The “Happy Months” of Newman at the College of Propaganda in Rome (1846–1847)

By Luca F. Tuninetti
Published in Education & History & Theology
August 04, 2021
16 min read
The “Happy Months” of Newman at the College of Propaganda in Rome (1846–1847)

In a note written in 1863, despite stressing “how dreary” were the circumstances he had to undergo after converting to Roman Catholicism in 1845, John Henry Newman  described the time spent between 1846 and 1847 in Rome at the College of Propaganda as “happy months.”[1] The College belonged to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, in Latin Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, a curial department established in 1622 by Pope Urban VIII to promote evangelization and missionary work overseas. The College (commonly referred to in abbreviated fashion as “Propaganda”) was officially named Collegium Urbanum after Pope Urban VIII. In the mid-nineteenth century, the territories subjected to the supervision of the Congregation were vast, and included not only countries in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and North America but also European nations that the Reformation had separated from Rome, such as England. The College was responsible for the training of seminarians from those very countries for the missions abroad. In this paper, I shall try to shed some light on the kind of experience that may have especially pleased Newman during his time at Propaganda. I argue that at the College in Rome he eventually found, and was profoundly attracted by, what he had long been looking for: the opportunity to participate in the daily life of an established Catholic community—at a time when he was considering his own vocation within the Church of Rome.

From Littlemore to Propaganda

In 1842, Newman retired with a few friends and pupils to Littlemore, a village in the outskirts of Oxford where he had built a small church, to lead a life dedicated to prayer and theological studies. Some of Newman’s companions who retired with him in Littlemore had joined the Church of Rome before him, whereas others joined later. Bishop Nicholas Wiseman (1802–1865), who at the time was the coadjutor to the vicar apostolic in the region, offered to accommodate the neo-Catholics at Old Oscott house near Birmingham, which Newman later renamed “Maryvale” out of Marian devotion, where he moved in February 1846. At Maryvale, the converts were keeping a set of rules imparted by the bishop.[2] This was, however, only a temporary arrangement, before Newman and his companions could make up their minds about how to fulfil their particular calling within the Catholic Church. On September 7, Newman left England with his friend Ambrose St. John heading towards Rome. They arrived in the eternal city on October 28, following a long journey through France and Northern Italy. They resided at the College of Propaganda from 9 November 1846 to 28 June 1847. After being ordained to the priesthood, Newman and St. John moved to another location in Rome, namely Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, to begin a brief period of novitiate as Oratorian priests; Newman then left the city at the beginning of December. During the time at Propaganda, Newman met the Oratorian Fathers and soon discovered that the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri was a form of priestly life in which he could see the realization of his own and his companions’ spiritual needs.

Tracing the Reasons Behind the Decision

Newman’s biographers have been rather cautious in writing about his decision to go to Rome:[3] Who made the decision? Was it Newman himself or rather somebody else to suggest the journey to Italy? I have mentioned the formal connection between Propaganda and the Catholic Church in England, although this neither explains the motive nor provides conclusive evidence to understand Newman’s resolution. His correspondence contains interesting details about the conversations he had with Bishop Wiseman, during which Newman expressed his wish to receive some sort of formal training, but one gets the feeling that the actual destination might have been determined by the bishop.[4] This hypothesis seems to be confirmed by the letter that Wiseman sent on 5 May 1846 to the Prefect of Propaganda, Cardinal Giacomo Filippo Fransoni (1775–1856), requesting  that Newman be admitted to the College despite the fact that he could not be accepted as a regular student because of his age.[5] Wiseman, who had lived in Rome for several years, wrote the letter in Italian, wherein he distinguished the roles that both Newman and himself had played in the decision making process. Newman had expressed his willingness to live a Christian life under a rule without entering a religious order. The decision of the steps to take in that direction was left to the bishop, who in his letter affirmed that he saw no better option than sending Newman to Rome, and specifically to Propaganda, to put him under the direct guidance of the authority in charge of the mission in England. It is not too difficult to imagine Bishop Wiseman having great expectations of “such an illustrious neophyte,” and thus being eager to support the role he could play in promoting Catholicism in England. In closing his letter to Cardinal Fransoni, Wiseman emphasized that new conversions were taking place on a daily basis, even among “outstanding people.” The bishop probably expected that Newman’s conversion could quickly prompt greater influence of the Church of Rome in England. These hopes were somewhat to be disappointed, causing much pain to Newman. The decision to send him to Propaganda, however, was to become one of the most important events in Newman’s life.

