I am so grateful for Father Roderick Strange’s willingness to do an e-interview with me about the book Newman 101 and Newman’s upcoming canonization.
Fr. Strange also shared a few favorite quotes and prayers of Cardinal Newman that I plan to share in upcoming posts.
Tell me a little about your background and why you wrote the book, Newman 101.
I was born into a Catholic family in 1945. The idea of becoming a priest occurred to me while I was still at school and so in 1963, on leaving school, I went to explore that idea. I had been accepted as a student by the Catholic Diocese of Shrewsbury in England and was sent to Rome to discern the vocation and prepare for ordination. To be that young – I was till only 17 – may seem odd now, but wasn’t in those days. And at that time we did not go home each summer. Those long summer vacations at the English College villa to the south of Rome were precious times and in 1964, during the first of those vacations, prompted by a friend, I read a new two volume biography of Newman by Meriol Trevor and was so fascinated that I then began reading Newman himself.
That early interest in Newman continued so that after being ordained in December 1969 and finishing my priestly studies in 1970, I was sent to Oxford University to do some doctoral research. I worked on Newman’s understanding of Christ, which became my first book, Newman and the Gospel of Christ. That research over the years led to me writing a variety of articles on Newman and also giving various talks and lectures.
Fast-forward to 2005, when I was, as I am still, Rector of the Pontifical Beda College in Rome. I had finished a book on priesthood the previous year, called The Risk of Discipleship, and I thought then about these various Newman pieces and wondered whether I might not edit some of the articles, write up some of the notes, and fill in some gaps with fresh material and see what kind of a book that became. I didn’t have Newman’s beatification in view. I wrote for fun, a kind of labor of love, but it seemed to work and was published in England in 2008 as John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive, and in the States as Newman 101.
2. One of my favorite quotes from the book is from Newman:
“The best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.”
How do you think that Newman viewed friendship, and how did this inform his faith?
Newman combined qualities that can sometimes be in tension in others. So, for example, he was a champion of dogma, but also a keen advocate of theology. He was also said to be “never less alone than when alone”, a man who prized solitude, while he was at the same time blessed with a gift for friendship. His life was studded with friends, people like John Bowden, Hurrell Froude, Edward Pusey, and Ambrose St John, and a wide circle of women friends as well. His letters bear witness to the way he kept these friendships in good repair.
His friends were important to him and, as the quotation you give illustrates, he recognized that if we are to fulfil the great commandment to love God and our neighbour, we will not do that by a vague, broad, general philanthropy. We have to love particular people. Through these particular loves we make the great commandment a reality in our lives. These loves have a sacramental quality. They are outward signs of something profound and interior. And we need to keep in mind that Newman’s society was neither as secularized nor as sexualized as ours. We make the great commandment real by the way we love particular people.
I write in my review that I consider Newman a “blessed for our times,” because he just has such a sensible, intelligent approach that avoids extremes of too strident or too relaxed when addressing various issues. Do you agree? Who do you think in the modern Church would have Newman’s sensible approach?
As an Anglican, Newman proposed an understanding of the Church of England as a middle way – a via media – between Protestant error and Roman excess. In time, as we know, he lost confidence in that view of Anglicanism. But he retained an instinct for and sympathy with the moderation it expressed. As a Catholic, however, he charted that middle path, obviously not between Protestantism and Rome, but between non-Catholic misunderstandings of Catholic teaching and the mistakes that entailed, on the one hand, and Roman Catholic extravagance and extremism, on the other, exaggerated devotion to Our Lady, for example, or extremist interpretations of Papal infallibility.
You speak of Newman as a ‘blessed for our times’, and that seems to me exactly right, not because we need simply to find Newman’s answer to everything and, heigh-ho, all problems are solved; life is never so simple; but more because of his attitude which can guide us between right-wing stridency and left-wing wackiness, whether inside or outside the Church. Between those two extremes there is a fair space where varying emphases can be found and championed and where intelligent conversation can take place. In that Newman can serve as our model and guide.
Newman was a famous convert. Can you think of other, recent converts who followed a similar path?
Various crises in the Anglican communion over the years, especially more recently with regard to the ordination of women and approaches to homosexuality, have led some Anglicans to lose confidence in the Catholicity of their Church and move to Rome. In that sense – by losing confidence in Anglicanism’s Catholic nature – they could be said to have followed Newman’s path. At the same time, such paths are also unique. And Newman was also outstandingly original, so I find it hard to bracket anyone else with him. I say that, not because of my admiration for him, but because of his originality that, I believe, has still to be explored much further.
Do you plan to be in the UK for the beatification of Cardinal Newman? Thoughts on the beatification?
Yes, I will be in the UK for Newman’s beatification and have been invited for the occasion to be part of the commmentary team in the BBC studio. That will be a novel experience for me.
My primary thought about the beatification is to stress that, although Newman is renowned for his intellectual brilliance and the contribution he has made to Catholic thinking, it is the man who is being beatified, not the ideas. He was a man of deep faith in God whose life was often demanding, but throughout his trials he remained utterly faithful. We have to recognize that we will be acknowledging a man of faith and fidelity.