Page last updated at 18:56 GMT, Saturday, 4 October 2008 19:56 UK

No body in exhumed Newman's grave

Cardinal John Henry Newman
Newman's remains are thought to have decomposed

The grave of the 19th Century Cardinal John Henry Newman did not contain his body, the Catholic Church has revealed.

The plot, at the Oratory House, Rednal, near Birmingham, was excavated on Thursday at the Vatican's request.

His remains were to have been moved to the Birmingham Oratory, in preparation for Newman's anticipated beatification.

Newman's body may have decomposed, as his coffin was not lead-lined. Its absence will not affect the progress of his cause in Rome, a spokesman said.

Permission for the exhumation was given by the Ministry of Justice, said Peter Jennings from the Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory.

Burial in a wooden coffin in a very damp site makes this kind of total decomposition of the body unsurprising

Peter Jennings

In a statement released on Saturday, he said: "Brass, wooden and cloth artefacts from Cardinal Newman's coffin were found.

"However there were no remains of the body of John Henry Newman.

"An expectation that Cardinal Newman had been buried in a lead-lined coffin proved to be unfounded.

"In the view of the medical and health professionals in attendance, burial in a wooden coffin in a very damp site makes this kind of total decomposition of the body unsurprising.

"The absence of physical remains in the grave does not affect the progress of Cardinal Newman's cause in Rome."

'Inexplicable' cure

Newman is in line to become the first non-martyred English saint since before the Reformation.

The step-by-step process for his beatification began at the Birmingham Oratory in the late 1950s.

It continued with Pope John Paul II declaring Newman to be Venerable in January 1991.

However, in order for Newman to be beatified - the next stage in the process towards sainthood - a miracle needs to be credited to him by the Vatican.

It is investigating a claim that Jack Sullivan, a deacon from Boston, Massachusetts, was cured of a serious spinal disease after praying to the cardinal.

Cardinal Newman inscription plate -  copyright of the Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory
An inscription plate was recovered from the cardinal's grave

If it is to beatify Newman, the Catholic Church has to accept this was a miraculous cure, with the Pope - known to be an admirer of the cardinal - taking the final decision.

A second miracle would need to be credited to Newman before he could be canonized.

Mr Jennings said that some of the cardinal's locks of hair which had been sent to Sullivan before his "inexplicable" cure had always been in the possession of the Birmingham Oratory.

He said that these items, along with the artefacts which were found in the grave, would be placed in a casket for a Vigil of Reception on 31 October and 1 November.

The vigil will be followed by a High Mass at the Oratory Church in Edgbaston the next day.

Newman, who founded the Birmingham Oratory and was known for his work with the poor, converted to Catholicism in 1845. He died in 1890.

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