A lie, said Winston Churchill, “can be halfway round the world before the truth has its boots on”. John Henry Newman wrote that “nothing has such vitality as a lie – and I have often been astonished how it is capable of being cut in pieces, like some reptiles, yet without substantial injury to its power of action”.
There will be media lies, undoubtedly, about the Pope and the Church, which are being saved up to coincide with the papal visit, and which will be believed until, as usual, they are disproved, which will be after the Pope is back in Rome.
There have also been lies flying around about Cardinal Newman. One of them, which needs to be knocked on the head now, well before the beatification, is that he was personally cold and aloof, and didn’t speak to other members of his community for 20 years.
This lie was repeated on the radio recently by a normally sensible Catholic journalist. Its source is mysterious: there is, of course, no evidence for it at all, and the notion that anyone could live in so small a community without speaking to any member of it is intrinsically ludicrous. As for Newman’s supposed aloofness, this can only be given credence by anyone totally ignorant of his life.
There are so many stories about his warmth and charity it is hard to know where to begin. But here is one. The workers at the nearby Cadbury chocolate works (mostly women) were expected to attend daily Bible classes. The local parish priest forbade Catholics to attend. An appeal was made to Newman to overrule him.
Although he had been ill, and was only a year from his death (he was nearly 90 years old), and although the snow was thick on the ground, he drove straight to Bournville to see the Cadbury brothers (who were Quakers). The brothers were “charmed by the loving Christian spirit with which he entered into the question”; as a result, they set aside a room for Catholic prayers.
There are many such stories. The most moving, to me, is that told by Bishop Ullathorne of Birmingham, who had come to take his leave on his retirement. As “I was rising to leave”, wrote Ullathorne, “[Newman] said in low and humble accents, ‘My dear Lord, will you do me a great favour?’ … He glided down on his knees, bent down his venerable head, and said, ‘Give me your blessing.’ What could I do with him before me in such a posture?” After he had reluctantly given his blessing to one so much his ecclesiastical and (he was certain) spiritual superior, the bishop recalled: “He said, ‘I have been indoors all my life, while you have battled for the Church in the world.’ I felt annihilated in his presence: there is a saint in that man!”
Is it possible that a man of such humility could be so aloof as not even to speak to his fellow Oratorians? I really hope that all those who have helped spread this lie will now look for some opportunity to say that they were mistaken.