Students who met Newman relate that he spoke about all the subjects of the day except the religious controversies, and that he put everyone at ease. The historian J. A. Froude writes,
‘Newman’s mind was world-wide. He was interested in everything which was going on in science, in politics, in literature. Nothing was too large for him, nothing too trivial, if it threw light upon the central question, what really man was, and what was his destiny. […] He seemed always to be better informed on common topics of conversation than anyone else who was present. He was never condescending with us, never didactic or authoritative; but what he said carried conviction along with it. When we were wrong he knew why we were wrong, and excused our mistakes to ourselves while he set us right. Perhaps his supreme merit as a talker was that he never tried to be witty or to say striking things. […] He was lightness itself – the lightness of elastic strength – and he was interesting because [….] he had something real to say.’ (J. A. Froude, Short studies on great subjects)
One undergraduate who breakfasted weekly with Newman was able to calm the fears of an anxious relative by declaring that Newman never talked to him about Tractarianism; instead he urged him ‘to diversify my reading, to take exercise, and to get as much practical knowledge and cheerful society as I can’.
The rapport Newman established with students was achieved not by ingratiating them, but by appealing to their higher natures and opening up prospects. Young men warmed to his simplicity of manner, which was quite at odds with the donnish demeanour of the time, and the great interest he took in everything around him. His sympathy and feeling for the rising prospects and promise of youth can be felt in many of his letters and sermons, and evidently attracted young men to him.
‘How beautiful is the human heart, when it puts forth its first leaves, and opens and rejoices in its spring-tide. Fair as may be the bodily form, fairer far, in its green foliage and bright blossoms, is natural virtue. It blooms in the young, like some rich flower, so delicate, so fragrant, and so dazzling. Generosity and lightness of heart and amiableness, the confiding spirit, the gentle temper, the elastic cheerfulness, the open hand, the pure affection, the noble aspiration, the heroic resolve, the romantic pursuit, the love in which self has no part.’ (‘The Second Spring’, sermon preached on 13 July 1852)
John Hungerford Pollen worked with Newman at the Catholic University in Dublin and witness at first-hand how he dealt with the students. ‘The late Cardinal’s sympathy with the young man was a feature of his character, natural and acquired […] He felt for their generosity, their hopefulness, the trials, the struggles, the disappointments that might be in store for them in the unknown future’. (Pollen to Goldie, August 1890)
Newman’s comment to Gerard Manley Hopkins, then a lecturer at University College, that, ‘If I were an Irishman, I should be (in heart) a rebel’ (3 March 1887), reflected his ability to enter into the hopes, dreams and anxieties of the young – but did not imply that he was wholly sympathetic to Irish revolutionaries.
Dealing with a parent whose son was all but told he should not apply to Oxford, Newman wrote:
‘It does not do to beat the life out of a youth — the life of aspiration, excitement and enthusiasm. Older men live by reason, habit and self-control, but the young live by visions. I can fancy cases in which Oxford would be the salvation of a youth; when he would be far more likely to rise up against authority, murmur against his superiors, and to become an unbeliever, if he is kept from Oxford than if he is sent there.’ (Newman to Lady Simeon, 10 November 1867)