Blessed John Henry Newman and Father Ambrose St John in a rare photograph of them together
Father Ambrose St John in his later years
Father Ray in Newman and St John and Jack Valero in The Guardian in an article entitled The sad demise of celibate love provide an antidote to the "chatter" about the deep but chaste friendship between Cardinal Newman and Father Ambrose St John.
No doubt the "chatter" will get louder as the Beatification of the Cardinal draws ever nearer.
For instance, a well-known gay rights activist objected to the exhumation the remains of Cardinal Newman who was buried in the same grave as his close friend. He said: "The reburial has only one aim in mind: to cover up Newman's homosexuality and to disavow his love for another man."
There seems to be a number of disparate groups who for their own purposes wish to prove that Cardinal Newman and Father St John were "a gay couple"
There are some who seem to wish to prove there was a gay relationship so as to undermine the Catholic process of "Saint making"
Others simply see it as a way of demonstrating that Catholicism and its high officers were and are false and use it as another stick to beat the Church.
Lastly there are a few who see the beatification as being some kind of approval to gay relationships even if sole and exclusive and founded on true love and fidelity. The members of the last "school" are frankly living in "cloud cuckoo land"
Father Ian Ker (regarded as the authority on Newman and his works) in his magisterial biography of the Blessed Cardinal has pretty convincingly demolished the argument.
In a recent biography just published (no doubt to take advantage of the forthcoming interest in Newman in Britain) there is a portrait of Newman suffering from "capricious, unstable gender identity” through "a deft use of innuendo, juxtaposition, suggestion, speculation and negative quotations.
Thus, referring to Newman’s time as a tutor at Oriel College, [the author] remarks: “It would be anachronistic to view Newman’s reform of tutorials as the policy of a sanctimonious martinet”. So why mention it at all? He throws in a random paragraph about Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, Frederick Rolfe and other notorious fin-de-siecle characters, then informs us solemnly that “attempts to make connections with Newman are ill-conceived” – even though he is constantly sowing such “connections” in the mind of the unwary and ignorant reader."
There were similar veiled (and some not so-veiled ) attacks on Newman during his lifetime. See Charles Kingsley`s pamphlets which gave rise to Newman`s masterwork "Apologia pro sua Vita".
Just how close was Newman to St John ? Well the answer is very close because St John was a constant companion of his for over thirty years.
They became Catholics together, studied together in Rome, and were ordained priests at the same time. Without St John it is probable that Newman would not have achieved what he did. Newman could be said to be dependent on St John.
In the controversy over whether Newman should set up an Oratory in Oxford, Newman sent St John to Rome to find out why Rome was against the Oxford project and why there seemed to be such animus against him in the highest quarters. St John was his trusted advocate with those authorities when it became clear that the Roman authorities had very strong feelings against Newman
Perhaps the best defence of the calumnies against Newman and St John is to be found in the works of the Blessed Cardinal.
In his Apologia, Newman paid tribute to the friendship and devotion of his confreres in the Oratory and in particular Father Ambrose St John. He wrote in the last chapter:
"I have closed this history of myself with St. Philip's name upon St. Philip's feast-day; and, having done so, to whom can I more suitably offer it, as a memorial of affection and gratitude, than to St. Philip's sons, my dearest brothers of this House, the Priests of the Birmingham Oratory, AMBROSE ST. JOHN, HENRY AUSTIN MILLS, HENRY BITTLESTON, EDWARD CASWALL, WILLIAM PAINE NEVILLE, and HENRY IGNATIUS DUDLEY RYDER? who have been so faithful to me; who have been so sensitive of my needs; who have been so indulgent to my failings; who have carried me through so many trials; who have grudged no sacrifice, if I asked for it; who have been so cheerful under discouragements of my causing; who have done so many good works, and let me have the credit of them;—with whom I have lived so long, with whom I hope to die.
And to you especially, dear AMBROSE ST. JOHN; whom God gave me, when He took every one else away; who are the link between my old life and my new; who have now for twenty-one years been so devoted to me, so patient, so zealous, so tender; who have let me lean so hard upon you; who have watched me so narrowly; who have never thought of yourself, if I was in question."
In Newman`s letters to Ambrose he writes affectionately, chaffing him. In the same year as Ambrose`s birthday , he wrote to him:
"July 3rd, 1856.My poor old man, Yes, I congratulate you on being between, what is it, 50 or 60 ? No, only 40 or 50. My best congratulations that life is now so mature. May your shadow never be less, and your pocket never so empty ! But why are you always born on days when my Mass is engaged? I shall say Mass for you to-morrow and Monday.'
Newman could confide his feelings to St John even when in a fit of depression. In fact he seemed to require this when he was depressed. He leant on him to get him over it. In 1858 he wrote to him:
"'The Oratory: June 13, 1858.
I do not see your logic when you say, that, "though I croak, I come up to the scratch after all."
To me it seems as inconsecutive to say so as if you said that, though I could not sleep at night, I ate my breakfast heartily in the morning.
How are the two things inconsistent with each other ? To let out one's sorrow is a great relief, and I don't think an unlawful one. Nor do I speak to the whole world, but to you, Stanislas, or Henry. Job too had three friends, and to them he let out. Yet he was the most patient of men. I think you don't discriminate between complaining and realizing. What is so common in the Psalms and in Jeremias, is the sentiment "Just art Thou, O Lord, yet will I plead with Thee ?
" Yet for myself, I know too well how infinitely more I have than my deserts from the Giver of all good, to have any even temptation to complain.
