In late October 1866, a young student and poet named Gerard Manley Hopkins boarded a train in Oxford and took the sixty-mile journey north to the industrial city of Birmingham. There he was received into the Roman Catholic Church by John Henry Newman.
By that time Newman had a saintly reputation. Once a renowned Anglican preacher and don at Oxford, he had gone on to become a Catholic priest and later founded the oratories of St. Philip Neri in London and Birmingham.
In the mid-1990s, I decided to trace the poet’s decisive journey from Oxford to Birmingham and to the Catholic Church. In Birmingham, I found myself at the entrance of the Oratory residence, where a pleasant seminarian offered to show me Newman’s room. (I was lucky—such visits are now restricted.)
We climbed a wide staircase to the second floor, where he opened a door and a hundred years fell away. The room remained exactly as it had been when the cardinal died on August 11, 1890. The floor was covered with worn brown-patterned linoleum, the walls lined with leather-bound books. A partition divided the room. On the other side was an altar set against the wall, and in front of it there was a single prie-dieu on which rested Newman’s enormous galero, or cardinal’s hat. This tiny space, which once served as his bedroom, had been made into a private chapel after he was named a cardinal. The overall impression was one of simplicity and single-mindedness, but there was also a sense of Victorian homeyness: bills and receipts were stacked neatly on a table as if Newman’s hunched form might enter momentarily to complete his day’s work.
In those pre-ecumenism, pre-RCIA, pre-Anglican-ordinariate days, English conversions to Catholicism were lonely and often agonizing. Newman’s route was especially difficult. He spent years trying to establish that the Church of England provided a via media between the Church of Rome and Protestantism. When that attempt failed to satisfy him, he retired to the village of Littlemore, outside Oxford, where with some companions he set up a small monastic community in a cluster of former farm sheds. Four years later, on the cold and wet night of October 8, 1845, he knelt before a rain-soaked visiting priest by the name of Dominic Barberi, whom he had met briefly once before, and begged to be admitted to “the one true fold.” “I have had a very trying time, parting with the people,” he wrote to a friend after preaching his last sermon in the nearby Anglican church.
As for Hopkins, after his conditional baptism, he took the train back to Oxford, where heart-rending messages from his parents awaited him. “O Gerard my darling boy, are you indeed gone from me?” his mother wrote. His life as a Jesuit priest brought him face to face with ordinary, uninspiring Catholics, and later with the nationalistic brand of Irish Catholicism among the students of Dublin’s University College, an institution begun by Newman. Hopkins may well have regarded his entrance into the church as the easiest part of the whole ordeal.
Newman himself set about unintentionally igniting one controversy after another once he became a Catholic. He still had Anglicans to contend with, some of whom spread untruths about him (as that he had a wife hidden away, or was about to rejoin Anglicanism), but now there were also the Catholics. Intellectual assent to truth was one thing, but the struggle with personality differences and church politics was quite another. “I do not know whether I am on my head or my heels when I have relations with you,” he wrote to Henry Manning, the cardinal-archbishop of Westminster and his nemesis of later years. Newman was denounced as a heretic when his article “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” appeared. (Its spirit can be traced in some of the documents of Vatican II.) “I have been in constant hot water...for full thirty years,” he wrote toward the end of his life.
Early on, Hopkins wrote of Newman that “his manner is...genial and almost, so to speak, unserious. And if I may say so, he was so sensible.” That down-to-earth quality probably stood the older man in good stead as he made his way through the labyrinth of the Catholic faith. The two corresponded intermittently until Hopkins’s early death in June 1889. Newman died fourteen months later.