The Malta Independent 18 June 2024, Tuesday
View E-Paper

John Henry Newman and Malta

Michael Asciak Sunday, 6 October 2019, 08:30 Last update: about 6 years ago

On the 13th of this month, in Rome, Pope Francis will declare John H. Newman canonised and a Saint of the Catholic Church. Born in1801, Newman grew up with the ideas of Darwin, Marx and Freud and was able to synthesise an acceptable response to these ideas where they clashed with Christianity and point out aspects where congruence was acceptable.

The eldest of six children, he did well at school and was accepted into Trinity College, Oxford, when he was 16 years old. He was accepted as a Fellow at Oriel College where he became a tenured academic. In 1825 he was ordained as an Anglican priest and did pastoral work there.


In 1833 he travelled to Italy, Sicily, Malta and Greece where he was particularly able to observe a number of Catholic devotions. This caused him to change his ideas that the Catholic Church was intrinsically corrupt and decayed, an oft-stated starting point in the Anglican Protestant historical narrative.

On his return to England he founded the Oxford Movement which set out to re-introduce aspects of worship and understanding that had been neglected by the Anglican Church since Henry VIII had declared himself Head of the Church in England rather than the Pope. Newman’s study of the Fathers of the Church had shown him that the church had always considered itself autonomous and catholic, universal and supra-national, with the bishops as guardians of the Apostolic faith.

He began to consider that the Anglican Church in England was still part of the Catholic Church and for many in the Anglican Church this was the last straw. He decided to retreat as a layman to Littlemore and carry out pastoral work with the poor in this outlying Oxford parish. Here he slowly but painfully moved closer in understanding and spirit to the Catholic tradition until he was received into the Catholic Communion in 1845 by an Italian Passionist priest, Dominic Barberi, during a terrible storm.

After this, he travelled to Rome where he became a priest of the Catholic Church in 1847. On his return to the UK, he decided to join the Congregation of the Oratory set up around St Philip Neri and established an oratory in Birmingham and later in London.

In the middle of the 1800s, the Catholic Church decided to re-set up its Catholic hierarchy in the UK after the schism of Henry VIII. This act in Victorian England caused considerable consternation, uproar and aggression from the public – often with mob attacks and the pelting of Catholic priests and converts with mud and stones. Several bonfires were lit for the burning of effigies of the Pope and Cardinal Wiseman, the recently installed Archbishop of Westminster.

Newman was at the forefront of all this and he had to go through several trials before his work was actually recognised in the Roman Church by him being proclaimed a Cardinal. He often clashed with both Cardinal Wiseman and his successor, Cardinal Manning, on ultamontane doctrine and aspects of papal infallibility. However, in 1879, at the insistence of English laymen, Pope Leo XIII proclaimed him a Cardinal at the age of 78, and his motto was ‘Cor ad Cor Loquatur’ – ‘heart speaks to heart’! He continued to serve the Church in England well into his old age until he died in 1890.

Not many people know of the time Newman spent as an Anglican priest in Malta as a young man and we owe much to my former lecturer, Dr Paul Cassar MD DPM, for the information available to us. It seems that in his important formative years, Newman reached Malta on Christmas Eve 1832, on his way to Greece. He was back in mid-January of 1833, and was quarantined in the Lazzaretto in accordance with the regulations then in force.

He caught a bad cold there and was forced to convalesce in the Beverly Hotel in West Street, Valletta. Because of his illness he was only able to visit Valletta and St Paul’s Bay before departing for Messina, in Italy, on 7 February. He was impressed by the kindness of the Maltese, the ringing of the church bells, the many images of saints – especially those of the Madonna – adorning our streets and, of course, the magnificence of St John’s Church – now Cathedral. He remonstrated with the Protestant authorities here why such a magnificent church was not turned into a Protestant church as the Protestants had nowhere appropriate in which to pray. Little did he know that, 12 years later, he would convert to that same Church and neither could he have foreseen the help that Maltese Catholics would give him in his legal trials. He wrote several poems and letters from Malta, including a poem about the shipwreck of St Paul which he wrote during his journey to Messina .


