marble sarcophagus many miles away - no matter how great the honour it meant was being bestowed upon him.
Some religious commentators have suggested a compromise - that Father St John's body should be moved along with Newman's to its new resting place - but perhaps unsurprisingly, this idea has not been accepted by the Catholic Church.
That has dismayed those who believe that perhaps the ultimate truth was that Newman may have had gay tendencies, but never broke his Holy vows - thereby proving the depth and sincerity of his faith.
Martin Prendergast, a homosexual campaigner in the Catholic Church, says. 'I don't think they can just pretend the relationship [with Father St John] didn't exist.
'We shouldn't be afraid of acknowledging that Cardinal Newman had his trials and torments, yet he was able to deal with these in a positive manner, without compromising his commitment to celibacy.'
Whatever the truth, it seems a terrible sadness that 118 years after his death, this most devout man can no longer rest in peace.