Newman's Visit to Rome in 1833: Part IV

By Fr. Joseph Elamparayil
Published in History
December 06, 2019
12 min read
Newman's Visit to Rome in 1833: Part IV

Part 4. Ecclesial Life beyond the Borders of Anglican Life

Newman was not a mere tourist or pilgrim during his Mediterranean voyage, rather he was a curious Anglican looking for an "enlargement of mind" and benefit of health. In fact, by tracing the footsteps of the apostles, fathers, and the great saints of Christianity, he sought a personal ecclesial enlargement. He received first-hand experiences of the Greek and Roman churches beyond the Anglican life he had in England. Therefore, one may broadly conclude that Newman's Mediterranean journey was an experience of living an ecclesial life beyond the borders of a particular church.[1]

Whatever Newman learned notionally about the Church during his study of the Arians of the Fourth Century became real for him during this voyage. He was impressed with many aspects of Greek ecclesial life and liked the growing leniency of the Greek Church towards the Church of England.

The lives of the heroes of Christian antiquity and their ecclesiological views and practices resurfaced in Newman's thoughts and settled in him as solid convictions. Simultaneously, he also became more conscious of the lack of theological knowledge among his colleagues and diminishing freedom of the Church of England. Therefore, he ruminated an action plan for the revitalization of his own Church and began to write about the need of defending the rights of the church.

Newman was overpowered by conflicting feelings for the Church and Rome, however, as he visited the traces of the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul,[2] the Petrine vestiges defending the historical authenticity of Peter's presence in Rome alone sufficed Newman to accept Rome as the mother of all churches of the West, and "the most exalted Church in the whole world."[3]

Newman saw in Rome that religion had its proper place because he found devout worshippers and priests at the altar day after day.[4] He knew that for many Englishmen accustomed to the orderliness of the Book of Common Prayer, such devotions were upsetting, even scandalizing. More shocking were the spectacles, such as the "souls in purgatory painted on the wall," and the "admonition to take part in saving them from it."[5]

However, he knew that "the catholic system addresses itself to the imagination."[6] Therefore, he claimed "for them a much higher origin, though one which everyone has within him if he will cultivate it—the devotional sense."[7] For him, the "reverential principle" of the Church of Rome was something indissolubly connected with real religion and was inherited from the old catholic times rather than being of a mere imaginative character.[8]

Though there were many impressive things about Roman devo­tional practices, such as feast days and fast days, and the observance of Lent, Newman felt obliged to point out how "popery has eaten into the high system of Catholicism and left it but an outside shell."[9] Therefore, he described Rome as a city where "God has put blessing and cursing on the same city, in the highest measure."[10] His view of Rome was not so much rejection as regret: "The Roman Church I will not blame, but pity; she is, as I have said, spell?bound, as if by an evil spirit; she is in thralldom."[11] He thought that the "very moral of the parable of the tares" was "designed by our Lord to have a prophetical reference to the case of Rome"[12] and so he attributed the position of Rome to the witness of the power of the Gospel.[13]

Newman felt that a mystery of iniquity had developed with more subtlety over the course of history "in the very heart of the church, in her highest dignity, in the seat of St. Peter."[14] Like people confronted with the shortcomings of their own families, he acknowledged his mixed emotions about the Church of Rome, yet indicated how sympathetic he was to the Church of Rome, the mother of Christianity and the source of apostolic succession. Therefore, he wanted to rescue Rome from her corruptions.[15] He was confronted with an ecclesiological dilemma: "a solution of the great difficulty which perplexes Protestants, how to avoid popery without giving up the church."[16] He began to seek a middle ground, a via media, "in his way of speaking concerning the Roman Church."[17]

"Home Thoughts Abroad," and many of his letters from Rome indicate how Newman had struggled with the churches of Rome and England and the thoughts of their possible union. In the second part of "Home Thoughts Abroad," he was challenged to accept the fact of the existence of the Church of Rome and its Catholicity according to the fathers of the church, and he had to consider the Anglicans as separated from her. He was told repeatedly that the Anglican reasons, such as corruptions of doctrines and idolatry, were unconvincing, and the via media theory was nothing but a paper theory, and already a failed ecclesial experiment.

Consequently, Newman's last mission became a movement of the friends of the Church for inculcating the doctrine of apostolic succession, defense of the liturgy, and the revival of church discipline. Further, the list of foundational ecclesial principles outlined by Newman included the ordination service, divinely appointed orders of ministries, the sacraments for salvation, the injunction of daily service, the solemnization of fast and festival days, a yearly confession and reintroducing monasticism in England.[18]

Therefore, the visit to Rome gave Newman an opportunity to live ecclesial life beyond his Anglicanism, to experience a historical continuity from the Apostles to the Fathers and great Saints to the generation of his time. Above all, the visit to Rome helped Newman to discern the foundational and perennial principles of ecclesial life and unity and formulate a realistic understanding that the Church in this world is an actualization of the parable of the wheat and the tares.

