Newman's Visit to Rome in 1833: Part IV

Part I: Background

Part II: Letters Home

Part III: Politics and Church Reform

(Fr. Elamparayil is a graduate of The Catholic University of America. His dissertation is titled, "John Henry Newman's Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church: A Contextual History and Ecclesiological Analysis.")

4. Affects of Ecclesial Life beyond the Borders of Anglican Life

Newman was not mere tourist or pilgrim during his Mediterranean voyage, rather he was a curious Anglican looking for an "enlargement of mind" and benefit of health. In fact he was looking for a personal ecclesial enlargement by tracing the footsteps of the Apostles, Fathers, and the great Saints of Christianity. He received first-hand experiences of the Greek, Italian, and Roman churches which were beyond the borders of the evangelical Anglican life he had in England. Therefore, one may conclude that in general Newman's Mediterranean journey was an experience of living an ecclesial life beyond the borders of a particular church.[1]

Whatever Newman learned notionally about the Church during his study of the Arians of the Fourth Century became real for him during his Mediterranean voyage, as he traced the footsteps of the Apostles and Fathers of the Church. His reflections about the Greek Fathers, his favorite champions of Orthodoxy, re-echoed in his mind and found expression in his poetry. When he visited Greek churches, he found nothing much wrong in their churches, rather he was impressed with many aspects of Greek ecclesial practices, such as their prayers saturated with Trinitarian doctrine, veneration to the saints especially to the Virgin, fasting, became more acceptable to him and he liked the growing leniency of the Greek Church towards the Church of England.

Tracing the footsteps of the Apostles and Fathers of the Church throughout his travel was an experience of living the ecclesial life and spirituality of these early Christian heroes for Newman. He took great joy and satisfaction of reliving the Christian life of these great leaders of Christian antiquity. Their ecclesiological views and practices resurfaced in his thoughts and settled in him as solid convictions. Simultaneously, during this voyage, Newman also become more conscious of the lack of theological knowledge among his colleagues and diminishing freedom of the Church of England. Therefore, he ruminated an action plan for the revitalization of his own church and began to write about the need of defending the rights of the church.

Touring the city of Rome, he was overpowered by mixed feelings: on the one hand, a genuine appreciation for the Church and Rome; on the other, an evangelical, even apocalyptic, dismay about Rome and its Church. As he visited the traces of the apostles of St. Peter and St. Paul,[2] the Petrine vestiges defending the historical authenticity of Peter's presence in Rome alone sufficed Newman to accept Rome as the mother of all churches of the West and "the most exalted church in the whole world."[3]

Newman felt that there was around him not an "unfit representation of both its noble Catholicism and its papistical corruptions" but religion had its proper place because he found devout worshippers and priests at the altar day after day.[4] He knew that such popular devotions were often dismissed by English writers, "who wish to be philosophical and make smart and shallow generalization" that "the catholic system addresses itself to the imagination."[5] He, however, claimed "for them a much higher origin, though one which everyone has within him if he will cultivate it—the devotional sense."[6] For him, the "reverential principle" of the church of Rome was something indissolubly connected with real religion and was inherited from the old catholic times rather than being of a mere imaginative character.[7]

Though there were many impressive things about Roman devo­tional practices, such as feast days and fast days, the observance of Lent, Newman felt obliged to point out how "popery has eaten into the high system of Catholicism and left it but an outside shell."[8] He knew that for many Englishmen accustomed to the orderliness of the Book of Common Prayer, such devotions were upsetting, even scandalizing. More shocking were the spectacles; such as the "souls in purgatory painted on the wall," and the "admonition to take part in saving them from it."[9]

Therefore, in his Letters and "Home Thoughts Abroad," Newman described Rome as a city where "God has put blessing and cursing on the same city, in the highest measure."[10] His view of Rome was not so much rejection as regret: "The Roman church I will not blame, but pity; she is, as I have said, spell‑bound, as if by an evil spirit; she is in thralldom."[11] He thought that the "very moral of the parable of the tares" was "designed by our Lord to have a prophetical reference to the case of Rome"[12] and so he attributed the position of Rome to the witness of the power of the Gospel.[13]

