Touchstones of Catholicity
Bishop Richard Challoner & the Idea of the Primitive Church
by William P. Hyland
Bishop Richard Challoner was the indefatigable leader of the small community of English Catholics during the often difficult times of the eighteenth century. Called “Recusants” because of their refusal to attend Church of England services, Catholics were penalized by various laws and persecuted during the period that lasted from the English Reformation up to the nineteenth century. Challoner is a revered figure in the English Catholic imagination, and a symbol of the fortitude of the Catholic community in the last century of those penal days, from the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution to the days of the anti-Catholic Gordon riots, whose fury, as an elderly man, he barely escaped with his life.
Challoner was born in 1691 to Presbyterian parents, and while still a boy became a Catholic. As a teenager he went off to the English seminary at Douai, France, where he successfully studied for the priesthood, and remained there in an academic and administrative capacity until 1730, when he returned to England as a missionary priest. In 1741 he was consecrated as a coadjutor bishop for the Vicar Apostolic of London, and in 1758 he succeeded to the office of Vicar Apostolic himself, and was the most prominent leader of the English Catholics until his death in 1781.
The life and work of Bishop Challoner can speak to all who are committed to a life of contemplation and action firmly rooted in Christian orthodoxy. Although a staunch Roman Catholic in a time not given to ecumenical sentiments, Challoner’s Christocentric piety, along with his emphasis on Sacred Scripture and classical spiritual writings, has a universal appeal. Most of all, his belief that reflection upon the acts of martyrs and saints throughout history, and the life and teachings of the early Church, serves as a foundation in the formation of Christian identity, makes Richard Challoner a marvelous inspiration for all who are serious about Christian unity based upon the ancient faith of the Church.
A Writer & Compiler
Challoner’s pastoral responsibilities were extensive and exhausting, and he spent most of his time absorbed in his episcopal duties under rather difficult circumstances. His flock was an increasingly varied one, ranging from families of the old Catholic nobility in the countryside to recently arrived indigent Irish workers, and even included the Catholics scattered throughout the English possessions in the Americas.
In the midst of his extensive pastoral activities he produced many written works, and was a respected controversialist, scholar, and devotional writer. His literary production included: an updated and corrected version of the Douay Bible; devotional manuals; English translations of important Catholic spiritual writers from the Middle Ages; polemical works in defense of the Catholic faith; catechetical literature; and extensive work on the history of the early Church, and in particular, the early history of Christianity in Britain.
At the heart of Challoner’s literary endeavors was an attempt to formulate an accessible corpus of devotional and historical literature in English to buttress the identity of the British Catholics, as well as to stress the common heritage shared by the English, Scottish, and Welsh Catholics and the increasing number of poor Irish Catholic immigrants to England. One aspect of Challoner’s work that has not been studied is how he constructed this identity for British Recusants by stressing their continuity with the primitive Church and, in particular, the unbroken continuity of that primitive Church with the British and Irish churches of the Middle Ages, the Reformation era, and his own day.
Richard Challoner virtually created, or at the very least radically expanded, a devotional library for English-speaking Catholics. The basis of this was of course the Holy Scriptures, and it was his explicit desire that at the very least, the Catholic clergy and the more educated among the laity would develop a devotional life centered on the reading of Scripture.1 As a corollary to his scriptural scholarship and updated version of the Douay Bible, Challoner produced various short tracts of moral instruction based upon the Scriptures.2
Most influentially of all, perhaps, Challoner wrote and compiled The Garden of the Soul, whose first edition appeared in 1740, and which for the next century would be the standard prayer book for English-speaking Catholics. Challoner’s book of Meditations for every day in the Church year, based upon the Scriptures and the writings of St. Francis de Sales, exerted a similarly defining role in the devotional life of Catholics until at least the mid-nineteenth century.3
The use of St. Francis de Sales’s classic Introduction to the Devout Life, of which he also produced a complete English translation, points to an important trend in Challoner’s literary program, namely, the goal of making accessible to Catholics, in English, representative writings of some of the giants of Catholic spirituality. The success of this program is most dramatically illustrated by his translation of the fifteenth-century De Imitatione Christi attributed to Thomas à Kempis. The first edition of this translation, entitled The Following of Christ, appeared in 1737, and would go through at least eighteen editions down to 1829. In 1739 his translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions appeared, and in 1757 The Life of the Holy Mother, St. Teresa, a spiritual biography of the sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite St. Teresa of Avila drawn from her own writings. Given the severe limitations of time and financial resources under which Bishop Challoner worked, one cannot imagine a more impressive selection of Catholic spiritual writers than this.