An Ecclesial and Ecumenical Spirituality

From December 1832 to July 1833, Newman traveled with the Froudes. On 6 April 1833, he wrote to John Frederic Christie that he was "drawn by an irresistible attraction to the fair levels and richly verdure heights of Sicily" and wanted "as Wordsworth would say, to commune with high nature."[19] Therefore, when the Froudes departed for Marseilles on Tuesday, April 9, Newman went to Naples a second time with Sicily as his destination.[20] He wrote to Jemima:

"I went to the Church of St. Maria in Cosmedin which Dionysius founded AD. 260 and where Austin is said to have studied rhetoric, I mounted the height where St Peter was martyred, and for a last time wandered through the vast space of his wonderful Basilica and surveyed his place of burial, and then prepared for my departure."[21]

Newman had acknowledged that he was afflicted by "three great illnesses" which made a significant change of the course of his life.[22] The illness in Sicily was the last of three great illnesses and it navigated him to a new course of commitment for the Church and for its unity. Any such commitment demands a conversion, a true change not only of heart and mind but also within our souls, a change such that we desire what Christ desires. Christ's desire for unity among his disciples is integral to Christ's vision of the Church that is his body. Newman was fully prepared for the mission which was soon to involve him completely.[23]

At last, on 13 June 1833, Newman left for home through Marseilles. During the voyage, on June 16, he composed the poem: "The Pillar of the Cloud," which better reflects his ecclesial consciousness: "Lead, Kindly Light, amid th' encircling gloom…. I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me."[24]


Many Newman scholars, especially John Ford, have reiterated that Newman was a contextual theologian.[25]Such theologians who are concerned with systematic ecclesiology and ecumenism could never be faithful and effective without being responsible to their lived experience of ecclesial life and practices. Newman's ecclesial ideas of Church and unity become intelligible and acceptable only if one is aware of both the context of his writings and open to the far-reaching consequences of his ideas and opinions. Against his own claim,[26] Newman did gain first-hand experience of the Greek and Roman churches.

As Ian Ker has pointed out:

"Newman's religious vision had certainly been dramatically widened, and there is no question that his imagination, if not his mind, had been powerfully affected by witnessing at first hand the Church which his early Evangelical formation had convinced him was the Church of the Antichrist, a view which in a more modified and less extreme version he still held."[27]

Touring the churches on the Mediterranean made a lasting impact on Newman's love and understanding of the Church. The journey provided him with a kairos of ecclesial self-examination and renewal. On the one hand, he continued to examine and reflect upon the contemporary situation of his own Church. The political interferences and the divisive spirit of liberalism were impoverishing his Church and leading her to ultimate desolation. On the other hand, the journey, especially the visits to the churches of Rome and her people, led him to the fundamental realization of ecclesial life: truth could not be compromised even for the sake of unity. In effect, his dialogue served as an examination of conscience and means of resolve.

The participation (communion) in the life and activities of the ecclesial communities he visited gave him a biblical, patristic, liturgical, and pastoral understanding of the church. From those participations he was able to discern the foundational principles of the apostolic and catholic church. As he progressed in his journey through the ecclesial reality of each church, he had acquired a realistic ecclesiology: the Church is a parable of the wheat and tares. However, for Newman, the purity of the gospel truth could not compromised. In fact, Newman was anticipating what John Paul II insisted in ecumenical endeavors:

"In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the Body of Christ, 'the way, and the truth, and the life' (Jn 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth? A 'being together' which betrayed the truth would thus be opposed both to the nature of God who offers his communion, and to the need for truth found in the depths of every human heart."[28]

Newman's visit to Rome had also convinced him of the importance of taking that "one step" of communion with the Church that he found closer to the Church of the Apostles and Fathers. He seemed to be conscious that the quest for truth, particularly concerning the Church, is what ultimately leads to unity. In effect, he knew that truth forms consciences and directs efforts to promote unity. It is the power of truth rather than the compromising of truth that leads everyone to true communion with God and with each other. This is possible inasmuch as conversations between Christians serve as an examination of conscience, as Newman practiced with the various individuals in his journey to Rome. Therefore, claiming Newman as a theologian with comprehensive ecclesiology and a pioneer of true ecumenism may not be an overstatement.

