As we prepare for the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Professor Norris helps us to understand Newman’s vision of education for mission.
In the month of October 1850 an announcement was made which shook the whole of England: the Catholic Hierarchy was to be restored in the land. After its banishment two hundred years previously it was now being set up again. ‘It is difficult to realise the fury caused. Protest meetings were held all over England, the Pope and Cardinal Wiseman were burned in effigy.... The agitation showed the strength of English Protestantism’[i]. The net effect of the agitation was that the Bishops were effectively silenced. Convinced that the church was not only the hierarchy but all the People of God, Newman wrote to a friend, ‘I dare say it may be advisable for our Bishops to do nothing ‑ but for that reason, if for no other, the laity should stir’[ii]. The hour of the laity had struck.
But what kind of laity? From the time he joined the Catholic communion five years previously in 1845 he was increasingly aware of the inadequate preparation of the lay people for the mission now falling to them. In particular, they needed education and formation for the task ahead. At the end of Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, delivered in 1850 in reply to the attack on the Bishops (G. K. Chesterton described it as having been practically preached to a raging mob), he described the kind of laity he wanted for the times now upon Catholics in England. It is worth quoting this purple passage,
‘Your strength lies in your God and your conscience; therefore it lies not in your number. It lies not in your number any more than in intrigue, or combination or worldly wisdom. What I desiderate in Catholics is the gift of bringing out what their religion is. I want an intelligent, well‑instructed laity; I am not denying you are such already: but I mean to be severe, and, as some would say, exorbitant in my demands, I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth,....to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism. In all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit; they saved the Irish Church three centuries ago, and they betrayed the Church in England’[iii].