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Thursday, 23 September 2010

Bishop Challoner (1691-1781) Catholic Leader in Dangerous Times

Bishop Richard Challoner (1691-1781)
I suspect that many of us, and I include myself, are apt to take our Catholic heritage rather for granted.   We know of the terrible persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries with many heroic martyrs and saints known and unknown. Because of their faith and courage, and through the mercy and goodness of God, the Catholic faith survived. Yet I wonder how much we know of and appreciate the sufferings of Catholics in 18th century England, I have to admit that until recently I had little or no idea.  It was because of  this that I was persuaded  to read a biography of  'Bishop Challoner' by Michael Trappex-Lomax,  itself  based on another book,  'The life and Times of Bishop Challenor' by Dr Edwin Burton. The book is an eye-opener in so far as it makes one realise the enormous odds stacked against the very survival of the Catholic faith in England during that century. As Catholics we know that Christ promised that He would be with His Church all days, even to the consummation of the world, but that does not mean that in some countries the Faith might not die out, and certainly in England it was only saved by the grace of God, the sacrifices of  generations of Catholics, and by those courageous and faithful few, clerical and lay members of 18th century English society, of which number Bishop Challoner was an outstanding and inspirational leader.
King James II - reigned Feb 1685 to Dec 1688
Last Catholic King of England

In December 1688,  as a result of treachery by  English nobles, particularly the Duke of Marlborough   whom he had trusted and honoured,  King James II was forced to flee England,  leaving his kingdom in the hands of the usurper Protestant Dutch prince,William of Orange. With the King went the hopes of the English Catholics, and to the accompaniment of incendiarism and looting, there began that period for the Catholic Church in England, which was to last for 100 years, in which there was nothing  to look forward to, except endurance to the end.
This was the world into which Richard Challoner was born on 29th September 1691, at Lewes in  Sussex. His father Richard Challoner, ‘a rigid Dissenter’, and wine-cooper of that place, died whilst he was a  child, and his mother with her son, took up domestic service in  the Catholic  household of Sir John Gage,  at Firle near Lewes. To the influence of this Catholic household can reasonably be attributed the conversion or reconciliation to the Church of Mrs Challoner, and the reception of her son when he was about 13 years old.
            Shortly after, they moved to Warkworth in Northamptonshire, the mother employed as housekeeper to the Catholic widow Lady Anastasia Holman, daughter of the martyred Viscount Stafford, now Blessed William Howard, and herself a descendant of another martyr, Margaret of Salisbury, now Blessed Margaret Pole, the last of the Plantagenists. The chaplain at Warksworth was the saintly John Gother, a small frail man of untiring zeal, one of the most notable apologists of the time, a man of wit and learning. It was he who arranged for Richard Challoner to be sent to the English College at Douai in Flanders, where he was to study ultimately for the priesthood. On  July 29th 1705  Richard Challoner began his studies; he was nearly 14 years of age.

Blessed Margaret Pole (1473-1541)

Blessed William Howard (1614-1680)        

The English College prided itself on its history, patriotic to an intense degree cherishing the Catholic tradition of earlier time. Significantly the Presidents of Douai at the time of Challoner’s entry and at his ordination, Dr Edward Paston and Dr Robert Witham, and the professor who welcomed him, Dr Dicconson, all belonged to families long established before either Tudors or Cecils were known in England.
               It was to be 13 years before Challenor was to return home, passing the days of  his youth and early manhood in that unique establishment, set up solely for the formation of young men both cleric and lay, willing to suffer all things to maintain and increase the Catholic faith in England. Already, in fulfilment of that purpose, one hundred and sixty of its pupils had suffered death. The older members of the house had conversed with martyrs, and there was no guarantee that those days were not to return.
                 Apart from the reality of exile and the communal daily Mass for the conversion of England,  the faith at Douai was lived and  breathed without fear, but danger still lurked in the shadows for, as with other English colleges, spies had found their way into Douai. As a result scholars usually changed their names, and Challoner was known as Richard Willard.
               For three years Challoner’s education  was concerned almost wholly with the Classics. The morning routine comprised  5 a.m. rise, followed by Mass and meditation and a breakfast of bread and butter, with study commencing at 8a.m..All but the youngest boys had private rooms, the bread and the beer was ‘of the best sort’ and adequate in quantity, and the half-pound ration of meat for dinner was doubled on Sundays and holidays.
             In the summer of 1708 Challenor finished the ‘Humanities’ course, and immediately began the ‘Divinity’ course, consisting of two years Philosophy and four years Theology, in preparation for the priesthood. On 3rd November 1708 he took the 'College Oath' and made his Profession of Faith:-
            ‘I, Richard Challoner, an Alumnus of the English College at Douay, considering the divine benefits which I have received, particularly that which has led me from my country now afflicted with heresy, and which has made me a member of His Catholic Church, desiring moreover to show myself not altogether unmindful of such great mercy of God, have resolved to offer myself to His divine service, so far as I am able for furthering the end of this College: and I promise and swear before Almighty God that I am ready and will be ever ready, so far as His most holy Grace shall help me, to receive Holy Orders in due time and to return to England in order to gain the souls of others as often and when it shall seem good to the Superior of this College so to command. In the meantime while I dwell here I promise to live peaceably and quietly, and manfully to obey the constitutions and rules of the College.’