Finally, Newman recognized that this journey to Rome was a personal spiritual communion that each human person has to make, often alone, for the salvation of his or her own soul. Newman's visit to Rome underlines the fact that in spite of our historical divisions, when existing structures of divisions both inside and outside human souls are removed, unity is possible.[29]

[1] An ecumenical pioneer, Cardinal Mercier of Malines, Belgium is famous for his advice: "In order to unite with one another, we must love one another. In order to love one another, we must know one another. In order to know one another, we must go and meet one another." See Dirk J Smit., Remembering Theologians – Doing Theology (Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2013), 506.

[2] "Thoughts," 11.

[3] "Thoughts," 122.

[4] "Thoughts," 126.

[5] "Thoughts," 128.

[6] "Thoughts," 128.

[7] "Thoughts," 127.

[8] "Thoughts," 127.

[9] Newman marshaled a series of examples from personal observations ("Thoughts," 127).

[10] "Thoughts," 8: "Nay, not only in place and time, but in all things, good and evil go together, the tares and the wheat. This is a paradox of facts, not of doctrines, which our Lord's parable lays down, and which is striking exemplified in the great city I am speaking about."

[11] "Thoughts," 124.

[12] "Thoughts," 124-25. John Coulson and Ryan J. Marr have argued that "Newman's abiding concern as a Roman Catholic theologian was to account for the double aspect of the Church: how to square its superstitutions and tyrannies with its [identity] as the … Body of Christ." See John Coulson, "Newman on the Church–His Final View, Its Origins and Influence," in The Rediscovery of Newman: An Oxford Symposium, ed. John Coulson and A.M. Allchin (London: Sheed and Ward. 1967), 131 and Ryan J Marr, To Be Perfect Is to Have Changed Often, (New York: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2018), xxviii. Marr quotes Coulson.

[13] Newman to George Ryder (Rome, 14 Mar 1833), LD iii: 248-49.

[14] "Thoughts," 125.

[15] "Thoughts," 125.

[16] "Thoughts," 125-26.

[17] "Thoughts," 125.

[18] "Thoughts," 364.

[19] Newman to John Frederic Christie (Rome, 6 Apr 1833), LD iii: 277; to Henry Wilberforce (Rome, 9 Mar 1833), LD iii: 245 and to George Ryder (Rome, 14 Mar 1833), LD iii: 247.

[20] Newman, Autobiographical Writings (New York: Sheed and Ward Inc 1957), 111 (abbr. AW).

[21] Newman to Jemima Newman (Naples, 11 Apr 1833), LD iii: 282-86, at 282.

[22] "The first keen, terrible one, when I was a boy of fifteen, and it made me a Christian–with experience before and after, awful and known only to God. My second, not painful, but tedious and shattering, was that which I had in 1827, when I was one of the Examining Masters, and it too broke me off from an incipient liberalism, and determined my religious course. The third was in 1833, when I was in Sicily, before the commencement of the Oxford Movement." See AW, 119-20. At the end of his life Newman confessed that he found it difficult to realize or imagine the identity of the boy before and after August 1816. As he looked back over seventy years, he could only see another person (Ker, Biography, 3).

[23] Jean Honoré, The Spiritual Journey Of Newman, trans. by Sr. Mary Christopher Ludden.S.C. (New York: Alba House, 1997), 98.

[24] See the Footnote, LD iii: 322. Newamn landed in France on June 27, and set off for Lyons the next day and arrived there the evening of Sunday, June 30. After a week's travelling through France, he arrived back home, at Rose Hill, Oxford, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, July 9.

[25] John T Ford, C.S.C., "John Henry Newman as Contextual Theologian," Newman Studies Journal, 2. no. 2 (Fall 2005): 60-76.

[26] Newman himself maintained that he had "experienced none of the largeness and expansion of mind" which he had been told he would "get from traveling"; see Newman to Thomas Mozley (Rome, 9 Mar 1833), LD iii: 242.

[27] Ker, Biography, 64.

[28] John Paul II, Ut Unum SintOn Commitment to Ecumenism (5 May 1995) §18.

[29] "There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart." John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, §15).

Previous Article
Newman's Visit to Rome in 1833: Part III
Fr. Joseph Elamparayil

Fr. Joseph Elamparayil

Independent Scholar, Catholic University of America

Fr. Joseph Elamparayil is a graduate of The Catholic University of America. His dissertation is titled, "John Henry Newman's Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church: A Contextual History and Ecclesiological Analysis."


Newman Today
New and Noteworthy
© 2023, All Rights Reserved.
National Institute for Newman Studies