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‘Shall I ever see Littlemore again?’

· ​Cardinal Newman and love for the poor ·

The following are excerpts taken from the intervention given on the occasion of the 2016 Newman Association of America Conference

Sr Mary-Birgit Dechant, FSO

“Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members”. These words of Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium can rightly and easily be applied to the work and life of Blessed John Henry Newman and especially to his work among the poor of Littlemore. Using Newman’s Letters and Diaries this article will present Newman’s association with Littlemore: how he exercised his pastoral duties in this poor hamlet outside Oxford, and how the people of this place remained dear to his heart.

Littlemore became part of Newman’s life when he was appointed Vicar of St Mary the Virgin in 1828.

As early as 1828, he asked for permission from Oriel College to build a church at Littlemore. His request was refused. Littlemore seemed too poor to support a church and a Vicar of its own. So, he rented a room where his congregation could meet. He began to catechize the children and to explain to the servants St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

In April 1835, Newman’s sisters collected signatures for a petition to Oriel College to build a church: practically all the inhabitants of Littlemore signed it.

Newman decided that the church should have St Mary and St Nicholas as its patrons, as he wanted to keep the link to the life of the Church at the time of the Littlemore Mynchery. On 22 September 1836, the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Bagot, consecrated the church and the graveyard around the church was blessed.

Newman was happy to spend his time in prayer, in studies, in companionship with his friends and of course in the pastoral duties of Littlemore. He now really had established a parsonage and had become even closer to his parishioners who meant so much to him.

In summer 1843 William Lockhart, one of Newman’s friends who was sharing his semi-monastic life at Littlemore, decided to be received into the Catholic Church. Newman was shocked. He had not expected this. At the same time, his own doubts about the legitimacy of the Anglican Church were growing stronger and stronger. Newman decided to resign his appointment as Vicar of St Mary the Virgin and, therefore, of Littlemore as well. On 25 September 1843, the day on which the anniversary of the consecration of Littlemore Church was celebrated with great solemnity, he preached his famous farewell sermon ‘The Parting of Friends’. Newman gave frocks and bonnets to all the children as a parting gift.

Newman’s conviction, that the Church of Rome was the Church of antiquity, continued to grow in him.

On 24 June 1844, a visitor arrived at what Newman and his companions now referred to as ‘The College’. The Passionist Priest, Dominic Barberi, came to pay a visit to his friend John Dalgairns, one of the young men living with Newman at Littlemore. Barberi and Dalgairns went to Newman’s cottage to see the chapel where they prayed together and to talk with the famous Oxford preacher. In Newman’s Diaries of that day, we read only the following words: “Father Dominic called”. However, these few terse words belie the profound impact this visitor was to have. In a famous letter to his friend Bloxam, Newman had written on 23 February 1841 concerning Roman Catholics: “If they want to convert England, let them go barefooted into our manufacturing towns, let them preach to the people, like St Francis Xavier, let them be pelted and trampled on — and I will own that they can do what we cannot; I will confess that they are our betters far – I will (though I could not on that ground join them) I would gladly incur their reproach. This is to be Catholics, this is to secure a triumph. Let them use the proper arms of the Church, and they will prove that they are the Church by using them”. Barberi lived exactly what Newman had envisaged as an ideal. When Newman saw his ideas been made real in the life and person of a Catholic priest, his bias against the Catholic Church began to dissipate. Barberi played a great part in Newman’s coming into full communion with the Catholic Church.

On 3 October, he resigned his fellowship at Oriel College. Barberi arrived at Littlemore on 8 October about one hour before midnight, soaking wet from the heavy rain all day long. The events of that evening and of the next day, when Newman was received into the Church, are well known. Newman entered a Church that he knew was rich and abundant in grace, but that in England at least was made up mostly of poor immigrants. It was the Church he had come to love. It was the Church he wanted to serve as he had served the poor of his parish.

The last night Newman spent at Littlemore was the night of 21 February (his birthday) 1846. On Sunday, 22 February, he went to Mass at St Clement’s for the last time. Newman had to tear himself away from Littlemore. In a letter to Henry Wilberforce he put the question: “Shall I ever see Littlemore again?”. He saw it only twice more.

Newman kept contact with some of his former parishioners even if he did not visit them. On 10 September 1878, he returned to Littlemore once more but only for a few hours.

Blessed John Henry Newman put into practice what Pope Francis calls us to do. This is obvious from his concern for the people of Littlemore, which sprang from his faith and surrender to God and his fidelity to the Gospel.

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Feb. 19, 2017

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