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The Beginnings | Vernon Johnson | Chapter One of One Lord—One Faith

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It was in the late autumn of 1924. I was standing in an Anglican convent and holding in my hands a book, the autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux. It had been put into my hands by the Reverend Mother of the Convent to which I had been sent to take a retreat.

I had protested, saying that that sort of book did not interest me, that I had looked into it some years before in a (Roman) Catholic shop and had come to the conclusion that it was sentimental and artificial, un-English, and that it was just another Roman Catholic scheme for exciting devotion amongst the public, and that I distrusted it. The Reverend Mother replied that I ought not to say that. So I submitted and took the book.

At that time I had been ordained and ministering in the English Church as an Anglo-Catholic for over thirteen years. I had been for ten years in an Anglican brotherhood. And yet the (Roman) Catholic Church had never presented itself as a problem to my mind. So far as I had thought of her I had regarded her as the greatest indeed of all the Christian bodies but one which had made many and great mistakes—notably her insistence on the papal claims. These mistakes completely separated her from the Church of England, and vaguely, I suppose, I hoped that she would one day find her proper place in the final reunion of Christendom which, however, was too far off to worry about very seriously.

Many who read this will be amazed that one could go on ministering for so many years as an Anglo-Catholic and yet never come in closer contact with the Catholic Church. But it really is a very ordinary experience. The reason is this: in the lives of most English people today the Catholic Church is no more than a name. Insofar as she touches their lives she only does so indirectly.

To some she is a fact which only arises in times of controversy; they regard her from the point of view of convinced opponents. They are certain, whether they have thought out their position or no, that Rome is fundamentally wrong, that, by her extreme view of authority, she has sapped individual responsibility, notably in the confessional, and has robbed the Gospel of its purity and simplicity by laying stress on unnecessary dogmas and by medieval superstition. They would say that Rome has lost her spiritual message in her desire for worldly power, and that she is the greatest possible enemy to the soul's free access to its God. Such a point of view of course prevents any close contact with the Catholic Church.

To others she is an ecclesiastical museum—the home of ecclesiastical art, the mother of noble cathedrals whose architecture it is a joy to gaze upon; but she is essentially foreign. So far as they think of her religion they think of it as they, from time to time, have seen it expressed by foreign peoples, and they misunderstand it, think it casual, irreverent and utterly out of touch with English ways. And so it comes to pass that they wander entranced among the beauties of the Church, yet miss her very soul.

To others, who think more deeply, she is an insoluble enigma. It seems to them as though the Catholic Church should have disappeared from history long ago: they are puzzled at her extraordinary rallying power. Persecuted and turned out of country after country, she still goes on, propped up by the papal claims which they believe to be utterly false; she has faced more than one apparently overwhelming intellectual revolt, yet still she remains, and they cannot help but admire the amazing unity in which she holds men and women of every nation. But it goes no further, and they explain away this mysterious Church by saying to themselves that the religious instinct is common to all the human race, and exists for all time, and that the Catholic Church is merely the most highly organized expression of that instinct. Their inborn dislike of authority, and their national prejudice against anything foreign, prevent any deeper understanding. And so for them, too, the great secret of the Catholic Church remains unsolved.

Even those who have Catholic friends do not get much further. They accept them as Roman Catholics, and assume that they will observe certain religious duties and refrain from doing certain things which others do. They may, from time to time, be conscious that their Catholic friends understand much more about their religion, and that it means more to them, than is the case with those who belong to the Church of England. But if, for a moment, they are impressed by this, they will say to themselves: "Yes, but it's mainly a religion of fear, fear of the priest who makes excessive use of his authority, and plays upon men and women's sense of duty. Whereas the essence of religion is freedom. Men and women should be free to go to Church because they feel like it and not merely because they are told to."

If there is one section of the English people today whom we should expect to understand and have an intimate knowledge of the Catholic Church it would be the Anglo-Catholics. They teach many doctrines in common with her, they read many of her devotional books, and, to a certain extent, they study her theology; yet they are, generally speaking, as far off understanding her as anybody else. The reason most probably is this—Anglo-Catholics have one absorbing interest, one great, overwhelming longing, and that is the regaining of England for Our Blessed Lord through the revival of the Catholic Faith in the English Church.

In this great object are centred all their energies, all their prayers, all their sacrifices and all their hopes. They take their stand upon an interpretation of Anglican formularies which has been held by learned and pious men. They are faced with misunderstanding on all sides. They are considered disloyal by many in their own communion, they have to hear their most cherished beliefs denied and often ridiculed by their relatives and their friends. In the past they have been universally persecuted by their bishops, and the bishops today, with few exceptions, still do not understand them.

And yet, against overwhelming odds, they have seen their interpretation of the Anglican formularies accepted as a recognized point of view in the Church of England; and many Catholic practices, for which in the past they were persecuted, are now regularly carried out in the services of their Church.

In the midst of this great struggle it is not to be wondered at that they have but little time to think about "Rome". When she does cross their path it is mostly as the great stumbling block to unity. They may, and often do, admire her for having preserved the Faith down the ages; but in their eyes, the dogma of papal infallibility has closed the door to that reunion of all Christians within the Catholic Faith, which is the goal of all their hopes. In this reunion they believe the English Church to be the key, the vital link between the Protestant bodies and Rome. But, before this can happen, Rome must change and modify her claims. To most Anglo-Catholics the Malines discussions were a step in the right direction, but hopelessly premature. The one thing is to go on doing the will of Our Blessed Lord where they are: carrying on the blessed work of the Anglo-Catholic revival, leaving the future in the hands of God.

