Saint John Henry Newman and His Perception of His Life
As you are all very aware the 13 October marked the canonisation of the founder of the school – Saint John Henry Newman.
I thought that it might be worthwhile thinking a little about his own perception of his life. In fact JHN felt that his life was beset by failure - “a history of failures” as he put it, that much of his time had been “frittered away”, that many of his works had failed. He had met opposition to various suggestions to improve university experience whilst a tutor at Oxford, eventually being effectively dismissed as a tutor, he was dismissed as secretary of the Church Missionary Society because of a pamphlet he had written, and failed to be appointed to the chair of moral philosophy. He finally renounced his own “via media” or “middle way” in 1845 a number of years after starting the Oxford Movement.
However, in spite of opposition, and indeed his own personal doubts as his theological journey continued, this was a man who was not resigned to accepting failure as the endpoint. We sit in assembly today celebrating the canonisation of Newman by the Roman Catholic Church and tomorrow will have our own celebratory Mass and lunch following the return of the party who have represented our community in Rome this weekend. This canonisation is recognition not only of a life lived towards doing the will of his God in accordance with his faith, but also recognition of the continuing influence of John Henry Newman today – both in terms of influence on the Church itself, but also as an educationalist in what he has left to us in terms of our own Oratory School and the values and ethos that still govern it.
What message might we take from this? If this man, now a saint, looking back on his life, recognised first and foremost his greatest failures, how much more might we feel that sense of disappointment when considering our own lives? I would suggest that this is human nature however, that is, when we do become introspective - we consider first the things in which we have failed or the things that we might have done better. This means that sometimes we would perhaps rather not think about these things at all, and indeed avoid thinking about them at all costs. What can we learn from Newman then in terms of where we are? I would suggest this – that by being self-aware, by recognising our failures, and by not giving up as a result of them, but rather learning from them, only then do we begin to fulfil that of which we are capable. This path may not be easy but in the end it will be the path worth treading, and as JHN came to think, it was “the rule of God’s providence that we should succeed by failure”.
And so, on this morning after the day of his canonisation, take into the coming week and year ahead in whatever it is that you do, be it academic, sporting, dramatic, musical and so on, John Henry Newman’s philosophy that you should not be afraid to try and subsequently to fail, because this will indeed be the first step on the path to success. Indeed, we often may feel as though we have failed because we expect our lives to be stand-alone. However, as Newman observed, we are all a link in a chain and when considered together our lives add up to a great deal more than we might imagine.
Matthew Syddall, Deputy Head Academic