It’s hard to overstate the role that Blessed John Henry Newman played in my conversion to Catholicism. It’s not even primarily that his writings helped make the case for the reasonableness of Catholicism or that he provided an example of a holy man journeying to Rome, though all of those things are true. Rather, Newman, along with his other Oxford Movement compatriots, helped to birth Anglo-Catholicism and so shape Anglicanism that it became the vehicle for my love of the Eucharist and the Tradition of the Church in a way pre-Oxford Movement Anglicanism could never have done. The near universal practice of weekly Eucharist in Anglicanism is just one example of the huge influence of the Oxford Movement on Anglicanism. So Newman was hugely influential in moving me into Catholicism. What I did not realize until today is that he also played an indirect role in my very existence.
In 1971, Judy was house sitting for a friend when she received an unexpected phone call.
She would not normally have answered the phone but that time she did. The caller was Ken and he was calling to ask if he could return a book he had borrowed from Judy’s friend. The book was The Lord of the Rings. Judy said he could come by to return the book, Ken and Judy met and soon were married. Together, Ken and Judy would give birth two and raise three daughters and a son. I was that son, and The Lord of the Rings had a special place of honor in our home. As far back as I can remember I knew the stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and they were read to me many times by my parents and sisters as I grew up.
The Lord of the Rings is not a Catholic book in the way that The Chronicles of Narnia is a Christian one, but no one with any knowledge of J.R.R. Tolkien or the Catholic faith can deny that it is a book deeply shaped by Tolkien’s Catholic imagination. Most fans of Tolkien know that he was a Catholic, but many casual fans don’t know that he was actually a convert, though a young one. In 1900, at the age of 8, J.R.R. Tolkien entered the Church along with his mother Mabel and his brother Hilary. Mabel moved to live next to the Birmingham Oratory due to attraction to the spirituality of the Oratory. The Oratory became the place where they attended Mass and engaged in spiritual exercises and eventually, when Mabel sadly passed away, a the Tolkien boys were made wards of one of the Oratory priests due to Mabel’s fear that her relatives would force them to become Protestant again.
In 1900, when Tolkien entered the Church, the Birmingham Oratory was only 51 years old. It was founded during a period of Catholic renaissance in England which included the restoration of the Catholic episcopal hierarchy to England and Wales. The founder of the Oratory was none other than Bl. John Henry Newman. Newman been a spiritually devout man from a young age, first as an Evangelical Anglican but later as one of the leading lights of the Oxford Movement’s Anglo-Catholicism, a turn within Anglicanism towards a much more Catholic self-understanding and spirituality. However, Newman eventually decided that the foundations of Anglo-Catholicism were bankrupt and converted to Catholicism. Newman had a special devotion to St. Philip Neri, the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory. Because of his devotion to St. Philip, Newman established an Oratory and school in Birmingham to serve the largely poor and lower class Catholics of that city.
The Oratory founded by John Henry Newman would eventually become the center of the spiritual life of J.R.R. Tolkien, a spiritual life that would deeply shape the writing of The Lord of the Rings, a book which would, in time, bring together two young Evangelical Christians—my parents (who would be the best parents any son could ask for). Thus, in a way, I owe not only my much of my move to Catholicism to the influence of Bl. John Henry Newman, but my very life. This is the beautiful symmetry with which God works in His Providence. He could, of course, have accomplished things differently, but I am delighted in the way he did.
Praise be to God who, through his servant Bl. John Henry Newman, brought about the conditions for my life and for my entrance into the faith that I love.