Newman felt that a mystery of iniquity had developed with more subtlety over the course of history "in the very heart of the church, in her highest dignity, in the seat of St. Peter."[14] Like people confronted with the shortcomings of their own families, he acknowledged his mixed emotions about the church of Rome, yet indicated how sympathetic he was to the church of Rome, the Mother of Christianity and the source of Apostolic Succession. Accordingly, he wanted to rescue Rome from corruptions.[15] He was confronted with an ecclesiological dilemma: "a solution of the great difficulty which perplexes Protestants – how to avoid popery without giving up the church."[16] He began to seek a middle ground, a via media, "in his way of speaking concerning the Roman Church."[17]

The "Home Thoughts Abroad," and many of his letters from Rome indicates how Newman had struggled between the churches of Rome and England and the thoughts of their possible union. In imaginary conversation in the second part of "Home Thoughts Abroad," he was challenged to accept the fact of the existence of the Church of Rome and its Catholicity according to the Fathers of the Church and to consider the Anglicans as separated from her like the Donatists. He was told repeatedly that the Anglican reasons, such as corruptions of doctrines and idolatry were unconvincing and the via media theory is nothing but a paper theory, and already, a failed ecclesial experiment.

Newman, however, defended himself first by relying on the catholicity and purity of his church. He also attempted to justify his church and other churches separated from Rome by affirming that they had blessings equal to the Church of Rome. He advocated the principle of doctrinal development and a building up of the existing Church of England rather than going over to Rome.

Consequently, Newman's last mission possible became a movement of the friends of the church for inculcating the doctrine of apostolic succession, defense of the liturgy, and the revival of church discipline. Further, the list of foundational ecclesial principles outlined by Newman included the ordination service, divinely appointed orders of ministries, the sacraments for salvation, the injunction of daily service, the solemnization of fast and festival days, a yearly confession and reintroducing monasticism in England.[18]

Therefore, the visit to Rome certainly gave Newman an opportunity to re-live an ecclesial life; to experience a continuity from the Apostles to the Fathers and great Saints to the generation of his time. While resisting what was corrupt in that ecclesial communion, he was able to discern what were the foundational and perennial principles of ecclesial life and unity. Above all, the visit to Rome helped Newman to formulate a realistic understanding: the Church in this world is an actualization of the parable of the wheat and the weeds.


[1] An ecumenical pioneer, Cardinal Mercier of Malines, Belgium is famous for his testament: "In order to unite with one another, we must love one another. In order to love one another, we must know one another. In order to know one another, we must go and meet one another."

[2] "Thoughts," 11.

[3] Ibid., 122.

[4] Ibid., 126.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 127.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Newman marshaled a series of examples from personal observations (ibid., 127).

[9] Ibid., 128.

[10] "Thoughts," 8: "Nay, not only in place and time, but in all things, good and evil go together, the tares and the wheat. This is a paradox of facts, not of doctrines, which our Lord's parable lays down, and which is striking exemplified in the great city I am speaking about . . . ."

[11] Ibid., 124.

[12] Ibid., 124-125. John Coulson and Ryan J. Marr have argued that "Newman's abiding concern as a Roman Catholic theologian was to account for the double aspect of the Church: how to square its superstitutions and tyrannies with its [identity] as the … Body of Christ." See John Coulson, "Newman on the Church–His Final View, Its Origins and Influence," in The Rediscovery of Newman: An Oxford Symposium, ed. John Coulson and A.M. Allchin (London: Sheed and Ward. 1967), 131 and Ryan J Marr, To Be Perfect Is to Have Changed Often (New York: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2018), xxviii.

[13] Newman to George Ryder (Rome, 14 March 1833), LD 3: 248-249.

[14] "Thoughts," 125.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 125-126.

[17] Ibid., 125.

[18] Ibid., 364. 

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