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Cardinal Newman: The Urban Legend

We’re sure you’ve heard the term “urban legend” — that genre of folklore that gets told and retold as an account of actual incidents and that comes to be believed simply by virtue of its dissemination and perpetuation. Stories of alligators living in the sewers of New York City and ghost hitchhikers haunting the highways are some of the classics of the twentieth century. In recent years, urban legends have gained steam and amplification through news stories and the Internet, despite their apocryphal origins. One particularly scurrilous urban legend of the day involves Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman and the particularities of his burial.

According to the legend, Newman requested that he be buried next to fellow Oratorian Fr. Ambrose St. John because he was his homosexual lover — or “boyfriend,” if you will. That might sound like pure rot to your ears — because it is — but the legend has gained traction among those who want to believe that Newman, arguably the most brilliant and erudite of all Anglican converts, clung to sexual peccadilloes until and even after his death. Gay activists, for example, are enraptured by the opportunity to either point a finger at an ostensibly holy man and say: hypocrite, he! or elevate him to the status of a gay icon.

As you might guess, the September 19 beatification of John Henry Newman by Pope Benedict XVI occasioned the perpetuation of this myth — not only through whispers from ear to ear, but also by certain less-than-scrupulous media outlets.

Fr. Dermot Fenlon, an Oratorian formerly of New­man’s home Oratory in Birmingham, England, has spelled out the facts in an effort to debunk the burgeoning myth. In an article in the September issue of Standpoint magazine, titled “Friends & Saints: Newman’s Last Mystery,” Fr. Fenlon explains that Cardinal Newman left specific instructions that he be buried near Birmingham in ground reserved for the priests and brothers of his Oratory. In a specific and strongly worded request in his will, dated July 23, 1876, Newman wrote, “I wish with all my heart to be buried in Father Ambrose St John’s grave — and I give this as my last, imperative will.”

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