Life at the College of Propaganda

Newman and St. John arrived in Rome on 28 October 1846.[6] Before being admitted to the College, they had to stay in a hotel, which seems not to have been as comfortable as one would have wished (“a palace of filth”).[7] The reason why the two friends could not enter the College straightaway was that an accommodation had to be prepared especially for them: this comprised two opposite rooms at the end of a corridor divided by a glazed partition, with the space between serving as a kind of antechamber.[8] This clearly illustrates the special attention given to the high-profile guests by the Jesuits who were running the College. Newman and St. John were most impressed by the way they were received: “They are wonderfully kind to us; we have every thing our own way, and if we pleased, might be mere sight seers come to Rome to kill time.” Newman added the following passage, included within brackets: “I suppose, however, they would not be pleased with us, if we were.”[9]

Among the privileges they were granted, there was a tea in the evening. Newman surely appreciated the global outlook and lifestyle at the College, which he felt well fit the English way: “I am glad to say the living is almost English—I mean there is nothing an English man can object to.”[10] Newman and St. John were given an exceptionally courteous and attentive treatment: “Indeed they seem to treat us like wax dolls or mantle piece ornaments.”[11] What may seem prima facie an amusing comment could rather reflect the weighty realization that struck him with some force: the great respect shown to him was but the response to a constructed image of him.[12] Newman and St. John were subjects to the same strict timetable followed by others at the College;[13] they only obtained special permission to go out and be back by 6pm.[14] Newman was prepared to accept those rules because he had come there with the intention to live “under obedience and discipline for a time.”[15]

The other students at Propaganda were younger than Newman and St John. Not only did the seminarians study the more advanced subjects of philosophy and theology, but also received literary education. According to the official records, there were 140 students in 1846 and 135 in 1847;[16]  Newman reckoned the number of students to be approximately between 120 and 150 in 1846.[17] He immediately noticed with some surprise that the students came originally from different parts of the world: “There are more than thirty languages in the house, and it was quite an affecting sight at the Missa Cantata this morning, to see ‘Parthians and Medes and Elamites,’ Indians, Africans, Babylonians, Scots, and Americans.”[18] On another occasion, he added that there were also Chinese, Egyptians, Albanians, Germans, Irish, and Americans.[19] About thirty students spoke English, but none were from England.[20] Newman was deeply touched by what he saw during the Mass at Propaganda: “It is most affecting to see the youths embrace each other in chapel at the Pax; it recalls Pentecost, especially as one knows that the chance is that some of them may be martyrs.”[21]

Almost a century later, G. K. Chesterton wrote about his trip to Rome in 1929 and expressed a similar impression, in his own words: “Perhaps the most impressive incident, which would require a book to itself, was the experience of visiting the College of Propaganda, with its friendly crowd of every race and colour under heaven; a real League of Nations—which did not quarrel.”[22]

Studying at the College

Even though they were not required to take classes at the College, on 11 November Newman and St. John decided to attend three courses in dogmatic and moral theology.[23] St. John wrote that during the lecture in dogmatics Newman was nodding off,[24] and he probably was not teasing since they soon started skipping classes.[25] On 18 January 1847, Newman informed a friend in England that they had stopped attending the courses altogether, having found it “a loss of time.”[26] It is not surprising that an accomplished theologian like Newman showed little interest in lectures for beginners. He had respect and appreciation for the lecturers but could not help to notice how they were moving forward slowly in their courses, reading “a few tedious pages” each time: “All this—he remarked—is quite necessary for boys, not for grown men.”[27]

Newman was convinced that a different approach should be provided for advanced students. He expressed this view in a paper addressed to the Rector of Propaganda after leaving the College.[28] He certainly did not want to give the impression that he disregarded the rules set out at the College, but he observed that it was not right to be excessively cautious in precluding students from having contact with other people and from deciding which books to read; such a strict seclusion and restriction could not be an adequate model of formation to prepare the future priests for the challenges of the outside world. Newman also suggested that an English-speaking priest should be present at the College for students to talk with him freely in their own language about theological, literary, or philosophical subjects. He believed that the smartest students were not aiming just to acquire an extensive knowledge but to grow in their ability to make judgments, and this could only happen by developing a deep relationship with someone able to cultivate their minds. It is indeed interesting to read these very lines that Newman wrote in Latin in May 1847; while on the one hand they reflect Newman’s mature experience as a student and a tutor in Oxford, on the other hand they somehow give us a glimpse of the idea of university education that Newman would develop over the years and which is made clear in his Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education (1852).

