Richard Challoner lived and served as priest and Bishop in the England of the 18th century: it is in many ways a forgotten period of Catholic history. The fierce persecutions of the 16th and 17th century were over, but the renewal and expansion of the Church in the 19th century had not yet begun. Indeed, it was a time when Catholicism nearly died in England.
Challoner’s father was a Presbyterian, and it was only after his death and when his mother was working as house-keeper for a recusant family in Northamptonshire, that Richard was baptised into the Catholic Church. He received his education at the English College at Douai in France, and after ordination remained there as a professor. In 1730 he returned to England, ministering to Catholics in London. Although the penal laws were no longer administered in all their harshness, Mass was still celebrated secretly in the back rooms of taverns, and often for the poorest of people. Great Catholic families there were, but their relationship with their priests was often a difficult one. They had come to accept their marginalised place in society, and hoped only for toleration. Missionary zeal and ‘outside’ interference made them nervous.
Avoiding the homes of wealthy Catholics, Challoner sought to help and guide his people. In 1728 he produced Think Well On’t, an oddly named little book of meditations, and in 1740 The Garden of the Soul, a classic of devotion and instruction which was to be revised and reprinted well into the 20th century.
In 1741 he was consecrated Bishop for the London District, to assist Bishop Petre, and on the death of Petre in 1758 Challoner succeeded him. His later works included an exhaustive revision and updating of the Douai-Reims version of the Bible, used by Catholics, and various apologetic works arguing for the continuity of the Catholic Church with primitive Christianity.
The passing of the Catholic Relief Act in 1778 inspired anti-Catholic feeling which in 1780 led to the Gordon Riots in London and the destruction of chapels and the home and businesses of Catholics. The aged Challoner never fully recovered from the shock of the riots and he died on 12 January 1781, aged 89. He was buried in the churchyard at Milton, until his body was reinterred in Westminster Cathedral. The Anglican Rector of Milton noted that he had buried a ‘popish priest and a good man’. A simple tribute in the hardest of times.
In 1916 the Society of St Peter and St Paul, an Anglo-Catholic publishing house, brought out an edition of the original version of The Garden of the Soul. Lord Halifax wrote in the Preface, ‘To me, over and above more important merits, it seems to breathe the spirit of those older English Devotions which have done so much to inspire that solid piety which is the backbone of religious observance. There is a “pietas” in the proper sense of that word, due from Englishmen to the Ecclesia Anglicana … which anyone who uses Bishop Challoner’s Garden of the Soul will at once recognise, which is often wanting in books of a later date.’
Consider, that although this blessed kingdom abounds with all that can be imagined good and delightful, yet there is one sovereign good, in the sight, love and enjoyment of which consists the essential beatitude of the soul; and that is God himself, whom the blessed ever see face to face ; and by the contemplation of his infinite beauty, are set on fire with seraphic flames of love, and, by a most pure and amiable union, are transformed in a manner into God himself; as when brass or iron in the furnace is perfectly penetrated by the fire, it loseth its own nature, and becometh all flame and fire. Happy souls! What can be wanting to complete your joys, who are in perfect possession of your God, the over- flowing source of all good ; who have, within and without you, the vast ocean of endless felicity? O the excessive bounty of our God, who giveth his servants, in reward of their loyalty, so great a good, which is nothing less than himself, the immense joy of angels ! O! Shall that not suffice, my soul, to make thee happy, which makes God himself happy ?
Think Well On’t: A Book Of Meditations
When all seemed lost and the light of faith burned low,
You, most faithful and true Lord,
gave to the Catholic Church in England
in its obscurity and weakness,
Bishop Richard Challoner.
We praise you for this good man,
for his steadfastness, for his love of the poor,
for his willingness to live the simple life of the missionary.
In the challenging times that lie ahead of us,
inspire us by his courage and devotion.
Let nothing daunt us, nothing make us afraid,
for we serve you, the Good Shepherd of our souls. Amen.
PSALM 13 (12) Usquequo, Domine?
How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD; for ever? * how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
How long shall I seek counsel in my soul, and be so vexed in my heart? * how long shall mine enemy triumph over me?
Consider, and hear me, O LORD my God; * lighten mine eyes, that I sleep not in death;
Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him: * for if I be cast down, they that trouble me will rejoice at it.
But my trust is in thy mercy, * and my heart is joyful in thy salvation.
I will sing of the LORD, because he hath dealt so lovingly with me; * yea, I will praise the Name of the Lord Most Highest.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, * and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, * world without end. Amen.
Fr Scott Anderson
(Image: Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum; photograph, J.R. Freeman & Co. Ltd.)