As Sherlock Holmes once said to his lifetime partner Dr. John Watson, “John Old Topper, there’s a mystery afoot about the whereabouts of the body of our friend Cardinal John Henry Newman.”
For those PG sleuth readers who consider themselves Baker Street Irregulars – no morbid interest is implied by the designation – here are clues worth digging into.
Cardinal John Henry Newman, who in photo profile looks not unlike Sherlock Holmes, died in 1890, age 89. A High Church Anglican, in 1845 he converted to the Roman Catholic faith. In his day he was considered the outstanding return-to-our-Christian-roots theologian and historian. He is now high on Pope Benedict XVI’s canonization list.
Readiness for Catholic sainthood is attested to by demonstration of two miracles. In 2005, a deacon praying to Newman was healed of a debilitating spine condition.
In 2006, a teenager in a two-month coma was cured with a lock of Newman’s hair placed thoughtfully on her hospital pillow by person or parties unknown. (Note: I have an aged friend whose love life improved dramatically after finding a chocolate on his B&B bed. His younger bed buddy – and the bonbon – proved a perfect placebo.)
At Benedict XVI’s behest, the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes wants Newman’s mortal remains moved from its Rednal, England, small-cemetery burial site to an impressive, saint-befitting tomb in big-city Birmingham Church Oratory.
Canonization would make Newman the first English person in 250 years to become a saint. (My stars! God save the Queen!)
In October 2008 his coffin was dug up. But – here’s the mystery – neither hide nor hank of hair was found. “It’s very unusual for a body to vanish completely,” says a skeptical University of Birmingham archeology prof.
Explanation given is that the coffin was wooden, the burial ground excessively damp. A poll conducted by the Church finds that 80 percent of those asked feel that the exhumation is an intrusion on Newman’s God-given right to rest eternally, undisturbed by biblical bounty hunters.
English gay rights activists are also adamant about the body snatching. They cite Newman’s wish to be buried near his lifelong partner, Father Ambrose St. John. The “couple” lived together from 1843 until the latter’s death in 1875.
Months before his own death Newman wrote, “I wish with all my heart to be buried in Father Ambrose St. John’s grave, and I give this my last, my imperative, will.” The presumably chaste lovers share a memorial stone in common. Translated from Latin it reads, “From shadows and images into the truth.”
Peter Tatchell, speaking out for British gay church communities, calls the removal “an act of religious desecration, moral vandalism.”
In an Ecumenical News International interview, Tachell fumes, “Newman repeatedly made it clear that he wanted to be buried next to St. John. No one gave the pope permission to defy Newman’s wishes.
“The re-burial has only one aim in mind: to cover up Newman’s homosexuality and to disavow his love for another man. It’s an act of shameless dishonesty. Personal betrayal by the gay-hating Catholic Church.” (Now now, Peter. The cock crows three times.)
Straight columnist Libby Purves in The Times goes twilight-zone blunt. “There are plenty of appalled Catholics who wish the Vatican would just stop embarrassing them with its compulsive ghoulery.”
John Newton, a writer for the Catholic Herald chimes in, “I wonder if heaven is ringing with John Henry Newman’s laughter, now that attempts to move his body against his wishes have been frustrated by absence of a corpse?”
And this just in from 223B Baker Street. “The solution’s simple, Watson. John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John are buried together in one coffin. Lucky buggers! Very Episcopalian, too, if you ask me.”