In his selection of devotional writings, Bishop Challoner has sometimes been compared to his celebrated contemporary John Wesley.4 An interesting comparison could be made between the selections Wesley recommended for his own Christian Library and Challoner’s literary production. Such a comparison would undoubtedly reveal a great deal of common ground, as well as illustrate the very different ways these two men understood the implications and relevance of the writings of the early and medieval Church.
By virtue of his position, Challoner felt obliged to engage in polemical or controversial literature with Protestant writers. As Sheridan Gilley has pointed out, Challoner did not strive for originality in his controversial writings. His basic approach was in line with the Douay tradition to which he was heir, which was in turn heavily indebted to the French apologetic tradition epitomized by Bishop Bossuet: to demonstrate that the Roman Catholic Church alone could claim the authority of the Church of Christ and that the various Protestant churches had no share in this authority.5
He developed his arguments in various ways. For instance, in A Short History of the First Beginnings and Progress of the Protestant Religion, first published in 1733, Challoner maligns the character of Luther, Calvin, and other Protestant Reformers, and argues that piety and devotion have not increased at all because of the Protestant Reformation and, if anything, the world has only grown more secular and hostile to Christianity.6 In another tract, A Roman Catholick’s Reasons why he cannot conform to the Protestant Religion, first published sometime before 1747 and reprinted in many subsequent editions, Challoner makes what perhaps is his central point, namely, that Protestantism is a new religion, which after its break with the Catholic Church subsequently broke apart into many mutually hostile sects that continue to divide among themselves down to the present day. This attitude is reflected even in the title of one of his other controversial works, The Touchstone of the New Religion: or sixty Assertions of Protestants try’d by their own rule of Scripture alone, and condemn’d by clear and express Texts of their own Bible, first published in 1734.
Thus, Challoner accused the Protestants of breaking with the primitive Church, and affirmed that it was indeed Catholics who were in conformity with that early Church. A representative quotation from A Roman Catholick’s Reasons why he cannot conform to the Protestant Religion makes this point clearly enough:
This reference to the Church of the primitive ages was not an idle rhetorical flourish for Challoner. He knew, and noted throughout his controversial writings, that one of the central Protestant arguments against Roman Catholics was that many of the practices of the Catholic Church were departures and corruptions from the spirit and practice of the early Church. Thus, in his catechetical literature one of his primary tasks was to demonstrate the Catholic continuity with the primitive Church.
Catechism & Continuity
In a very real sense Bishop Challoner saw all of his works, including the controversial ones, as having a catechetical function, but his most important work of formal catechesis was his highly successful The Catholick Christian Instructed in the Sacraments, Sacrifice, Ceremonies and Observances of the Church, By way of question and answer. This work, first appearing in 1737, went through many British and American editions through the end of the nineteenth century, was even translated into French, and was answered by several prominent Anglican controversialists.7 The catechism, which follows a question-and-answer format as is common in catechetical literature, attempts to explain and defend Roman Catholic teaching and practices, with a specific focus on defending the antiquity of the Catholic religion. In this work Challoner shows an impressive familiarity with the Scriptures and church fathers, on whom he relies in most of his arguments. Although he does refer to medieval authors, he mostly does not rely on them. Challoner undoubtedly realized that a reliance on medieval authorities would have made his arguments suspect to Protestant authors and in a sense play into their hands.
Thus, when treating topics such as Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, the monastic state, and religious orders in general, Challoner explicitly mentions the continuity of Catholic teaching with the primitive Church. Besides his recourse to Scripture and patristic evidence to demonstrate the antiquity and continuity of Catholic practices, Challoner also cites evidence from Eastern Christian sources to support not only the antiquity of Catholic practices, but also their universality. Thus, by citing the virtual agreement of the Roman Catholic Church with the Eastern Churches on various issues attacked by Protestant controversialists, Challoner attempts to isolate the Protestant objections as novelties, even parochial ones at that, at variance with the ancient and universal practice of the Catholic Church.
