Like many English Catholics, I suspect, I was both proud and delighted when the Pope beatified Cardinal Newman during his visit to Britain in September 2010. But at the same time I was also saddened by the thought of another Englishman, now almost totally neglected, whom I believe to be at least as worthy of this great honour as Newman.
This was Henry Manning, along with Newman one of the two “convert cardinals” who shaped the English Catholic Church into the form we know it today. Born a Protestant, and regarded as one of the most promising young clergymen in the Church of England, Manning was received into the Catholic Church in 1851. He became priest soon after, and to general surprise was appointed Archbishop of Westminster on Pope Pius IX’s personal insistence in 1865. He was a close contemporary of Newman’s, dying just a year after him in January 1892. Yet while books and articles about Newman continue to pour off the press, Manning’s great works, and indeed his name, are largely forgotten today. To those who knew them both in the flesh it was very different; Newman died a relatively obscure figure, while after Manning’s death the crowds thronged his funeral procession through the streets of London in a way that had been seen only once before for the funeral of the Duke of Wellington 40 years earlier.
Manning also made a great impression on all those who met him. The young Hilaire Belloc took instruction from him and remained greatly influenced by the cardinal for the remaining 60 years of his own life, venerating him as the greatest Victorian of them all. Manning was always noted for his great personal austerity and as a profound spiritual counsellor, despite the huge demands on his time. The Anglican clergyman Bodley became friends with the cardinal while working with him to provide affordable housing for the poor of London. While admiring Manning’s constant battle for social justice, Bodley, like many others, was most struck by the way it was based upon the most intense life of prayer. He wrote:
“In close contact with him one felt that he was always living in the presence of an unseen power as its simple and humble messenger … Nothing so impressive, so faith-inspiring has ever met my eyes as the sight of this noble old Englishman in his threadbare cassock kneeling before the altar of his bare chapel.”
London’s public expression of grief and adulation following Manning’s death is testament enough to his greatness, as the city was known for visceral anti-Catholicism since the Reformation. In 1678 the mob terrorised the city in the “Popish Plot” disturbances, while just over 100 years later London was rocked by the “No Popery” Gordon Riots. When the Catholic hierarchy was re-established in 1850 the government was seriously worried about the prospect of sectarian riots in London, but within 40 years this anti-Catholicism disappeared due to Manning’s selfless devotion to the poor.
Right from the beginning of his ministry as Archbishop of Westminster he warned employers of the need to treat workers decently and actively campaigned for better working conditions and housing for the poor, particularly in London. Indeed, when the great dock strike of 1889 threatened to paralyse Victorian Britain, it was the cardinal, the only figure of authority trusted by the dock workers, who was able to end it. He was also the main inspirational force behind the flourishing of Catholic social teaching in the last part of the 19th century that led to the production of the great social encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. Indeed, Manning left his mark upon the Church as a whole, both through Rerum Novarum but also through his crucial role in the definition of infallibility at the First Vatican Council of 1869-70.
Why do I believe that Manning is worthy of being named as being in the company of saints? First, there can be no question that he is worthy of veneration as one of the greatest leaders of English Catholicism since the Reformation. It was through his prodigious efforts that a penniless Church that had only recently become legalised built the network of churches, schools and seminaries that we now take for granted. Second, both for his untiring practical work to help the poor, and for his pioneering role in inspiring Catholic social teaching.
Since the global financial crisis broke in 2007 there have been increasing demands to put social justice issues back into the political and social arena; Manning’s life and work shows us how this can be done on a sound basis. Finally, however, for the way his achievements were built upon a life of prayer and austerity. The Catechism describes the saints as those who “practised heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace”. Another description of the saints is as confessors: in other words, people whose whole lives bore witness to their faith. In my view, both of these criteria apply to Manning.
This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on Friday 17th February 2012.
Cardinal Manning and the Birth of Catholic Social Teaching by Russell Sparkes, is available from CTS priced £2.50
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