John Henry Newman, English convert to be beatified by pope

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English cardinal John Henry Newman, who will be declared "blessed" by Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to Britain, is seen as one of the Church's leading thinkers and one of its most famous converts.

Born in 1801 into an Anglican family, Newman felt the call of religious life in his teens and took his orders as a vicar. But he became disenchanted and in 1845 shocked his family and his Church by converting to Catholicism.

He is now revered as one of the Church's leading theologians and is often considered as the inspiration for the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, although fierce debate still rages over his legacy.

Scholars say Newman never sought sainthood, but talk of his canonisation began at his death in 1890 and the process started in the 1950s.

In 1991, pope John Paul II declared him "venerable", and last year Benedict recognised a miracle ascribed to Newman's intercession, clearing the way to his beatification -- the final step before sainthood -- in Birmingham on Sunday.

Newman was born in London on February 21, 1801. His father was a banker and the family were not especially devout, but he underwent a religious conversion aged 15 and studied theology at Oxford University before becoming a vicar.

In the 1830s, he came to feel he had a duty to "renew" the Anglican Church and with other theologians formed the Oxford Movement, which fought the Church's perceived closeness to the state and doctrinal unorthodoxy.

Gradually, however, after some run-ins with Church authorities and several years of quiet prayer and study, he became convinced that Catholicism was the only true faith.

His conversion caused widespread shock in the Anglican Church and he was accused of betrayal.

He would later also face accusations of heresy from within the Catholic Church, to which he responded with his own account of his conversion, "Apologia pro Vita Sua", a book which is still celebrated today.

Newman studied for the priesthood in Rome, before returning home to found an oratory -- a congregation of priests living in charity and prayer -- in Birmingham in central England and later, a Catholic university in Dublin.

During his life he produced extensive writings, in a style applauded by James Joyce among others, but he was not simply an intellectual.

He was a celebrated preacher and worked closely with the poor Catholics in Birmingham's industrial slums.

Crucially, Newman also rejected the notion that people could become religious by study alone -- he insisted on following his conscience and his motto was "heart speaks unto heart".

His views on lay involvement in the Church and religious tolerance are perceived as forerunners to the Church reforms of the 1960s, although fierce debate continues as to whether he was a liberal or traditionalist.

In 1879, at the age of 78, he was named a cardinal. After the trials of his life, he declared this honour ensured "the cloud is lifted forever".

When he died on August 11, 1890, Newman was buried in a grave with a fellow priest, Ambrose St John. The pair had lived together for 30 years but Church authorities reject any suggestion they were in a homosexual relationship.

More than a century later, in 2001, John Sullivan, an American from Boston who suffered a debilitating spinal disorder, claimed he could suddenly walk again after praying to Newman.

Despite some scepticism over his claim, the pope last year proclaimed this a miracle, paving the way for Sunday's beatification. There is even talk of a second miracle, in Mexico, which would secure Newman's final step to sainthood.

© 2010 AFP

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