Diarmaid MacCulloch

A Different Cloth

Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint


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‘I have nothing of a saint about me, as everyone knows.’ I could warm to a man who says that about himself, as long as I thought he meant it. Evidently Pope Benedict XVI disagrees with Newman, given the plans for beatifying this most celebrated English Roman Catholic and ex-Anglican of the nineteenth century. The title of John Cornwell’s excellent biography reveals that the proposal raises problems – not least because, unlike St Thérèse of Lisieux, bits of whom recently visited our shores, Newman will never be available to be toured around in a glass box. His mortal remains have inconsiderately melded with the soil in which they were buried, leaving only brass, wood and cloth. But that is the least of the difficulties with Newman’s unquiet grave. Plans to remove him to a shrine in preparation for sainthood only drew attention to his most unusual request in death, that of burial in the same grave as the intimate friend who predeceased him, the fellow convert to Rome Father Ambrose St John. In the case of a saint, the Church apparently knows better than the dead man himself; and removal does get him away from a proximity to St John which in the light of current culture wars has become something of an embarrassment. If the justification for such highhanded coffin-ferrying is sainthood, that returns us to the question of whether Newman has anything of a saint about him.

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