Catholic Herald, 13 October 1989
Could you ignore a poster announcing “The Crunch At Lunch?” Practising one’s own religion is time-consuming enough without eavesdropping on other people’s, but the invitation was irresistible.
The poster was displayed outside a church known for its friendly come-hither welcome, and the message to drop in for half-an-hour of a Wednesday lunchtime was appealing. At least 30 others responded to the suggestion. We clustered at the back of the nave, balancing plates of cold food, hot coffee and monster green apples.
The distreet munching did not inhibit Colin and Rupert who read, and then explained several verses from Acts, regular Crunchers following the text in their Bibles. Rupert, using fluent, modern language enthusiastically urged us to think about what we heard, reminding us that “God leaves His footprints in our minds”.
He might have been teaching in the shadow of the Temple before the sack of Jerusalem, or at some dusty crossroads in sixth century heathen Kent. Thus the word is passed, from generation to generation.
Colin (or was it Rupert?) stood beside a whopping pulpit. This Norman church was lavishly restored by the Victorians – and how dear to the Victorian heart was the pulpit! What admonitions, exhortations and consolations have been flung from the pulpit!
Looking back to my Protestant days, it is pulpits, not altars, that I remember. Pulpits are for people who, however inspired, brilliant or articulate, remain people.
The shift of emphasis from altar to pulpit, however minute, is a turn, even if only by half-a-degree, from God to man. The need for both is obvious of course, but without one we starve – without the other we are under-nourished.
The image of footprints (hitherto sole property of Good King W.) another pulpit, and preacher par excellence, stayed with me as I passed through the churchyard of St. Mary and St. Nicholas.
This is the Anglican parish church at Littlemore near Oxford, built by John Henry Newman before his conversion to Rome. If the ghost of the great Cardinal haunts any place, it is surely here among the trees he planted, with a prospect of his beloved Oxford a mile or two below in the valley.
This quietly shaded, austerely beautiful church marks the ford or crossing-place in Newman’s spiritual odyssey, and its very height seems to pierce the heavens.
The interior has recently been re-decorated, due – shockingly – to an arson attack. Thieving and vandalism too mean that this interesting building has to be kept locked.
But the vicar, Fr. David Nicholls, is very ready to show visitors the monument to Newman’s mother for example, or the font with its extravagant wooden cover – about 15 feet of tiered pinnacles, a post-Newman embellishment. From Fr. Nicholls’ vicarage, the curious roofscape of the Catholic parish church may be seen zigzagging above the village chimneys .
It is dedicated to Blessed Dominic Barbieri. He it was who received Newman into the Church, in 1845, a few footsteps away in a building called the College.
Once a stagecoach stop on the Oxbridge run, the College is a group of low stone houses, bought by Newman as a place of retreat for himself and a few friends.
Here they lived a monkish life of study, self-denial and prayer; and here Newman wrote The Development of Doctrine. When he left, he referred to the years at Littlemore as the happiest of his life, because it was so quiet.
The buildings became almshouses after his departure until, many decades later, they were bought by the Birmingham Oratory.
The care of this precious Newman “shrine” has recently been entrusted by the Oratory to a community called The Work. This group of women, canonically a Pious Union, is dedicated to continuing and expanding our knowledge of Newman’s spirituality.
The vocation of The Work has at its source the meditation on the Letters of St. Paul by the foundress, a Belgian, Julia Verhaege. Mother Julia was deeply impressed by Newman’s clarity of doctrine, love of the Church, and unswerving fidelity to the truth and she recognised a spiritual kinship.
The Work operates in several International Centres around the world: in Jerusalem, Africa, Europe and, of course at Littlemore.
The influence of Newman reaches from Japan to California, from New Zealand to Alaska, and this is reflected in the visitors’ book at the college. Groups and individuals from all points of the compass and of many denominations come to look, to study and to pray.
Members of The Work welcome them, act as expert guides, arrange for Masses, lectures and prayer sessions. Sr. Brigitte has a hoard of information on all aspects of Newman’s life and thought and is generous with her time even for the most casual of callers.
A few rooms are available for short-term visitors and there is a good selection of books, pamphlets and postcards to buy. And tiny sachets of Littlemore lavender made by the sisters.
Restoration and refurbishment has been, and still is being lovingly carried out with a touching attention to the smallest detail. The library holds a growing number of books by and about Newman and his times.
On permanent exhibition are pictures, photographs and more personal items such as a lock of Newman’s hair, a rosary, letters. Many things have been donated; notably a fine collection of books from the Birmingham Carmelites. Where better to deposit one’s Newmania?
If you don’t know yet, you jolly soon will –1990 is the centenary year of Newman’s death. An exhaustive programme of events has been planned.
There will be a series of key lectures in Oxford, an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, a Triduo of Prayer for Newman’s Cause, conferences, two summer schools and many special Masses. Beginning in January, these events will culminate with an ecumenical service of thanksgiving for the life of Cardinal Newman at St. Paul’s on November 23.
No-one taking part in such a marathon should do so unprepared, and where better to limber-up than Littlemore?
Telephone or write to The Work, Ambrose Cottage, 9 College Lane, Littlemore, Oxford OX4 4LQ. Tel: (01865) 779743. They will help and advise – as they did for more than a thousand visitors last year. Large groups are no problem.
The Work is actively involved with the parish of Bl. Dominic Barbieri, and with the parish priest Fr. Armstrong’s kind help, they can cope with a parish “outing” or Newman pilgrimage be it ever so large.
There are few places more uplifting or interesting than Littlemore and 1990 promises to be extra-special.
Tears of relief
No space to take up the teasers on my desk. Shells, ships, sealing-wax – and that junta – must make way for a final cameo-glimpse of the great man.
In 1868, the then Vicar of St. Mary and St. Nicholas observed an elderly man leaning on the lychgate. There was Newman, and he was weeping. It was the one and only time he re-visited the scene of such momentous decisions.
Tears of nostalgia, relief, regret or thanksgiving? Probably a combination of all four.