Thus, regarding the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the use of ancient liturgical tongues in the liturgy, prayers for the dead, the celibacy of bishops, the monastic life, and even papal primacy, Challoner cites the examples of the Greek Fathers in support of Catholic positions. And beyond quoting Greek authorities, on some issues, such as the Real Presence, he also cites the teachings of other Oriental Churches, including the Russians, Syrians, Copts, Ethiopians, Georgians, Armenians, Indians, Nestorians, and Maronites.8
Challoner minimizes differences between the Roman and Eastern Churches in this work, but that is not surprising given the catechetical context, which is concerned with enabling Catholics to defend traditional practices against Protestant charges of novelty. This historic emphasis on the practice of the ancient Church and its universal expression in East and West, disrupted and destroyed by the coming of Protestantism, brings us to the topic of Challoner’s specific historical writings.
As with many of his literary productions, Challoner’s historical writings were not meant to be original research as we understand the term today. While Richard Luckett’s quip, “It is never safe to assume that any passage in Challoner is original,” is a bit of an exaggeration, it does point to an essential truth, namely, that Challoner did rely very heavily on the compilations made by other scholars for some of his work.9 However, what is original and crucially important is how Challoner went about making accessible to his Catholic audience the stories of the saints, from St. John the Baptist down to those of his own day, in a way that was meant to buttress and even form the identity of British Catholics.
This becomes clear as we look at his book entitled The Wonders of God in the Wilderness; or the Lives of the most celebrated Saints of the Oriental Deserts. This hagiographical work surveys the lives of some twenty-five of the desert fathers and mothers, and draws heavily upon ancient sources such as St. Jerome, as well as the work of the Bollandists, the Jesuit editors of the Acta Sanctorum, the celebrated series of lives of the saints begun in the seventeenth century by John von Bolland. One might wonder why Challoner would put his time into such a project, which at first view might not seem to have much relevance to his flock.
However, when one considers this work in the context of his desire to provide Catholics with a historical consciousness, a detailed work on early monasticism becomes quite important. In his catechism, Challoner had spent more time defending the antiquity and universality of monasticism than on almost any other topic. He realized that the monastic ideal, and its corollary of a celibate priesthood, had been under severe attack from the very beginning of the Reformation—by which it was portrayed as an unnatural aberration—and he knew it was crucial to defend it. By beginning his work with St. John the Baptist, Challoner grounded the monastic ideal in the biblical period, and his inclusion of Fathers of the Eastern Church along with Western saints demonstrated the universality of monastic practice in the ancient Church. Thus we can see The Wonders of God in the Wilderness, along with his catechetical work and his translations and adaptations of some of the most important Catholic spiritual writers, as an attempt to keep his flock grounded in what he saw as universal Catholic spiritual teachings. With this grounding in what can be called the wider Catholic tradition of both East and West acknowledged, we now turn to Challoner’s attempts to make accessible to his Catholic audience the heritage of Catholic Britain and Ireland.
Catholicity in the British Isles
Challoner produced two works on medieval British history. Both not only were geared to provide information about British Christianity, but also were specifically part of a process in which Challoner and others, such as Alban Butler (Butler’s Lives of the Saints), were attempting to reclaim and restore to the liturgical calendar the feast days of many medieval British saints that had been lost since the Reformation. Although they were only partially successful in their dealings with the Apostolic See in these matters,10 the research Challoner did in this regard was crucially important in the life of the British Catholic clergy.
Challoner’s motivations in this regard become clear when one examines Britannia Sancta, published in 1745. This long two-volume work is arranged by the month and day, with the various saints of ancient and medieval England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland being discussed on their particular feast day. It is an impressive work, drawing upon previous Protestant and Catholic historical writers in both English and Latin, but also drawing upon unpublished manuscripts, and continental and Scandinavian ecclesiastical materials.
