Ian McCormack enjoys a stimulating anthology of English Roman Catholic writing


The Spiritual Tradition of Catholic England:

An Anthology of Writings from 1483 to 1999

Edited by John Saward, John Morrill and Michael Tomko Oxford University Press, 760pp, hbk

978 0199291229, £35

Among the gifts I was given for my twenty-first birthday was a copy of the newly published Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness – worrying evidence of an implausibly pious youth, one might think. Some ten years later, OUP have produced a similar anthology of English Roman Catholic thought, which the editors acknowledge is shaped in the mould of Love’s Redeeming Work. The fact that a line from Newman’s great hymn is chosen for the title is not, of course, accidental.

The editors are unequivocal in their assertion of the unique claims of Rome, to an extent which surprised me a little in a volume from a university publishing house such as OUP. However, that is my only quibble with what is a superb anthology of just about every conceivable kind of writing from the pens of English Roman Catholic authors, which will surely fulfil the editors’ hopes of being used for devotional use as well as study.

Like Love’s Redeeming Work, the book is divided into chronological sections: 1483–1688; 1688–1850; and 1850– 1999, representing the era of persecution (‘dungeon, fire and sword’), the years of quiet recusancy (‘this humble hidden state’) and restoration (‘an English Spring’) respectively. The editorial introductions to each section, and to the book as a whole, are stimulating, occasionally provocative (see above), and learned, with excellent footnotes. The short biographies of each author are one of the highlights of the book.

I spent a mildly diverting few minutes working out how many writers are included in both Love’s Redeeming Work and Firmly I Believe and Truly. Unsurprisingly, the third and final section includes a lot of converts, though only writings from their Roman Catholic days are included. Thus deathbed converts such as Oscar Wilde will not be found here.

The big beasts from across the centuries are all represented: Thomas More, Mary Ward, Nicholas Wiseman, Newman and Manning, Robert Hugh Benson and Graham Greene among them. There is also a fair sprinkling of historically important material, such as the Bull of Pope Pius V, Regnans in excelsis (1570), which declared Elizabeth I to be a ‘heretic bastard tyrant’. Not one for use at Benediction, then. Indeed, the editors acknowledge that the Bull was politically disastrous for Catholics in England.

But the real joy of this book lies in finding the unexpected and hitherto unknown treasures. There is Cyril Charles Martindale sj on the importance of the sheer physicality of the Incarnation and thus the Sacraments which perpetuate that physicality in the Church today; Eric Gill on ‘Art and Prudence’; and Bishop John Milner (the Vicar Apostolic for the Midland district) on ‘The Religious Sublimity of Gothic Architecture’. But perhaps my absolute favourites are two extracts from the work of the priest and bibliophile George Leo Haydock (1774–1849).

The first is a ‘Scriptural Litany to the Blessed Virgin Mary’, which sounds like something dreamed up by a right-on liturgy group at a liberal catholic theological college, but is in fact a powerful meditation on the role of Our Lady in the life of Our Lord.

The second, even more powerful, is a way of hearing Mass which invites the participant to ‘accompany our suffering Lord (in spirit) from his agony in the garden, to his ascension.’ Parts of this are rendered obsolete by the Novus Ordo, but enough remains to make this a devotion that all can use: The Priest ‘spreads his hands over the bread and wine’ = ‘Jesus is stretched naked on the cross, to be nailed to it’; ‘He consecrates the bread and elevates the host’ = ‘Jesus is raised above the heads of the people a victim for all’; ‘He does the same with the chalice’ = ‘Jesus pours forth his blood for us’; and so on. Powerful stuff, which I have not been able to forget when saying Mass, since first reading it.

Still other entries sent me off in the direction of different works: for example, extracts from John Dryden’s biting poetical comparison of the Roman and Anglican churches ‘The Hind and the Panther’ (1687) sent me to the bookshelves to look again at Aidan Nichols’ equally cutting study of Anglicanism, The Panther and the Hind.

This is, then, a treasure-trove of spiritual, devotional, academic, poetic, rhetorical and at times controversial material which will give very many hours of rewarding reading. Firmly I Believe and Truly is a gift to the whole Church, and would make an excellent Christmas present – for worryingly pious youths, and many others. ND