Newman was very pleased when, in 1850, Pope Pius IX granted him a Doctorate in Divinity;[29] this was for him the official recognition of the theological work he had accomplished without a standard education and outside the formal circuits of the  Catholic Church.[30] In 1847, while at Propaganda, he had learned that the College was authorized to confer degrees, and for some time he entertained a hope that he and St. John might be awarded a doctorate.[31] He wrote to a friend in England that he too should have “some imprimatur” on his knowledge, and at Propaganda this could be achieved comfortably: “If we could get you in here, you would easily be smuggled through.”[32]

Newman’s preoccupation with a doctoral degree was obviously linked with a substantial interest in the reception of his theological work within the Church of Rome. There is no doubt that the time he spent in Rome was fruitful in terms of the evolution of his theological perspective.[33] He was anxious to get acquainted with contemporary Roman Catholic theology and to ascertain whether the foundations of the theological positions he had held before his conversion could be accepted within Catholic circles. I cannot here explore the projects he undertook to this end and the meetings with Roman theologians he had;[34] suffice it to mention a small volume that Newman wrote, published in May 1847 by the Congregation of Propaganda press,[35] where he provided a revised Latin translation of four notes on Patristic theology, previously published together with his English translation of some treatises by Saint Athanasius. The volume was offered to the Rector of Propaganda; in the dedication, Newman expressed his gratitude for “the most peaceful days” he had spent at the College.[36]

Newman’s Last Days at Propaganda

The most important outcome of the time spent at Propaganda was for Newman the discovery of his Oratorian vocation. In a letter to Cardinal Fransoni, Newman stated openly that one of the reasons why he had come to Rome was to discern what God wanted for him to do as a Catholic.[37] We can neither discuss the different steps that brought Newman to make the decision[38] nor what appealed to him about Saint Philip Neri and the Oratory he established in sixteenth-century Rome.[39] On 17 January 1847, Newman wrote to Bishop Wiseman manifesting his inclination towards the Oratorian way of life.[40]

On 30 May, Newman and St. John were ordained to the priesthood in the College’s church. Four days later Newman celebrated his first mass at the chapel of Saint Hyacinth, situated inside the palace of Propaganda. On 28 June, Newman and St. John left the College for Santa Croce in Gerusalemme to be reunited with the five other companions from England who had joined them in Rome, as the pope himself had asked, to undergo together the Oratorian novitiate.

In the College register, the record of the day Newman and St. John left states: “The college has lost two most wonderful examples of virtue.”[41] For Newman it was the end of a period in which, as he had wished, he participated in the life of a Catholic community while searching for his own vocation. It was the end of a time which looking back later he would consider as “happy months.”

[1] Newman, AW, 255–56

[2] On the rules followed at Maryvale, see Wilfrid Ward, The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, vol. 1 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1912) 120–21. In a letter written at the College of Propaganda in 1846, Newman’s assessment was different from that he would express further in 1863 in the aforementioned note: “I was happy at Oriel, happier at Littlemore, as happy or happier still at Maryvale—and happiest here” (Newman, LD xi, 294). In a later comment added to the same note, Newman mentioned the discrepancy between the observation therein expressed and what he had earlier written in the letter. However, one considers Newman’s position in the two writings, it is interesting to observe that even in the later, gloomier note the months spent at Propaganda were singled out as a joyful time.

[3] See Ward, The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, vol. 1, 131 (“It was ultimately decided that they were to go to the ‘Collegio di Propaganda’”); Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 321 [“It was decided in April that Newman should go in the summer to Rome to the College of Propaganda (the seminary for students from mission countries)”]; Sheridan Gilley, Newman and His Age (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990), 254?55 (“in April, he learned that he was to go to Rome in June to be prepared for the priesthood at the College of the Sacred Propaganda, the great international missionary College of the Roman Catholic Church”). Conversely, the decision is attributed to Wiseman by Brigitte Hoegemann, Newman e Roma (Rome: International Centre of Newman Friends, 2008), 14.

[4] Newman, LD xi, 152, 283; see also Mix, v–vi; Newman the Oratorian: His Unpublished Oratory Papers, ed. Placid Murray (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1969), 390.

[5] I have provided Wiseman’s letter in the appendix of a previous publication (where I have mostly drawn on the same sources I have used in the present article) “Newman, il Collegio di Propaganda e lo scopo dell’Università,” Urbaniana University Journal—Euntes docete 73 (2020): 5–38.

[6] Newman, LD xi, 266.

[7] Newman, LD xi, 267.

[8] Newman, LD xi, 269, 272–73, 278, 283.

