Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Case of the Missing Cardinal

Some red tassels from his galero are apparently all that remain of Cardinal John Henry Newman's remains.

Newman (1801-1890; DNB entry here; Wiki entry here; shown at right one year before he died) was a leading cleric in the Church of England until 1845, when he converted to Roman Catholicism. His grave in a cemetery in Rednal was opened last week at the request of the Vatican, which wanted his body transferred to the Oratory in Birmingham as part of a plan to beatify Newman next year.

Newman had been buried--at his express wish--alongside his close friend, companion, and fellow convert, Father Ambrose St John, with whom he had shared a house. The two men have a joint memorial stone that is inscribed with words chosen by Newman: "Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem" ("Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth").

Gay rights activists, including Peter Tatchell, have called the exhumation an "act of religious desecration." Says Tatchell: "Newman repeatedly made it clear that he wanted to be buried next to his lifelong partner, Ambrose St John. No one gave the Pope permission to defy Newman's wishes. The re-burial has only one aim in mind: to cover up Newman's homosexuality and to disavow his love for another man." The Vatican, naturally, dismisses such claims; in August, the UK government gave permission for the exhumation to proceed.

However, when the cleric's grave was opened last week, it was found that his body had decayed completely.

From The Times, 4 October 08:

"The bones of the Victorian cardinal who is in line to become Britain’s first saint for almost 40 years have disintegrated, hampering plans to turn his final resting place into a centre of Christian pilgrimage.

"Church officials exhuming the body of Cardinal John Henry Newman were surprised to discover that his grave was almost empty when it was opened on Thursday. All that remained were a brass plate and handles from Newman’s coffin, along with a few red tassels from his cardinal’s hat.

"The discovery will not affect Newman’s case for sainthood. But officials have had to abandon plans to transfer his bones from a rural cemetery in Rednal, Worcestershire, to a marble sarcophagus at Birmingham Oratory, which Newman founded after converting to Catholicism from the Church of England.

"Thousands of worshippers were expected to descend on the Oratory from the end of this month to pay their respects to Newman and seek his intercession. Now the Oratory is left with only a few locks of his hair. Some of his remains were also to have been sent to the Vatican.

"Newman is expected to be beatified in December following claims that he was responsible for a miracle in which an American clergyman was 'cured' of a crippling spinal disorder. This would gain him the title 'Blessed,' one step short of sainthood, which will require the Vatican to verify a second miracle.

“'I have been visiting that grave since I was a very young boy,” said Peter Jennings, a spokesman for the Oratory. “I will never forget how I felt, standing there last Thursday, looking at this deep hole which had been dug out. This was the greatest churchman of the 19th century and there was nothing there, only dust.'

"There is no conspiracy theory over what has become of Newman’s remains: experts believe that damp conditions led to their complete decomposition.

"The decision to exhume Newman’s body had been fiercely resisted by gay rights campaigners because the priest had asked to be buried close to the body of Father Ambrose St John, a lifelong friend. With Newman’s grave now lying empty, the controversy is expected to fade away, sparing the Vatican any possible embarrassment over claims that the priest was a closet homosexual.

"Newman, who was born in London, was ordained in 1824 and led the Oxford Movement in the 1830s to draw Anglicans back towards their Catholic roots. He shocked Victorian society when he converted to Rome in 1845. A file on Newman’s 'cause' for sainthood was opened in 1958, but the miracle attributed to him took place only in 2001."


BBC Radio 4: "In Our Time: The Oxford Movement" (excellent; from 2006; 43 minutes)

Commonweal, 8 October 08: "The Empty Tomb: Cardinal Newman's Last Laugh?"


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