             The peace was short-lived for in 1710 the shadow of war reached Douai, and the army of the Confederation surrounded the town. The main body of the community had managed to escape to Lille, a few remaining to look after the interests of the college property. It is not known whether Challoner was among them. Douai was besieged for 52 nights with the French defenders reduced from 8000 to 2000 men, and on 24 June they surrendered.

            The new Dutch governor of Douai performed one of his first public duties a few days later when he welcomed into the conquered town Prince Eugene and with him Marlborough, calm, unconquerable, the glory of English arms, the betrayer of the Catholic King, James II.

Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722)

The interests of the university of Douai and the colleges had been safeguarded in the articles of capitulation, and on the 1st October 1710 the new scholastic year began. But problems of a different sort now arose, namely the suspicion of Jansenist influences in the theological teaching..A commission of enquiry was appointed but it was to be five years before the charge was officially and finally dismissed. During that period Challenor completed his theological studies also being appointed professor of philosophy for the students.                                  
            In August 1712 the French army recaptured Douai from the Dutch, necessitating the vacation of the college yet again, with on this occasion considerable structural damage. Notwithstanding,  the students and staff soon returned, and Challoner continued his work and his preparation for the priesthood.

          On 28 March 1716, he was ordained to the priesthood by the Bishop of Tournai. In the official record of ordination, the president described him in the college diary, as 'notable for learning and piety if ever man was'. The next two years passed smoothly according to normal college routine, and in July 1718 Challoner returned to England for the first time for 13 years, remaining away until September. His visit was on 'private matters', probably meeting his mother and engaging in college business connected with the forfeiture of Catholic estates following the failure of the 1715 rising.

          Now ordained and with the additional responsibility of 'Prefect of Studies', Challoner was awarded a  Theology degree at the University of Douai, his thesis dealing with  the  'Infallibility of the Pope',  and basing his proposition  on the authoritative teachings of St Thomas Aquinas. This was a controversial subject particularly in the Europe of the day where Jansenism, Josephism,Gallicanism,  and nationalist pride in its various forms, had  support in powerful places. This occasion revealed  the faith, courage, determination, and intellect of Challoner, qualities that were to be continually displayed throughout his long and demanding life.


                                 Pope Clement XI (1700-1720)                         

At about this time, an unpleasant  allegation  was made by a disgruntled priest, a Rev Lawrence Breers, concerning the general standards of the College. He alleged that there was no discipline, nor  piety nor learning,  that the ecclesiastical spirit had almost vanished and that  the President and professors  were unfit for their work; that the students were ignorant and rough, and that nearly all the members of the college, cleric and laic, were given to drinking bouts.

