Reflections on Saint John Henry Newman’s Canonisation with Westminster Youth Ministry

Alice talks about her experience on pilgrimage to Rome for the canonisation of the newest English saint.

On the morning of the canonisation we walked down to the Vatican at an early hour, the orange glow of the morning rising above the houses. Despite it being mid-October, it was set to be a scorcher.

By the time we squeezed into St Peter’s Square, there were already hundreds of people from many nationalities gathered around us, as Cardinal Newman was to be canonised alongside four holy women from Italy, Switzerland, India and Brazil.

Somehow we ended up with fantastic seats. The atmosphere was electric, not unlike a festival, until the Mass started a few hours later and a sense of calm and solemnity fell upon the crowd.

The two-hour Mass was a privilege to witness and be a part of. To hear the comfortingly familiar dulcet tones of the Pope and see him through the crowds was an experience I will always remember. It was so powerful to be there in the presence of the Pope and tens of thousands of other Catholics as Cardinal Newman was made Saint John Henry Newman.

Before I came to Rome, I was no scholar of Newman. In fact, the closest I had got to him was his portrait by Millais in the National Portrait Gallery. Yet the more I came to know of his works and fascinating life story, the more I understood why this canonisation was such an important moment for English Catholics, as well as for the Anglican church.

Newman’s private struggles with his faith were played out publicly, becoming an important talking point and example to both his advocates and those who saw his conversion as a betrayal.

He turned this adversity into both opportunities for personal growth and for growth within the Roman Church. The reality of living as a questioning human being can be seen in the life and works of this great man.

Excluding the canonisation Mass itself, the most memorable part of the pilgrimage for me was our visit to the Venerable English College the following day (as anyone else in the group will attest to, I wouldn’t stop talking about it afterwards!).

We were lucky enough to be given a tour of the college by Bishop Nicholas Hudson and a look at a number of historical treasures relating to Newman’s life, with descriptions from the college’s archivist.

The Bishop spoke movingly of the struggles Newman had with his faith, and how in such moments of personal suffering and anguish a person’s best work can be produced. Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua or his writing of Lead Kindly Light, which we sang into the beautiful acoustics of the college’s chapel,are perfect examples of this.

I found it comforting that the more I discovered about Saint John Henry Newman, the more complicated a person he was revealed to be. Surely that model of sainthood is more relevant today than ever, as we struggle daily with the opportunities and pressures of modern life.

This was my first trip with Westminster Youth Ministry. I realised early on that I knew less about the faith than many others there, but that no question I asked would ever be deemed silly or embarrassing. What a liberating prospect when we spend all our days at work pretending we know what we are talking about.

If you are thinking about joining a future pilgrimage with the Diocese of Westminster Youth Ministry, I would recommend it for so many reasons, but perhaps this is a good place to start. Fellowship, the chance to make friends, to question and challenge, and to travel to places that both enrich and inspire you; what a blessing that has been and I hope will be so again soon.