In his preface, Challoner begins with his central point, that the virtues, lives, and miracles of the saints “give the strongest evidence both to the Truth of the Church, and the Divinity of its Founder.”11 Significantly, he goes on to mention how from the very beginning, from the second-century St. Alban on, the British Church has had exemplars of sanctity. At the time of the Saxon invasions, saints withdrew into the mountains and what he calls “the deserts,” a clear parallel with the desert fathers, a parallel which he takes even further with the Irish saints:
Challoner goes on to mention how in the Saxon period and beyond, the Church flourished with saints in all walks of life, “that multitude of persons in all conditions,” even down to what he calls, significantly, in a phrase he repeats throughout the work, “the Change of Religion in the sixteenth century.”
In his discussion of historical method, Challoner laments the destruction of historical records “by wars, fires, and other accidents, or . . . by the sacrilegious fury of the Reforming Mob,” a point he will return to again and again. After stressing how most miracle stories have been omitted from his accounts as being improbable, he provides what for the usually taciturn Challoner is a full statement of the motivations behind this work:
Following the preface there is a table of saints, organized by month and day, with the saints of the Britons, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Saxons, and Anglo-Normans intermixed. And as one reads the various lives of the saints, Challoner makes it clear, without saying it explicitly, that the ecclesiastical history of all these island peoples has always been from the earliest times completely interrelated, on the most intimate level possible. This, I would suggest, is not an incidental point, but is at the heart of Challoner’s project.
The point is brought out even more clearly in his A Memorial of Ancient British Piety: or a British Martyrology, published in 1761. This work is essentially a one-volume summary, again organized according to month and day, of the information found in Britannia Sancta. In the preface, Challoner mentions how there had been previous martyrologies in English, but as he states in reference to their author, they needed to be replaced:
A Pastor’s Concern for Unity
It becomes clear that Challoner’s motive was to stress the common heritage and history of the Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and English Catholics. This was not merely an academic point but was undoubtedly linked to the very real challenges of his pastoral position. Relations between these different ethnic groups could often be quite tense, accentuating differences rather than commonalties. With the beginnings of what would be a steady influx of Irish immigrants into the cities of Britain, Challoner knew that good relations or even mutual comprehension between these largely poor Irish folk and the older, gentry-oriented English Catholic establishment was not something that would happen naturally overnight. In his saints’ lives set forth for all to see, Challoner painted a not inaccurate picture of the medieval interaction between the saints of “these our islands” as the implicit model for unity among his own much beleaguered and varied Catholic flock. Needless to say, even a superficial reading of Britannia Sancta makes it clear that the medieval British Church was also intimately tied in with and an integral part of the continental Church under the leadership of the papacy, something that would not be lost upon his readers.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all for its impact on the historical consciousness of English-speaking Catholics, Challoner produced a two-volume work entitled Memoirs of Missionary Priests, as well Secular as Regular and of other Catholics of both sexes, that have suffered death in England on Religious Accounts, from the Year of Our Lord 1577 to 1684. This book went through many printings from its first edition in 1741 down to the early twentieth century.
It is a sobering work, not sensationalistic, narrating accounts of all the Catholic martyrs who were tortured and died for their faith from Elizabeth I through the Stuarts. Interestingly, in the preface to these works, Challoner’s main theme is that while these stories are horrible and terrible things to remember, they are best seen as arguments for religious toleration and an end to the penal laws against Catholics. The fate of these many English Catholic martyrs, which included some Irish, Scots, and Welsh as well, did not seem far away in the mid-eighteenth century, and many of the Catholic families of his own day were represented in these narratives. Although in his preface Challoner makes a point that it is wrong to consider these martyrs as saints until they have been officially canonized, the message is quite clear: although the English Catholic community has a long medieval heritage that needs to be recovered, its most recent experiences, in common with the primitive Church, and its ultimate cohesiveness, are based upon the blood of its martyrs.
Recovering a Full Catholic Heritage
A thousand years before the career of Bishop Richard Challoner, another English Catholic, the Venerable Bede, wrote the ecclesiastical history of the English nation. Bede had perhaps three great points to make in this famous work: (1) the pre-Saxon British and the Irish were part of the ecclesiastical heritage of the English people; (2) the various Germanic tribes, now Christianized and converging into one English people, were producing saints of their own; and (3) the English Christians were not an isolated, national Church, but through their relationship with and affection for the see of Rome, were an integral part of the universal Church.