St Paul at Melita

“And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid
them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat.”

Secure in his prophetic strength,

    The water peril o’er,

The many-gifted man at length

    Stepp’d on the promised shore.

He trod the shore; but not to rest,

    Nor wait till Angels came;

Lo! humblest pains the Saint attest,

    The firebrands and the flame.

But, when he felt the viper’s smart,

    Then instant aid was given;

Christian! hence learn to do thy part,

    And leave the rest to Heaven.

8 February 1833.


Perhaps Newman’s contacts with Malta were cemented when he had to go through the famous Achilli trial in England. Dr Giacinto Achilli was well educated Dominican Friar from Viterbo, with a Master’s degree in Sacred Theology from the Angelicum. He was accused of sexual misconduct, particularly with a 15-year old minor, and the Inquisition Tribunal in Rome suspended him from his priestly duties and confined him to a monastery for three years.

Achilli escaped to Corfu, where he sought protection from the British authorities, and when Rome sought his extradition, he converted to Protestantism and asked for asylum. After some sexual escapades there, he then came to Malta in 1846 and opened an Italian church. The Committee of the Protestant College of St Julian’s in Malta appointed him Professor, with a special mission to spread Protestantism to Italy. During his absence from Malta, however, two of his fellow Protestant preachers were accused of ‘fornication’ and it was further alleged that Achilli had encouraged them in their misconduct.

He was dismissed by the Protestant Committee, along with his fellow accused. In May 1848. he went to England and immediately started to attack the character of the Catholic clergy there. Newman defended the character of the Catholic Church and exposed Achilli for what he was. Achilli immediately opened up a case for libel against Newman. The trial opened in June 1852 and witnesses from Italy and Malta were produced by Newman to substantiate his allegations.

Evidence from Malta was collected by a Dr A. Dingli LL.D and dispatched to the trial in England. These witnesses (being Catholic) were, however, disbelieved and Newman lost his case being fined £100 and £12,000 in court expenses. The Maltese paper L'Ordine accused the English judge of being influenced by his religious views and claimed a Miscarriage of Justice. Other papers in England and Malta also took this line, with The Times of the UK exclaiming that the proceedings were “indecorous in their nature, unsatisfactory in their result, and little calculated to increase the respect of the people for the administration of justice or the estimation by foreign nations of the English name and character. We consider that a great blow has been given to the administration of justice in this country and that Roman Catholics will henceforth have only too good reason for asserting that there is no justice for them in cases tending to arouse the Protestant feelings of judges and juries”.

Newman appealed the case and the libel case was overturned by the Court of Appeal but the fine imposed on him was retained because of the strong language used by him in Achilli’s accusation.

Many Maltese contributed to collect money so that Newman could pay his considerable fine. These included the Archbishop of Malta, several Church Chapters – particularly the Cathedral Chapter, the Chapters of Senglea, Birgu  and Cospicua – several professionals especially Dr A. Dingli LLD, the Jesuit father P.P. Lebrun of the St Philip Oratory of Senglea, several convents, parish priests, lay Maltese and even the faithful from the British Armed Forces. The sum collected was £63.74 and Newman later wrote two letters to express his gratitude to his Maltese supporters – letters that are included in Dr Paul Cassar’s research publications in the Journal of Mediterranean Studies.

Achilli’s victory was pyrrhic as his sexual escapades became widely known to the UK public. He escaped to the US where, although married, he was again accused of further sexual misconduct and he subsequently disappeared.

It is wonderful to know that the Maltese Catholic witness contributed – consciously and subconsciously – to Newman’s conversion to Catholicism and also that the Maltese Church and people were so supportive in the later battles he had to endure. I suggest that both the Church and state authorities find ways to recognise and commemorate this great man’s local connection and his contribution to human and theological understanding.

[email protected]


  • don't miss