6 October 2009


As I write this, we do not yet know the arrangements for the Beatification of John Henry Newman. Will it be in Rome, as beatifications commonly were in recent pontificates, or will it happen in England? Will it be done by the Holy Father or by a local Archbishop? One of the most interesting changes made by Benedict XVI was the localising of many beatifications. And this is in itself a good example of Benedict's way of working and of his understanding of a hermeneutic of continuity.

Misunderstandings can arise from an assumption that beatification is just a step to canonisation, just as the diaconate is (in popular but mistaken understanding) just a step to the priesthood. Beatification is, on the contrary, a refinement of an arrangement always implicit in 'Saint-making': the distinction between a local cultus and a universal cultus. Often the movement from the former to the latter was a gradual process with popular input, as pilgrims and tourists transported reports of sanctity (and sometimes relics) around the Christian world. Most strikingly, a Middle Eastern Martyr of whom little is known became the Patron Saint of England.

Beatifications were the actions of the local Church until quite late. That erudite pontiff Benedict XIV wrote a classical work on Saint-making and recorded the beatification, in 1603, of Blessed (later Saint) Boniface of Lausanne by the Archbishop of Malines. Soon after this, beatification was restricted to the Roman Pontiff as part of that centralisation which followed the Counter-Reformation. But another fact which also might sound strange to us is the low-key informality of beatification in those days. Pronouncements were not made to a crowd of people at a fever pitch of pious excitement; the beatifying authority simply issued texts for Mass and Office of the new beatus. And originally this permission for cultus was commonly very limited; when S Philip Neri was beatified in 1615 the liturgical texts were only allowed to be used in the Oratorian Church of the Chiesa Nuova in Rome ... not even in other Oratories. The Pope reminded the Oratory of their obligation to celebrate their founder "with restraint". Not until the beatification of S Francis de Sales in 1662 was a beatification done in the modern sense of that word.

John Henry Newman, of course, is a rather special case. He is already a universal figure; and is regarded by many as one of the main sources of all that was good about Vatican II and its 'spirit'. And it would be good if the Holy Father were to perform the Beatification of Newman himself, breaking his own rule of leaving such events to a local Primate acting as his legate. Remember that the RC Church in England does not have a primate (see posts of July 18 and 21). And Newman is in many ways the property both of the English Ecclesial Community which nurtured him and which he transformed before 1845, and of the one he joined. Surely it would be sensible for the Bishop of Rome, who is the common Father of all Western Christians, to perform this act.

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