I met Paul Burnell, a UK-based Catholic journalist, at "The Church Up Close" program in Rome earlier this month. Paul checked out of the newsroom to attend the beatification Mass for Cardinal John Henry Newman as a regular member of the faithful this weekend. I asked him if he would be willing to share his experience with OSV Daily Take. Thank you, Paul, for giving us this exclusive insider's view:
By Paul Burnell
Pope Benedict came to Britain to beatify John Henry Cardinal Newman – one shy intellectual Catholic genius honouring another. But in a certain sense the pope’s visit resembled that of the forgotten hero in the Newman story – Blessed Dominic Barberi, the Italian Passionist who received Newman into the Church.
Pronouncing the Church’s latest Blessed at the massive outdoor Mass in Birmingham on September 19, the Pope revealed that his feast day would be October 9, the day when Blessed Dominic arrived soaked to the skin and freezing at Littlemore near Oxford after traveling on top of a stage coach to Oxford from the North of England. Blessed Dominic believed in the conversion of England, a vision that had inspired his order’s founder, St Paul of the Cross. Little did he know how profound – yet unsung -- his role would be in English Catholicism’s Second Spring.
Like Dominic I arrived freezing and soaked to the skin for the outdoor Mass in a park close to Newman’s grave and the hills where he sought R and R. We were delivered by our coaches – the police decreed no pilgrim could travel on their own – to a post industrial wasteland, the site of one of the UK’s biggest ever car plant.
Now we marched carrying our food blanket and chairs for what seemed like an eternity to the park but nobody complained. The love, joy and unity was there for all to see, and when we arrived just after dawn with three hours to go until Mass it was like being bathed in grace. There was peace despite the cold, fatigue and rain. Then the Pope arrived and literally the rain stopped, the sun shone and the wind dropped. Even the media thought this was providential timing.
The beauty and power of Holy Mass combined with the sense of history and joy at this momentous raising of John Henry Newman, the world's most famous convert from Anglicanism to the RC faith. This pilgrim tried valiantly to sing Newman’s hymns during Mass -- "Firmly I believe...Praise to the holiest in the height..." – but those pesky tears wouldn’t stop. I sobbed tears of joy. I was not alone.
Four days earlier there had been trepidation talks of protests, terror attacks and pretty virulent prose and comments in the media and on the airwaves – even snide jokes about abuser priests in the office. It reminded me of Blessed Dominic’s first years in the UK, like Benedict, a foreigner who suffered all kinds of calumny. He was even pelted with mud and rocks as he walked through the streets. Mercifully for the Pope the only missiles were verbal but the hatred was the same.
When Dominic died, however, the streets of Protestant England were lined by thousands wanting to honour this saintly priest, who is buried near Liverpool in a shrine which also includes Mother Mary Prout, founder of the Passionist Sisters, and Father Ignatius Spencer, a Passionist priest and ancestor of Princess Diana.
By the time the Pope left, there was a similar change in public mood this humble and holy genius of a pontiff had even won over the country’s notorious tabloids. “Benes from Heaven and the People’s Pontiff,” said one headline. Prime Minister Cameron, who was comforted by the pope over the recent death of his father, said the pope had made the people of Britain “sit up and think.”
The protesters could only muster 10,000; more than 200,000 lined the streets of London to cheer the pope – unheard of on a Saturday night – for a massively successful youth rally in London’s Hyde Park where he received a pop star welcome.
The Pope said so many pungent and telling remarks on the journey, but for me the tone was set in Scotland when he arrived in Edinburgh. “As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society,” he said.
Or as he told young people at the papal Mass in Glasgow: “There are many temptations placed before you every day -- drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol -- which the world tells you will bring you happiness, yet these things are destructive and divisive. There is only one thing which lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you. Search for him, know... him and love him, and he will set you free from slavery.”
Back in Birmingham, as we rejoiced at the beatification, I felt a strong sense of the Lord’s hand in reclaiming my native land. Somehow in a mysterious way a lot of threads were woven together on this papal visit. The first great evangelization of England came when Pope Gregory sent
Benedictine monks led by St Augustine of Canterbury. The next wave came in the 19th Century, described by Newman as the "Second Spring." Many of the key figures ministered from Birmingham, most notably Newman, and elsewhere the Benedictines were reestablishing parish life in small mission churches, after the rupture caused by the Reformation.
Is it too much to hope that the combination of a pope inspired by St. Benedict, beatifying Newman in Birmingham, and suffering like Blessed Dominic might be heralding a new flourishing of the faith? Blessed John Henry Newman and Blessed Dominic Barberi pray for us.