Richard Challoner would have approved of these three points, and, perhaps in direct emulation of the Venerable Bede, whom he quotes often in Britannia Sancta, he adopted them as underlying principles for his own work. Surely if there is one point to take away from Challoner’s historical work, it is that his vision of English-speaking Catholicism was one where English, Scot, Welsh, and Irish needed to come together as Catholics, with a common spiritual heritage most epitomized by the heritage of the saints, a constant, in his view, extending from the ascetics and martyrs of the ancient Church down to the common legacy of the penal days. This emphasis on the saints, which would bear such fruit in the great nineteenth-century revival of Catholic life in England for which he prepared the way, is best epitomized in this quotation from the beginning of his British Martyrology:
This quotation brings us to the ultimate significance of Challoner for Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox today. For centuries we have been quite adept at describing and emphasizing the injustices we have inflicted upon one another in the name of religious zeal. The famous English Protestant martyrology of John Foxe stands side by side with Challoner’s work on the Recusant martyrs, and the mutual recriminations between Orthodox and Roman Catholics in the Balkans and Eastern Europe seem stronger than ever before. And certainly we neither can nor should forget those who have suffered at the hands of their fellow Christians in troubled times, and we all must repent any direct role or collaboration of our churches in such persecutions.
Yet the work of Challoner seems to hold an additional message for us. He perceived the essential unity of Irish and British Christianity to lie in the common witness of saints and martyrs, crafted by the Holy Spirit. If it was Challoner’s specific task to emphasize unity among his own diverse and beleaguered flock, perhaps it is our task today to admit and embrace the fact that the massive and ongoing reality of twentieth-century Christian martyrdom, across ecclesial lines, at the hands of dictators, Fascists, Communists, and Islamic fundamentalists, is the starting point of our own Christian identity in the next millennium. If we can do this, namely, admit in our hearts that one church’s martyrs to Christian truth really belong to all of us, then we really can begin to say we live in the same house together.
Perhaps we can go even further than Bishop Challoner, and see the eternal witness of one another’s ascetics and mystics as a focal point of unity. Such an emphasis on the “science of the saints” can begin to bring us beyond our various post-schism syntheses, and philosophical, juridical, and stylistic misconceptions of one another, and return us to that dreadfully beautiful moment of pondering, with the Blessed Virgin and St. John at the foot of the cross, the depths of what Our Lord has done for us, and what he expects from us who in fear and trembling call ourselves “Christians.”
1. See Ronald Knox, “Challoner and the Douay Version” in Richard Challoner, 1691–1781: The Greatest of the Vicars-Apostolic. London, The British Publishing Co., 1946.
2. For a list, see Edwin H. Burton, The Life and Times of Bishop Challoner (1691–1781), London, New York: Longmans, Green, 1909, vol. 2, pp. 322ff.
3. See Richard Luckett, “Bishop Challoner: The Devotionary Writer,” in Challoner and his Church: A Catholic Bishop in Georgian England, edited by Eamon Duffy, London, 1981.
4. For example, see Stanley Morison, “The Writings of Challoner,” pp. 25ff., in Richard Challoner, 1691–1781.
5. See Sheridan Gilley, “Challoner as Controversialist,” pp. 90ff., in Challoner and his Church.
6. A Short History of the First Beginnings and Progress of the Protestant Religion, undated Baltimore edition found at Benedictine College, pp. 28ff.
7. I was able to consult the very first edition of 1737 at the Spencer Library at the University of Kansas. See Burton, op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 326–327, for a list of the various editions and replies.
8. Ibid., pp. 49–50.
9. Luckett, op. cit., pp. 81ff.
10. See Burton, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 216ff.
11. Britannia Sancta, p. iii.
12. Ibid., p. iv.
13. Ibid., p. v.
14. A Memorial of Ancient British Piety: or a British Martyrology, 1761, p. 5.
15. Ibid., pp. 3–4.
The author wishes to extend his thanks to Mrs. Anna Cairney and the library staff of Benedictine College for their gracious aid in the use of the Rare Book Collection, and to the Spencer Library of the University of Kansas.
William P. Hyland holds a doctorate in History from Cornell University and teaches at Columbus State University in Georgia. He and his wife are Oblates of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas, and with their two children are members of Holy Family parish in Columbus.
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