Anglo-Catholics are still fighting with their backs to the wall, in a fellowship cemented by persecution, misunderstanding and loneliness, and anyone leaving them to join the Roman Church is regarded, even by the most generous and the most devout, as someone who, if not a traitor, has certainly let them down and, in some sense, sold the pass. The way in which anybody who goes over to Rome is misunderstood is a convincing proof of how little Anglo-Catholics understand the Catholic Church.

It is almost impossible for Catholics to appreciate the Anglo-Catholic point of view, and this adds to the stress of the Anglo-Catholic position, and makes the leaving of any of their number for the Catholic Church even harder to bear. Generally speaking, then, to the average Englishman, the Catholic Church is no more than a name. For many reasons he is prevented from understanding her. Underneath all other reasons lies the greatest one of all—the Englishman's love of independence. No interference, least of all in religion or by a foreigner! Inbred in him, deep set in his subconscious mind, is the instinct that national independence and religious independence go hand in hand. England, he maintains, will never accept an Italian-governed church. If ever he is to come into close and personal touch with the inner life of the Catholic Church, something big must happen—some tremendous jolt in his life-someone he loves dearly must "go over", something must happen to him personally which will shift him beyond national prejudice and personal misunderstanding so that he sees the Catholic Church as she really is.

But, against all this, there is another set of English people—a relatively small but steadily increasing company, by no means confined even mainly to Anglo-Catholics, but representative of all varieties of English life. They are beginning to doubt. Those who are not Anglo-Catholics are conscious of the failure of English religion generally: they are finding it inadequate for their souls' needs: they don't know why, but they feel it is all wrong. They are realizing that the Catholic religion, that religion which four hundred years ago was suppressed by penal laws severer than any other in our national history, is gradually reappearing with a vigour and a strength which they cannot explain on any human reasoning. They see that the great weakness in English religion is its endless sects and controversies, and they are conscious that the Catholics possess a unity unknown in any other society of the world. Their own national prejudices are being weakened by the international spirit moving the world, and they feel the attraction of an international church. They see men and women whom they would least expect to do so becoming members of that Church, and they are wondering and doubting what it all means.

Amongst Anglo-Catholics also there is a little company who are growing anxious. They are beginning to realize that the difference between Anglo-Catholics and Catholics is not merely a matter of detail or degree. They are becoming conscious that Anglo-Catholicism and Catholicism are two quite different things. They see no prospect of reunion. They thought Rome might change, but now they realize she not only will not, but she cannot. The papacy is fundamental, the very basis of all her authority and her unity. They see that, so far from the Catholic Church ever contemplating reunion, she is spending herself lavishly in money and in men, is building her own cathedrals, her churches and her schools, and gradually becoming the greatest religious force in the country.

This company of doubting and wondering souls has increased rapidly of late, and there is every sign that it will increase more rapidly in the future.

But to me, as I stood in that autumn of 1924 with the autobiography of Saint Thérèse in my hand, these doubts and wonderings had not as yet occurred. I was entirely absorbed in the conversion of souls to Our Blessed Lord through the Anglo-Catholic revival in the English Church. I had no sense whatever of insecurity, no doubts whatever as to my position. It was not till another year and a half had passed that I was to experience the beginnings of those torturing doubts and that sickening sense of fear that was gradually to fill my mind. The tremendous "jolt" had not come to me; it was to come at Lisieux, but not till eighteen months had passed.

I took the Life of Saint Thérèse up to my room and began to read it. The first two chapters did not appeal to me at all: indeed, I found it difficult to get through them. Gradually, however, the story gripped me, and it is quite impossible to describe my state of mind when at last, long after midnight, I laid down the book. All I can say is that it moved my whole being as no other piece of writing has ever done.

Here was someone who had loved Our Lord to a degree beyond anything I had met before: a love as strong as that of the martyrs of old, and yet with the delicacy and tenderness of a little child, so delicate and tender that one almost fails to realize the furnace in which that love was so wonderfully refined. Above all else it was the Saint's gospel of suffering as being the most blessed gift by which alone we could be really united to Our Blessed Lord in unfettered love, and her interpretation of pain and suffering as something which can be offered in union with Our Blessed Lord's Cross for the sake of the Church and for the salvation of souls—it was all this which, coming into my life when things were exceedingly difficult, lit up and made real to me certain spiritual truths towards which I was dimly groping; truths which I had been discouraged from holding as being morbid and so forth, and which I now found were the very foundations of the saintly life. For the first time I understood Saint Paul's words—"I fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for His Body's sake, which is the Church" (Col 1:24).

For over six months the study of this book pulled me through one of the most difficult passages of my life.

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Monsignor Vernon Johnson, an Anglican clergyman who converted to Catholicism and became a Catholic priest, was an apostle and teacher of the spirituality of St. Thérèse. He founded the Apostolic Association of Priests of St. Thérèse, which gave retreats based on her spirituality. He is the author of the classic work, Spiritual Childhood: The Spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

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