But the case is different when I think of St. Philip ; then I argue thus :
' " There is just one virtue which he asks for, detachment, which at the same time he prevents me having. There is just one thing which hinders me being detached, and that is, that I have made myself his servant. What wish have I for life, or for success of any kind, except so far as and because I have this his congregation on my hands ? He it is who has implicated me in the world, in a way in which I never was before, or at least never since my mother died and my sisters married. For St. Philip's sake I have given up my liberty, and have, as far as the temptation and trial of anxiety goes, become as secular almost as if I had married. The one thing I ask of him is to shield me from the extreme force of this trial ; and the only explanation I can suggest to myself why he does not do so is that I have in some way or other greatly offended him. And, when I cry out to you, it is not in complaint, but as signifying inarticulately feelings which are too deep for words. Please God, and I hope not from pride, I will be faithful to St. Philip, and then God will reward me, though St. Philip does not.
And I will therefore bottle up my thoughts and fancy St. Philip saying to me what a French conducteur once did, when I was looking after the safety of my luggage." It is my business, not yours." Obmutui et non aperui os meum, quoniam tu fecisti.' The words of Job are ended.'"
Shortly after the early death of St John due to what seems to have been a stroke occasioned by overwork by translating Fessler to assist Newman in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman wrote a memorial letter in praise of his friend:
"' The Oratory : May 31, 1875.
My dear Blachford,
I cannot use many words, but I quite understand the kind affectionateness of your letter just come. I answer it first of the large collection of letters which keen sympathy with me and deep sorrow for their loss in Ambrose St. John have caused so many friends to write to me. I cannot wonder that, after he has been given me for so long a time as 32 years, he should be taken from me. Sometimes I have thought that, like my patron saint St. John, I am destined to survive all my friends.
' From the first he loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable. At Rome 28 years ago he was always so working for and relieving me of all trouble, that being young and Saxon-looking, the Romans called him my Angel Guardian. As far as this world was concerned I was his first and last. He has not intermitted this love for an hour up to his last breath. At the beginning of his illness he showed in various ways that he was thinking of and for me.
That illness which threatened permanent loss of reason, which, thank God, he has escaped, arose from his overwork in translating Fessler, which he did for me to back up my letter to the Duke of Norfolk. I had no suspicion of this overwork of course, but which reminds me that, at that time, startled at the great and unexpected success of my pamphlet, I said to him, " We shall have some great penance to balance this good fortune."
There was on April 28 a special High Mass at the Passionists two miles from this. He thought he ought to be there, and walked in a scorching sun to be there in time. He got a sort of stroke. He never was himself afterwards. A brain fever came on. After the crisis, the doctor said he was recovering he got better every day we all saw this.
On his last morning he parted with great impressiveness from an old friend, once one of our lay brothers, who had been with him through the night. The latter tells us that he had in former years watched, while with us, before the Blessed Sacrament, but he had never felt Our Lord so near him, as during that night. He says that his (A.'s) face was so beautiful ; both William Neville and myself had noticed that at different times ; and his eyes, when he looked straight at us, were brilliant as jewels.
It was the expression, which was so sweet, tender, and beseeching. When his friend left him in the morning, Ambrose smiled on him and kissed his forehead, as if he was taking leave of him. Mind, we all of us thought him getting better every day. When the doctor came, he said the improvement was far beyond his expectation. He said " From this time he knows all you say to him," though alas he could not speak. I have not time to go through that day, when we were so jubilant.
In the course of it, when he was sitting on the side of his bed, he got hold of me and threw his arm over my shoulder and brought me to him so closely, that I said in joke " He will give me a stiff neck." So he held me for some minutes, I at length releasing myself from not understanding, as he did, why he so clung to me. Then he got hold of my hand and clasped it so tightly as really to frighten me, for he had done so once before when he was not himself. I had to get one of the others present to unlock his fingers, ah ! little thinking what he meant.
At 7 P.M. when I rose to go, and said " Good-bye, I shall find you much better to-morrow" he smiled on me with an expression which I could not and cannot understand. It was sweet and sad and perhaps perplexed, but I cannot interpret it. But it was our parting. W. N. says he called me back as I was leaving the room, but I do not recollect it.
About midnight I was awakened at the Oratory, with a loud rapping at the door, and the tidings that a great change had taken place in him. We hurried off at once, but he had died almost as soon as the messenger started. He had been placed or rather had placed himself with great deliberation and self-respect in his bed they had tucked him up, and William Neville was just going to give him some arrowroot when he rose upon his elbow, fell back and died.'I daresay Church and Copeland, and Lord Coleridge, will like to see this will you let them ?
Ever yours affectionately,JOHN H. NEWMAN.'"
In many letters to friends at the time, he referred to the loss in the briefest terms but it is clear that the loss was deeply felt
He wrote to Miss Holmes :
"This is the greatest affliction I have had in my life, and so sudden. Pray for him and for me.' '
"I doubt not,' he wrote to another friend,' or rather perceive, that this most severe blow was necessary to prepare me for death, for nothing short of it could wean me from life.'
To another he wrote :
"I do not expect ever to get over the loss I have had. It is like an open wound which in old men cannot be healed.'
It is interesting that Newman never hid the closeness of the friendship and never sought to diminish its significance for him. This was not a Romantic attachment. This was not the sort of behaviour one would expect from a religious hypocrite. The force which united them was their common religion and faith. To have betrayed that faith would have been to betray their friendship.