         The College was of staunch Jacobite sympathy, and as such had aroused the ire of a  certain Abbe Strickland – an influential cleric and one of the first Catholics to support the Hanoverian dynasty, who forwarded details of this allegation to the Papal  Nuncio in Paris.   Challoner was deputed to deal with this  matter, which he did efficiently, proving the charges to be baseless. The Abbe Strickland then accused the President of libel, which allegation Challoner again dealt with. The significance of this matter is not so much in the allegations made, but rather that Challoner was given the responsibility of repudiating them.
                Prince William of Orange - King William III of England  (1689-1702)          

Interestingly the Abbe Strickland was a pupil at Douai from 1708 to 1712 when he returned to England. Subsequently he entered the English seminary of St Gregory in Paris. This would suggest that Strickland and Challoner were probably  known to each other, and one can  surmise that they were hardly kindred spirits. About 1716  Strickland was proposed as co-adjutor to Bishop Gifford of the London District, but was rejected on account of his youth and unfamiliarity with England. He then lived at Lorraine at the court of the exiled King of Poland, and also visited Rome and Vienna,  apparently  promoting the cause of the Hanoverian English king, to the anger of the Jacobite supporters.  He was given the abbey of  'Saint Pierre de Préaux' in Normandy by the Duc d'Orleans,  after which he returned to London, where  with contacts in high places,  he endeavoured to promote  laws aimed at improving the lot of Catholics in England - based on support for the new dynastic line. This failed, Jacobite influences prevailing, and  Strickland was accused of  being ‘an enemy to his religion and inclined to Jansenism’ – allegations which he denied.  In 1727  he was appointed Bishop of Namur, and thereafter  seems to have been much involved in diplomatic and political matters of Church and State, as well as administering his own diocese. He died in January 1740.  (ref.Wikisource)
George I- King of England (1714-1727)

In 1720 Dr Dicconson was appointed Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District of England, and Challoner was appointed vice-president of the College in his place, this in spite of the fact that he was not yet thirty years old and had only been a priest for four years. The office of vice-president carried with it many duties besides that of governing the college in the absence of the President. As well as ensuring that the Constitution and rules were obeyed by all, both priests and students, he was responsible for  the spiritual care of  the students. The Constitution required him to take special pains to preserve charity and mutual goodwill in the college, and he was responsible for the care of the sick. He was also required to keep an inventory of all movable effects in the college, and finally he had jurisdiction over every other matter not the responsibility of another. To add to his work load, he had many penitents in the town particularly among the Irish soldiers then in the French army and garrisoned at Douai, visiting them regularly both in their quarters and in hospital. Yet somehow Challenor succeeded in fitting everything in, epitomizing to some degree the pattern of his whole life: there was always more to be done, and yet somehow it always was done.

 During the next four years, owing to the parlous state of the building,  in the President's words,  ' it being ready to fall upon our heads  with every great wind and storm’, the greater part of the college underwent extensive repair and renovation. Throughout this time the itinerary of the college contiued as usual.

       In 1727 Douai University conferred upon Challenor the 'doctorate of divinity', an honour which the President noted ‘he had in the opinion of all men long ago deserved’.
      Challenor had desired for a long time to return to England as a missionary, but always subject to the authority of the  President. He was loved and respected by all at the college, and nobody wanted him to leave. A college poet had this to say about Challenor;
                   Lest, all completed, you should now desire
                   Mov’d by a glowing zeal hence to retire,
                   Oh! With your presence bless us yet! Oh, stay,
                   And to perfection show us still the way!
                   Let Britain want a while your saving hand:
                   For howe’er great your pains, or good your heart,
                   You there can act but one Apostle’s part.
                   But here your conduct and instructions breed
                   A race of Shepherds fit Christ’s flock to feed.

            At this time, he was relieved of his responsibilities as ‘prefect of studies’, and thereupon  wrote a small volume of meditations for every day in the month, entitled ‘Think Well On’t’,  which was published in 1728. At a time when few Catholic works appeared, and with few facilities for the purchase of Catholic books, ‘Think Well On’t’  received a warm welcome from  English Catholics, with four editions printed in twenty years.

            In 1730  Richard Challoner obtained the President’s consent to leave for England. The College diary records that -
                    ‘on 18th August, set out for London and the English Mission, the Reverend Richard Challoner, here known as Willard, Doctor of Theology and professor thereof for ten years (who had taught Humanities and Philosophy for five years) Confessor and Prefect of Studies, a man well versed in every kind of knowledge, endowed with remarkable piety and inflamed with zeal for souls and the love of God and his neighbour’.

(To be continued)                                                   
                                                                                                                              Ack: 'Bishop Challenor'
                            Michael Trappes-Lomax                                                                      (Longmans Green)                                           

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