Window into the Heart of a Saint: A Review of Michael Collins's Newman: A Short Biography
By Michael Collins
Dublin: Messenger Publications, 2019. 96 pages. Paperback: €9.95, £8.95. ISBN: 9781788121057
Fr. Michael Collins, a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin and graduate of University College of Dublin, which developed from John Henry Newman's Catholic University, has composed an excellent short introduction to the life of John Henry Newman. As Collins mentions in his introduction, though "our world is undoubtedly different from that of the Victorian era," Newman still speaks to us today because he "continuously wrote on the horizon between heaven and earth, and for this reason he continues to draw the enquiring mind and the open heart" (9).
Fr. Collins's biography of Newman consists of twelve chapters, each of which displays snapshots of scenes from Newman's life based upon his letters, diaries, and personal writings. This self-proclaimed short biography is exceedingly accessible and functions as a wonderful introduction to the life of the newly canonized saint. The emphasis of this book is to present Newman's life in a way that does not overemphasize Newman's intellectual achievement to the detriment of understanding who he was as a person, which is commendable.
The only downside to this publication is the notion that this book "demonstrates that Newman the saint is a figure far-removed from Newman the academic" (back cover). The historiographical problem with this is that it unintendedly creates a dichotomy between the head and heart (or more specifically, faith and reason)—a false dichotomy that Newman spent much of his life attempting to correct. Similarly, Newman's life as an academic was intrinsically intertwined with his life as a pastor. This book also proclaims to be "a window into the heart and mind of the shoe-shine boy who wound up a saint" (back cover), which almost sounds as if Newman's sanctity was merely a happenstance, when Newman was in fact quite intentional in both his prayer and academic life. He didn't simply happen upon sainthood. It is likely that the publisher meant that Newman became a saint regardless of his humble beginnings. However, it is important that the story of Newman's sanctity is presented as accurately as possible.
This book comes recommended for the lay reader interested in getting to know who Newman was and what Newman's significance was (and still is). This book is also a great resource for parish groups beginning their study of Newman.
Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Huddleston, Ph.D., National Institute for Newman Studies