Fr Vincent Blehl

Vincent Ferrer Blehl, priest: born New York City 31 July 1921; ordained priest 1952; died Freiburg, Germany 14 November 2001.
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The Independent Online

Vincent Ferrer Blehl, priest: born New York City 31 July 1921; ordained priest 1952; died Freiburg, Germany 14 November 2001.

Native of the Bronx, Professor of English Literature, Jesuit of the New York Province, 21-year resident of Europe working for the canonisation of a Londoner – all these facts about Vincent Blehl seem like shards from rather incompatible ciphers until one recognises the indicating number – John Henry Newman – the priest, theologian, poet preacher, and extraordinary man of God.

Vincent Ferrer Blehl was born in 1921 and at the age of 18 entered the Society of Jesus. His studies were commenced at Woodstock College, Maryland, against an increasingly dark international background (the Roosevelts were near neighbours and Blehl often spoke of their kindness in allowing the young students to use part of their grounds for recreation). An MA in English followed, and Blehl's dissertation had the 19th-century English cardinal Newman for its subject (he had developed a keen interest in Newman's Grammar of Assent when at Woodstock). Blehl's doctoral work at Harvard had the same focus.

Father Charles Stephen Dessain was just embarking on the vast 31-volume edition of The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman (of which 29 volumes have so far been published), and Blehl perceived that editing a small part of the complete Newman letters might provide the material for his doctoral dissertation and could subsequently be incorporated into Dessain's magnum opus. Blehl was the keenest of archival burrowers, delving into the recesses of American libraries and collections, and then a 15-month trip to England and Europe in 1957 enabled him to come up with material which was to prove invaluable to the scholarly success of the whole edition.

Of course there was another dimension to Newman besides the scholarly. Just after Blehl entered the society, Father Charles Callan had very publicly raised the question of Newman's sanctity in the influential Catholic magazine America, and canvassed opinions about the possibility of Newman's canonisation. The response was overwhelming. However, a "prophet is not without honour, save in his own country", and however emphatic the belief in Newman's sanctity was elsewhere in the world, there was a certain wariness in Britain – somehow canonisation has often been looked on as a rather "un-English" procedure.

Nevertheless, canonical wheels were set in motion in 1958. Blehl was in Europe at the time and, realising that the wrong procedures were being followed, used his outstanding contacts within the society to provide the correct information so that the cause could be put on the right ("historical") track in 1959. Blehl keenly hoped that he would be allowed to serve on the Historical Commission which was charged with the task of gathering all the documentary proof bearing on Newman's life, holiness and reputation for sanctity. However, his superiors decided that his immediate duties lay closer to home, and he returned to teaching assignments at Shrub Oak, New York, and Canisius College, Buffalo.

Nineteen sixty-two saw Blehl's return to his undergraduate university – Fordham. He joined the English Department, and later shouldered the burdensome departmental chairmanship with Stoic forbearance. His area of specialisation was the Victorian period, but he was keen to explore the relationship between literature and theology in courses and lectures, and his love of art meant that was another subject which found its way into his teaching.

However, Newman was never very far away. The volumes of the Newman Letters on which Blehl had worked appeared in 1963-65. But, besides these, there was a huge stream of articles, and two outstanding anthologies, The Essential Newman (1963) and Realisations: Newman's own selection of his sermons (1964). In 1978 he published a detailed scientific bibliography of all the various editions of Newman's works (John Henry Newman: a bibliographical catalogue of his writings), which he prefaced with a fascinating account of Newman's relations with his various publishers.

Around this time he heard of the embryonic edition of Newman's hitherto unpublished Anglican sermons, and, with a sabbatical near at hand, he volunteered his services as an editor of one of the volumes. This necessitated a return to Europe in 1978-79 so that he could lay the foundations of the volume which was finally to appear in 1993 (Sermons 1824-1843).

While Newman's cause had been put firmly on the right track in 1959, the engine had refused to move for 20 years. Those who had been involved were either tied to other commitments, and/or were totally baffled as to how the work might be tackled. In 1979 some exploratory investigations were being undertaken to establish what should be done and how. Learning about this, Blehl was immediately bursting with enthusiasm. He was confident that his superiors would allow him to take early retirement from Fordham and move to Europe and devote himself full time to the work of the cause. The Archbishop of Birmingham constituted a new Historical Commission, with Vincent Blehl as chairman.

Assessing priorities was not always easy at first but by 1984 it was clear what needed to be done and Blehl led those concerned on a rollercoaster which led to the successful completion of the diocesan enquiry in 1986. The cause was then sent on to Rome, and, at this point, Blehl was appointed Postulator, and, as such, was responsible for drawing up the Positio or documentary case for Newman's canonisation. This was finished in 1989 and completed the rounds of the Sacred Congregation's committees of consultors with record speed. In January 1991, Pope John Paul II issued the decree of heroicity of virtue and declared that John Henry Newman was forthwith to be called "Venerable".

Of course there remained the requirement of extraordinary favours or "miracles" – two of which are required for canonisation. Several times Blehl experienced the frustration of thinking that he had a certain case, only to find that the medical records (required by the Vatican) were not forthcoming. He faced these trials with truly Ignatian forbearance.

In 1987, he made his main base Freiburg im Breisgau, where he had been appointed to a visiting Professorship at the university. There he remained, combining work on the cause with teaching and writing. His comprehensive understanding of Newman's spirituality was displayed in his last two books, The White Stone (1993) and Pilgrim Journey (which appeared a few days before his death). His strong personal spiritual life enabled him to see facets of Newman's soul which more conventional treatments either could not or would not recognise.

Though he was in far from strong health, the rapidity of his decline came as a great shock to those in regular touch with him. His surroundings, on the edge of the Black Forest, were a great source of peace and joy to him, and it is reassuring to know that he died in a place he loved so much.

During a research visit to Rome in 1958, Blehl happened to be present at the beatification of the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor and Aged. He wrote that he "could not help thinking what a wonderful event it would be to be present at Newman's, God willing". Alas, he will not now be present personally, but when that day surely arrives, nobody should forget that it was Vincent Blehl more than anybody who made it possible.

Gerard Tracey

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