Saturday, October 4, 2008

Cardinal Newman's practical joke

I don't know if you've heard about this, but back in July, the Vatican asked to exhume the remains of Cardinal John Henry Newman. Their plan was to move the remains to the oratory in Birmingham, thus (so they say) making it easier for pilgrims to venerate him as he moves forward in the canonization process.

This was big news (well, OK, that's a relative term) for a lot of reasons. For one thing, Cardinal Newman was a convert from the Anglican Church to Roman Catholicism after being a leading light of the Oxford movement (aka Anglo Catholic high-churchmanship), so there was some turf scuffling, there.

For another, Cardinal Newman's own request was that he be buried with his "lifelong friend" (I am quoting here from an article in the Daily Mail) Ambrose St. John. "He wrote the following just weeks before his death in the summer of 1890. 'I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St John's grave... I give this as my last, my imperative will.'"

Hmmm...could it be perhaps that the Vatican didn't want to canonize someone deading openly with a person of the same sex? Naaaah.

All of this makes today's news so much more fun. Because on Thursday, they dug up the tomb and nothing was there. Here's the bulk of a lovely update by Ruth Gledhill in the London Times:
On Thursday, having won the battle to exhume Cardinal John Henry Newman's body for its transfer to the Oratory in Birmingham, those paying their respects at the graveside had a bit of a shock. There was no body to exhume, nothing at all. Not a trace of bone, hair, human remains or anything except this plate. It means that he was not buried in the lead coffin that many supposed he had been but a simple wooden affair. It is not apparently unusual for remains to disintegrate totally in this fashion. A few fragments of hair preserved elsewhere will now be placed in a casket for veneration in the Birmingham Oratory, but of course there can be no 'lying in state' for a real body.... As the spokesman for the Cause, Peter Jennings , has just told me, rarely can there have been a more vivid reminder of the truth of what the priest says at the Ash Wednesday Mass: 'Remember Man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.' As our capitalist world crumbles about us, it seems that Newman is a saint for our times in more ways than we could previously have imagined.
Good on you, Cardinal.

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