Friday, 12 January 2007

Bishop Richard Challoner

Today we remember Bishop Richard Challoner, one of the most remarkable (if little known) figures of English Catholicism, who died on this day in 1781 and is buried at Westminster Cathedral.

Richard was born in 1691 in Sussex, in the south of England. His mother went into service to a local catholic landlord, and he converted to Catholicism aged thirteen years old. He was sent abroad, as were many Catholic boys, to Douai in France, to study at the English college there. Ordained priest in France in 1716, he subsequently became a distinguished professor, and eventually vice-president, of the College.
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In 1730, he returned to England. The Penal Laws against Catholics were still in force (although not enforced with any severity), and prejudice still ran high. Accordingly, Challoner undertook his ministry in London dressed as a layman, celebrating Mass in taverns and private houses. Despite his unstinting labours he produced several books, one of which - The Garden of the Soul - was one of the most popular Catholic devotional works until mid-last century. His most famous work, which he had begun in France, was a revision of the Douai Bible then in use by Catholics. Challoner's Douai-Rheims bible was published in 1752, and became the standard Catholic bible translation used in England and America; President Kennedy took his oath of office on a Challoner bible.

In 1741 Challoner was appointed Vicar Apostolic of the London Region - that is, a Bishop in partibus infidelium. His region of pastoral concern comprised London, the south of England, the Channel Isles and - interestingly - the British Colonies in America (chiefly Maryland and Pennsylvania) and the West Indies. Although he never visited these remote regions, he did ordain priests for their tiny Catholic communities and was, technically, the first Catholic Bishop of English-speaking North America!

In London, Bishop Challoner worked extraordinarily hard to revitalise a catholic community which was then small and dispirited. Several old Catholic familes had recently conformed to Anglicanism, and hostility to Catholicism was still strong. He accomplished this in the face of grave difficulties - until the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, a person could still recieve £100 for informing on a priest - and much of his ministry was spent in hiding. Through his own example of piety and prayer, he inspired many, and greatly contributed to the survival of the faith in this land.

In 1780, the anti-Catholic Gordon riots broke out in London; the mob burned many Catholic houses and chapels, and were avowedly searching for Bishop Challoner to lynch him. He escaped, but the aged Bishop was greatly affected by the incident, and died soon afterwards. Bishop Challoner was buried in Berkshire, but in 1946 his body was brought with great ceremony to Westminster Cathedral.

The cause for his beatification has been rumbling on for decades; recently the Dean of Birmingham Cathedral has expressed an interest in reviving it. Certainly, the courage and sanctity of this great man deserves recognition, for he is a hero of the faith in this country.


Anonymous said...

Some kind soul has digitalized a copy of the 'The Garden of the Soul' (1775 edition) which can be downloaded from the Canadian Libraries Internet Archive.

Pippo said...

Thank you so much Monsignor! You really are immensely kind to us, and we owe you a great deal for helping foster knowledge of our Catholic heritage in Britain. Please keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

I think, Monsignor, perhaps we should say first bishop of British North America in deference to the Church in New France (Québec). The first bishop François de Montmorency-Laval (1658-1688) is considered one of the founders of the Catholic Church in Canada and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

Mark Langham said...

Thanks for the correction, and of course you are right to speak of the francophone Church in North America, with its glorious heritage. The post will be amended accordingly!

Anonymous said...

Is there an authorised prayer for the beatification of Bishop Challoner? I once saw a holy card for the beatification of Cardinal Vaughan, is anybody now championing that cause?

pilgrim said...

Dear Monsignor, My family has been blessed in three ways over the course of last year and I believe that this may be attributed to the prayers and sanctity of Bishop Richard Challoner. I am not a Catholic and don't know how to go about telling someone. Is there a Postulator I could contact?