When an object becomes sacred

Updated: Jul 1


Cardinal Newman's birretta


In 2018, shortly before the final closure of Heythrop, a Jesuit-run college of the University of London, some very special items arrived at the Jesuits in Britain Archives: a quill, collar, scarlet skullcap and cardinal’s biretta, all of which had belonged to John Henry Newman (1801-1890). It is not known how the items came to be at Heythrop but they had, for some time, been living in a desk drawer in the librarian’s office. With the closure of the college imminent, the Archives were selected as a suitable long-term home for them.


When the objects came to the archives, the cause for Newman’s canonisation was well underway. In 1991 he had been declared venerable by Pope John Paul II and subsequently beatified in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI. So, when he was canonised in 2019 by Pope Francis, we found ourselves in the unusual position of having artefacts in our care which became sacred relics, literally overnight.

What is a relic? Relics are physical objects that have a direct association with saints. They can be a piece of the body of a saint (known as a first-class relic), an item owned or used by the saint (second class relics), or an object that has been in contact with a first- or second-class relic (third-class relics). Newman’s biretta and other items, then, are second-class relics. In the Catholic church, relics are venerated, and are believed to be a vehicle for healing, making them incredibly important objects.



Who was Cardinal Newman? Newman is a significant figure in the religious history of England. An Anglican priest, he converted to Catholicism in 1845, was quickly ordained as a priest, and created a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879 in recognition of his services to the cause of the Catholic Church in England. He was instrumental in the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland, forerunner of University College Dublin, in 1854. His major writings include Tracts for the Times (1833–1841), his autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865–1866), the Grammar of Assent (1870), and the poem The Dream of Gerontius (1865), which was set to music in 1900 by Edward Elgar, as well as several hymns. Two miracles have been attributed to the intercession of Newman which led to his beatification and canonisation. His feast day is 9 October.


There is no doubt that these items are very special and when we return to the Archives after this period of working remotely, we will investigate ways of storing them as befitting sacred objects. Newman had a long association with the Jesuits, and if you are interested in relics, we have recently launched an online exhibition with Stonyhurst College of our historically significant collection of relics of the English and Welsh martyrs of the Reformation which you can visit here.

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