Rest in Peace?

Humans invest things with meaning, while the heedless world spins round and round. The latest issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide remarks on the Catholic Church’s efforts to exhume the remains of the great 19th-Century English theologian, John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), as part of the process that would beatify him, with the title “Blessed,” a step toward canonization, with the title “Saint.”

According to the Review, some view the removal of the Cardinal’s remains from his 118-year grave as “glaring homopobia,” because Newman had lived with another man, Ambrose St. John, for more than 32 years, from 1843 until his death in 1875.

The anguished Newman wrote then, “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one’s sorrow greater, than mine.”

In point of fact, Newman was so overcome with grief, he made it known that when his own time came, he wished to be interred in his friend’s grave.

Shortly before his death in 1890, Newman declared, “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,” later adding, “This I confirm and insist on.”

Thus, it was done. From 1890 on, the two shared a plot in the small cemetery at Rednal, near Birmingham, England, next to the Birmingham Oratory.

The current plan was to move Newman’s body to a marble sarcophagus inside the Oratory while the process of his beatification proceeded apace.

The Review article reported that gay activists in the UK are up in arms over the motives they assume to be behind the Catholic Church’s actions.

The writer added, “Still it also implies that the Vatican is at last acknowledging that Newman was gay, something this change of address will not alter.”

Really? The Vatican is not known for acknowledging anything it has chosen not to, and, historically, it has been the custom to exhume and move bodies of interest. Witness the controversial exhumation this year of Padre Pio (1897-1968), canonized in 2002 as St. Pio.

As I mentioned earlier, the world just keeps turning. When Newman’s grave was opened October 2, nothing was there. His wooden coffin, as well as body, bones, and teeth, all were dissolved, inextricably mixed in the earth about his friend’s casket.

All that was left, according to The Catholic Herald, were the coffin’s brass handles attached to bits of wood; a few tassels from the Cardinal’s hat; and a brass plate engraved in Latin.

So, Cardinal Newman and Fr. St. John remain inseparable, beyond the reach of church, activists, or contemporary labels—their love, carnal or spiritual, intact and known only to them.

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