The Independent reports on the plan to exhume the remains of Cardinal Newman from a grave in which he was buried at his own request beside a priest, Fr Ambrose St John. The intention in moving his remains is to allow them to be venerated in a more suitable place, Birmingham Oratory.
The issue touches first on what we consider Christianity to be. Is it based on the bodily resurrection of Jesus, his appearances, an empty tomb with no bones remaining, and communion with the living Lord through the sacrament of the Eucharist in which we share his body and blood, or is it based on a cult of the bones of good people?
If we believe in ‘the resurrection of the body’ what is communicated by the tearing apart of the remains of saints limb from limb and sometimes slice by slice so that parts can be taken to different places for veneration?
I can venerate Newman by continuing to draw inspiration from his writing and his life without the need to be close to his mortal remains, just as I can be a Christian without the need to visit the Holy Sepulchre.
I have led pilgrimages to the places where saints lived and worked, in particular to places associated with St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, and find the same is true. I may be inspired by the context in which saints lived and worked, particularly at a place like the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila. But Teresa’s body isn’t there. The place remains an inspiration just as the Birmingham Oratory is one without needing the bones of Newman. It was part of his life, and the life can still inspire.
The removal of Newman’s remains raises another issue. Cardinal Newman wrote shortly before his death: ‘I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St John’s grave — and I give this as my last, my imperative will.’ If the Church values the inspiration of Newman, his wishes should not be set aside. Moving his body against his stated wish is not an honourable way to venerate him. When he stated his wishes for his burial he knew all about the ways in which the deceased are venerated within his Church, and deliberately chose not to be buried at the Oratory, which others may have seen as an obvious choice.
The Independent article highlights the reason for Newman’s choice of burial place; his close affection for Ambrose St John. If Newman is to be reburied, then the remains of the other member of the Oratory should also be moved back to the place where he also served. These men were united in life and in mission, and they should be united for eternity. More importantly, if we wish to remain close to Newman’s heart, and treasure his memory, then our faith, like his, should be in the presence of the risen Lord.