[9] Newman, LD xi, 276; see also LD xi, 273: “We are assimilating ourselves as much as possible to their habits and hours, but they have left it entirely to us, and I suppose we might, if we pleased, have lived here as visitors coming to Rome for pleasure. Of course, however, they would like us the better, the more we fell in with the ways of the place, and I dare say they wished to try us, and thought no good would come of forcing us.”

[10] Newman, LD xi, 273.

[11] Newman, LD xi, 273.

[12] Newman, LD xi, 294.

[13] Newman, LD xi, 273; on the rules of the college, see Regole da osservarsi dagli alunni del Collegio Urbano de Propaganda Fide (Roma: coi tipi della S.C. de Propaganda Fide, 1846).

[14] Newman, LD xi, 283.

[15] Newman, LD xi, 283.

[16] Maksimilian Jezernik, “Il Pontificio Collegio Urbano de Propaganda Fide,” in Sacrae Congregationis de propaganda fide memoria rerum, ed. Josef Metzler, vol. III/1 (Rom-Freiburg-Wien: Herder, 1975), 104.

[17] Newman, LD xi, 277, 296.

[18] Newman, LD xi, 272.

[19] Newman, LD xi, 283.

[20] Newman, LD xi, 277.

[21] Newman, LD xi, 283.

[22] Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The Resurrection of Rome (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1930), 35.

[23] Newman, LD xi, 273, 298.

[24] Newman, LD xi, 298.

[25] Newman, LD xi, 300.

[26] Newman, LD xii, 15.

[27] Newman, LD xii, 48.

[28] Newman, LD xii, 88–90.

[29] Newman, LD xiv, 32, 36, 48.

[30] Newman, LD xiv, 46; see also Newman, OS, iii-iv.

[31] Newman, LD xii, 6, 15, 97.

[32] Newman, LD xii, 6.

[33] See C. Michael Shea, “From Implicit and Explicit Reason to Inference and Assent: The Significance of John Henry Newman’s Theological Formation in Rome,” Journal of Theological Studies NS, 67 (2016): 143–171. For reason of space, I cannot discuss here Shea’s treatment of the time that Newman spent in Rome in respect to the overall development of his own thought.

[34] See C. Michael Shea, Newman’s Early Roman Catholic Legacy, 1845–1854 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 135–63; on the manuscripts that testify to the work carried out by Newman during his months at Propaganda, see T. Lynch, “The Newman-Perrone Paper on Development,” Gregorianum 16 (1935): 402–47; Henry Tristram, “Cardinal Newman’s Theses de Fide and his proposed Introduction to the French Translation of the University Sermons,” Gregorianum 18 (1937): 219–60; “Newman’s Memorandum in Diary Appendix, Planning the Preface to the Proposed Translation of the University Sermons—Newman’s ‘Rough Draft of Matter for Preface to French Translation of Univ. Sermons, Afterwards Written for Dalgairns in Latin’ (1847),” in J. H. Newman, Fifteen Sermons preached before the University of Oxford between A.D. 1826 and 1843, ed. James David Earnest and Gerard Tracey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 236–51; C. Michael Shea and Robert J. Porwoll, “Newman’s Theses de Fide: A New Edition, Translation and Commentary,” Newman Studies Journal 14, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 16–45.

[35] Dissertatiunculae quaedam critico-theologicae auctore Joanne H. Newman, Anglo (Romae: Typis S. Congregationis de Propaganda Fide, 1847); also in Newman, TT, 1–91.

[36] Newman, TT, 3.

[37] Newman, LD xii, 36–37.

[38] For more details, see Placid Murray, “Newman the Priest,” in Newman the Oratorian, ed. Murray, 70–87.

[39] See Keith Beaumont, “The Oratory,” in The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman, ed. Frederick D. Aquino and Benjamin J. King (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 28–46.

[40] Newman, LD xii, 19–22.

[41] Quoted in Giuseppe De Luca, John Henry Newman: scritti d’occasione e traduzioni (Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1975), 82.

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Luca F. Tuninetti

Luca F. Tuninetti

Professor of Epistemology, Pontificia Università Urbaniana, Rome

Luca F. Tuninetti is Full Professor of Epistemology at the Pontificia Università Urbaniana in Rome, which is the continuation of the College where Newman stayed between 1846 and 1847. Prof. Tuninetti has published the books “Per se notum”: Die logische Beschaffenheit des Selbstverständlichen im Denken des Thomas von Aquin (1996), La ragione nei discorsi: linguaggio, logica, argomentazione (2010), and Persone che giudicano: lineamenti di epistemologia (2016). In 2009 he edited a collection of studies on Newman’s thought entitled John Henry Newman: un cristiano che interroga la modernità.


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