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‘Some Definite Service’: A personal reflection on Blessed John Henry Newman

by Fr David Elliott

Some years ago a priest was called to a convent to take communion to one of the nuns nearing the end of her life. He had not been to that convent before so said to one of the sisters as he waited that he was concerned the elderly nun would not be familiar with him. The sister replied that the nun knew him well and was looking forward to seeing him. Confused he said firmly, ‘she must be confused, I’m sure we have never met’. The sister replied, ‘I didn’t say you knew her, I said she knew you’. It materialised that many years before when the priest was to be ordained he send ember cards (ordination cards) to many of the religious houses. The now elderly nun was given his card. Every day since then she had prayed for him and even though they had never met she knew him through her life of prayer. This is a powerful reminder that through prayer we can come close to those whom we have never met and even come to know their mind.

My journey with John Henry Newman began before I even knew him. As a teenager I was a non-conformist, so saints meant very little to me. When I went to university in Oxford it was a non-conformist college that accepted me, so on the face of it a very unlikely place to encounter Newman. My period of Church history was the early Church and the medieval period; I completely neglected the Nineteenth Century but I was aware of the Oxford movement. A couple of years before I went to university Pope St John Paul II declared Newman Venerable meaning that it was likely Newman was now in heaven but this suggestion needed to be tested. In addition the year I moved to Oxford the Oxford Oratory was formed so there was a heightened interest in Newman even though he meant little to me at that time. 

Perhaps because of these two events, in my postgraduate days when moved into the graduate accommodation there was a discarded picture of Newman by Millais as a Cardinal. I cannot describe how or why, but I was drawn to this picture. I took it for my own room as it was otherwise unwanted. There was an old pin board which I painted a dark green, and hung the picture of Newman in the centre, making what I suppose was a shrine. At this stage I was drawn to become an Anglican and when 22 one of my tutors who happened to be an Assistant Curate at the Anglican Church of St Mary and St Nicholas in Littlemore invited me there to preach. It was only after that I realised that this was the church Newman had built, and of course it was Littlemore where Newman retreated in those years between giving up his Anglican ministry and being received by Blessed Dominic Barberi.

After a spell of teaching in the West Country I returned to Oxford as an ordinand for the Church of England. Here my interest in Newman grew considerably. At the end of my training I was drawn inexplicably to somewhere I had never even set foot before: Birmingham. I would sometimes visit the Birmingham Oratory and there found peace and spiritual nourishment. My journey in Newman’s footsteps to the Catholic Church was nearly complete.

In 2009, now in Reading, Pope Benedict XVI established the Ordinariate – a structure which allowed for Anglican clergy to form distinct groups with lay people within the Catholic Church. The Ordinariate was to be under the Patronage of Our Lady of Walsingham, and, with the coming beatification of Newman, he was to become the co-patron. When Pope Benedict visited Britain and declared Newman blessed in 2010 I realised why so many things had happened in my life. Newman was the constant thread connecting so many aspects of my life in the previous years. Newman’s words rang truer than ever: ‘God has created me to do some definite service: he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told in the next’. I knew then that Newman was by my side and that he had been for a very long time. I entrusted my future to him.

At the end of 2010, having planned my departure from my Anglican position my mind turned to how I would start my priestly ministry in the Catholic Church. The timing was difficult but I began to look for different positions. Not only was I giving up my job, I was giving up my home, and many of my friends as well. It did not strike me till much later how similar this was to Newman’s experience. I spotted an advertisement in the Catholic Herald for a Head of Theology position at the Oratory School. Just six miles away, this would enable me to minister to my flock in Reading and might enable me to live locally as well. I made various enquiries, but the time was not right and I was persuaded that it was not the right position for me so did not pursue the possibility. The position was given to someone else and I moved on. From the February I was jobless and soon to be homeless as well. Easter came, and along with fellow former Anglicans, I was received into the Catholic Church. This was a time of immense joy to be under the patronage of Our Lady and Blessed John Henry Newman. Then straight after Easter the Catholic Herald again advertised for the Head of Theology position at The Oratory. The appointed individual had withdrawn from the appointment and the School was looking for someone preferably for that September. This time I consulted nobody, put in an application and hoped and prayed. The rest as they say is history. I ended up not just at a Catholic school, but Newman’s School.

Newman is right: we have all been called for some definite service. I could never have predicted a line so that the non-conformist teenager from Kent would end up a Catholic priest and have so many chance encounters with Newman. As Oratorians, all those who have passed through this school have Newman as their patron. If Newman can be so powerful an intercessor when we are not aware of his presence, how much more powerful if we really get to know and understand him. Now a day does not go by when Newman is not in my thoughts and I seek his guidance. Like that old nun who knew the priest she never met, Newman has known me throughout my life. I pray that day by day I come to know him better too.