Michael Daniel

by Terry Tastard
(Gracewing, 2009, 200pp, $39.00. ISBN: 978-0-85244-250-0. Available from Freedom Publishing)

One of the most famous English Catholic priests from the interwar period until the 1950s was Monsignor Ronald Knox. The convert son of an Anglican bishop, and a former Anglican priest, he was a prodigious writer of articles and books, celebrated preacher, translator of the Bible and author of detective stories.

Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is one of a few publications that have appeared in recent years which reflect a renewed interest in the life and thought of Knox. The author focuses not only on the details of Knox's life, but also the development of his thought, outlook and spirituality.

Born in 1888, his mother died when he was in infancy and Tastard argues that the loss of his mother was seminal in his character formation. While still a young child, his academic brilliance was noted and he obtained entry to Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, where he developed a reputation for being an erudite Classicist. During these years, he embraced Anglo-Catholicism, to the horror of his staunch Evangelical father, eventually being part of the most extreme group within Anglo-Catholicism, often called "Anglo-Papalists."

The onset of World War I caused Knox to consider carefully his religious position, particularly as friends preparing to depart for the front wondered whether they should convert to Catholicism. Eventually, Knox accepted the claims of the Catholic Church, was received into the Church at Farnborough Abbey in 1917, and ordained a Catholic priest by Cardinal Bourne in 1919.

By the time of his conversion, he had already developed a reputation as a writer and was much sought after as a preacher. In particular, Knox recognised, critiqued - and in satirical pieces lampooned - the flaws inherent in theological liberalism. As a Catholic priest, he brought these considerable gifts into explaining and defending the Catholic faith.

The early years of Knox's period as a Catholic priest coincided with the development of the radio, a medium on which Knox frequently featured. He also had regular columns in newspapers and was much sought after as a preacher.

As a testament to his diverse talents, he was also a celebrated author of detective novels as well as books on religious topics. These tasks were undertaken in addition to his pastoral responsibilities. Initially assigned to teach students at St Edmund's College, Knox then became the Catholic chaplain at Oxford from 1926 to 1939. Next, sensing a need for a change, he became the chaplain of the Acton family at Aldenham.

Although he sought a quieter life, with the relocation of a girls convent school during World War II, Knox became their chaplain. His weekly reflections formed the basis of his "in slow motion" series, for example, The Mass in Slow Motion. A few years after the war he moved to Mells, Somerset, and died in 1957.

Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is an interesting and well-written introduction to the life and thought of Knox. The author situates these within their historical contexts, including the emergence of Catholicism from a minority entity viewed as being not entirely loyal to Britain to a body that throughout his life gradually became part of the mainstream. Tastard argues that Knox demonstrated how one could be both Catholic and thoroughly English.

This raises the question of the extent to which Knox's writing and ministry may have had an impact on this process of understanding and acceptance. Through his writings, Knox sought to present the Catholic faith as reasonable, in order to deepen the faith of Catholics and encourage those people who were considering becoming Catholic.

He was often sought out by the latter, playing direct or semi-direct roles in the conversions of numerous notable people, including G.K. Chesterton and Siegfried Sassoon. Interestingly, Tastard notes on more than one occasion in the work that although Knox may have embodied the public face of Catholicism, the Catholic circles he frequented were in fact far removed from the bulk of ordinary Catholics who were then working class.

Michael E. Daniel teaches at a Melbourne secondary school.

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