Arthur Middleton on parish priests of the Catholic Revival
The Catholic Revival in the nineteenth century had always aimed to preach Jesus Christ in a way that he had not been preached for many years. The Revival may have had its eccentrics and aberrations but so too have many other movements that have renewed the Church’s life. The greatest strength of AngloCatholicism was the recovery of the parish as central to the Church’s mission, where a Christian sanctity emerged which had not been seen in England for centuries.
The secret of such missionary sanctity was rooted in the deep convictions of its great heroes among the parish priests, who lived austere and disciplined lives and in consequence had all the evangelist’s love for human souls with a lively affection for people, especially the weak and vulnerable. Their lives were hidden daily with ‘Christ in God’ and as they ‘prayed without ceasing’ so they lived in the milieu of heaven. Their sense of history connected them to the stored learning of Christendom, in liturgy, sacrament, and devotion that irrigated that prayerful intimacy.
Such a manner of life is indeed a preaching of Jesus, the most effective of all, because it demonstrated the self-sacrificing love of Christ in which they lived. This is what made them great evangelists, that they were remarkably selfless lovers of God. Without hesitation they were ready to burn out their lives in the service of their master if the truth that was in them was to be preached and the souls for which they yearned could be reached and restored. They extended their love and care to housing, feeding, rescuing, and loving everybody into holiness. They sympathetically identified with these countless people won for Christ and his Church by being brought for a little into contact with holiness of this order.
This evangelistic holiness was built, as holiness must always be built, upon the strength and richness of the interior devotional life of parish priests, who never left their personal devotions to chance or momentary inspiration, but studied them, systematized them and regulated them. Hence, there was always a freshness and spontaneity in their prayers, their sacraments, and their meditations because they knew exactly where to go for inspiration and guidance. Within the Catholic Revival there were men of massive learning and such scholars were recovering the rich heritage of Catholic devotion, liturgy and theology.
These priests were not career priests, with a ladder under their cassocks, but with a towel, and like their Master they washed the world’s feet. If some preached by their sanctity all of them preached by their long hours of work and had a firm grasp of the job to be done and how to do it. It was normal for such priests to remain where they were sent for the rest of their ministry.
Subsequently he might be given a living but he would never dream of asking for anything. Parish visiting had purpose and point and bore fruit while confirmation classes produced communicants. In visiting the sick and dying these priests were aware of what was needed and were always properly dressed, often in cassocks in the streets of their parishes to identify their priestly ministry. In many parishes around the country, the average parish priest was doing this. Even in my own lifetime I remember robed priests and a bishop walking from the church through the parish to the home of a woman to confirm her before she died of cancer.
Underlying all such pastoral practice was the desire to demonstrate the authoritative catholicity of the Church that was centred in the Incarnation, of which the sacraments are a natural outcome, the powerful instruments of God to eternal life. In Christian behaviour they were demonstrating that absolute holiness is possible to anyone because it is native to human nature and therefore it was only natural to seek it because it was the only way of being truly fulfilled. In worship their concern was to illustrate the organic connection between liturgy, life and education that has a converting influence on the worshipper.
The renaissance of our Church cannot be sought in gimmicks but in the revival of the Catholic spirit. These parish priests have proved that it can be done, as they brought Christian renewal to vast wastelands of English life through their self-sacrificing love of Christ. Like the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews ‘what shall I more say?’ of these priests, ‘who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises … out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight armies of the aliens … and others had trials of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were… destitute, afflicted, evil entreated (of whom the world was not worthy)’ (Hebrews 11.32–8). ND