Richard Challoner

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Richard Challoner
Richard Challoner

Richard Challoner (1691-1781), was an English Roman Catholic bishop, a leading figure of English Catholicism during the greater part of the eighteenth century.

Contents

Early life and education

Challoner was born in the Protestant town of Lewes, Sussex, England on September 29 1691. His father, also Richard Challoner, was married by licence granted on January 17 1690/1 to his wife Grace Willard at Ringmer, Sussex on February 10. After the death of his father, who was a Presbyterian winecooper (i.e. he made wine-barrels), his mother, now reduced to poverty, became housekeeper to the Catholic Gage family, at Firle in Sussex. It is not known for sure whether she was originally a Roman Catholic, or whether she subsequently became one under the influence of Roman Catholic surroundings. Most probably she was a lapsed Roman Catholic. In any case, thus it came about that Richard was brought up as a Catholic, though he was not baptized a Catholic until he was about thirteen years old. This was at Warkworth, Northamptonshire, the seat of another well-known Roman Catholic family, that of George Holman, whose wife, Lady Anastasia Holman, was a daughter of Blessed William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford, a Roman Catholic unjustly condemned and beheaded in the Titus Oates hysteria of 1678. In this house the chaplain was the Rev. John Gother, a celebrated controversialist. In 1705 young Richard was sent to the English College at Douai on a sort of scholarship, entering the English College on July 29.

He was to spend the next twenty-five years there, first as student, then as professor, and as vice-president. At the age of twenty-one he was chosen to teach the classes of rhetoric and poetry, which were the two senior classes in the humanities. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in divinity from the University of Douai in 1719, and was appointed professor of philosophy, a post which he held for eight years. At this period, though it was not necessary to have aliases, he was known by his mother's surname of Willard. His nickname was "Book". Ordained a priest at Tournai on March 28 1716, in 1720 he was chosen by the president, Robert Witham, to be his vice-president, an office which involved the supervision of both professors and students. At the same time he was appointed professor of theology and prefect of studies, so that he had the direction of the whole course of studies. Though in 1727 he defended his public thesis and obtained a doctorate in divinity, Challoner's success as a teacher was probably due rather to his untiring industry and devotion to this work than to any extraordinary mental gifts. He was not considered an original thinker, but his gift lay in enforcing the spiritual reality of the doctrines he was expounding.

Return to England

Having in 1708 taken the college oath, binding himself to return to England, when required, to labour on the mission, in 1730 Challoner was given permission to embark for England on August 18, being stationed in London. There he entered into the work of the ministry. Though the penal laws were no longer enforced with extreme severity, the life of the Roman Catholic priest was still a difficult one. Disguised as a layman, Challoner ministered to the small number of Roman Catholics, celebrating Mass secretly in obscure ale-houses, cockpits, and wherever small gatherings could assemble without exciting remark. He was an untiring worker, and spent much time in the poorest quarters of the town and in the prisons. In his spare time he gave himself to study and writing, and was thus able to produce several works of instruction and controversy.

His first published work, a little book of meditations under the quaint title of Think Well On't dated from 1728. The controversial treatises which he published in rapid succession from London attracted much attention, particularly his Catholic Christian Instructed (1737), which was prefaced by a witty reply to Conyers Middleton's Letters from Rome, showing an Exact Conformity between Popery and Paganism. Challoner was the author over the years of numerous controversial and devotional works, which have been frequently reprinted and translated into various languages.

In 1740 he brought out a new prayer book for the laity, the Garden of the Soul, which until the mid 20th century remained a favourite work of devotion, though the many editions that have since appeared have been so altered that little of the original work remains. Of his historical works the most valuable is one which was intended to be a Catholic response to John Foxe's well-known martyrology, Foxe's Book of Martyrs. It is entitled Memoirs of Missionary Priests and other Catholicks of both Sexes who suffered Death or Imprisonment in England on account of their Religion, from the year 1577 till the end of the reign of Charles II (2 vols. 1741, frequently reprinted). This work, compiled from original records, was for long the chief means of perpetuating the tradition of the English Catholic martyrs and remains a standard work on the subject. In 1745 he produced anonymously his longest and most learned book, Britannia Sancta, containing the lives of the British, English, Scottish, and Irish saints, an interesting work of hagiography which was superseded by that of Alban Butler and then by more recent publications.

In 1738 the president of Douai College, Robert Witham, died, and efforts were made by the superiors of the college to have Challoner appointed as his successor. But Bishop Benjamin Petre, the Vicar Apostolic of the London District, who already had Challoner as his vicar general, opposed this on the ground that he desired to have him as his own coadjutor with right of succession. The Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide had apparently already arranged Challoner's appointment as president of Douai, but Petre's representations prevailed, and papal briefs were issued on September 12 1739, appointing Challoner to the see of Debra in partibus. These briefs, however, were not carried into effect, for the bishop-elect, endeavouring to escape the responsibility of the episcopate, raised the point that he had been born and brought up a Protestant. The delay so caused lasted a whole year, and it was not until November 24 1740, that new briefs were issued. The consecration took place on January 29 1741, in the private chapel at Hammersmith, London.

The new bishop's first work was a visitation of the district, the first methodical visitation of which there is any record since the creation of the vicariate in 1688. The district included ten counties, besides the Channel Islands and the British possessions in America--chiefly Maryland and Pennsylvania and some West Indian islands. The missions beyond the seas could not be visited at all, and even the home counties took nearly three years.

As an administrator he was diligent in attempts to overcome serious difficulties. He had already provided for his people a suitable prayer book and meditation book, as well as convenient editions of the scriptures, the Imitation of Christ, and the catechism of Christian doctrine. Beyond this literary work, he caused two schools for boys to be opened, one at Standon Lordship, later represented by St. Edmund's College, Old Hall, and the other at Sedgley Park, in Staffordshire. He also founded a school for poor girls at Brook Green, Hammersmith, besides assisting the already existing convent school there. He instituted conferences among the London clergy, and he was instrumental in founding the "Benevolent Society for the Relief of the Aged and Infirm Poor". His private life was marked by scrupulous mortification, while large charity passed through his hands. He had the gift of prayer in a marked degree.

Revision of English Bible

Another work to which Challoner devoted much energy and time was revision of the English Catholic Bible. He had long perceived a need to update the language of the Douay Rheims Bible that had appeared over the years 1582-1610. While still at Douay, he was one of the approving prelates for a revision of the Rheims New Testament published in 1730 by the college president, Robert Witham. After returning to England, he and Francis Blyth published in 1738 another revision of Rheims in an attractive large folio edition. His more important work would appear over the years 1749 through 1752. An edition of the New Testament appeared in 1749, and another, together with the first edition of the Old Testament, in 1750. Between the two editions of the New Testament there are few differences, but the next edition, published in 1752, had important changes both in text and notes, the variations numbering over two thousand.

All revisions attributed to Challoner were published anonymously. It is unclear to what extent he was personally involved in, or even approved of, the various changes. Curiously, a book he published in 1762, Morality of the Bible, quotes Scriptural citations from the 1749 and 1752 revisions in different places. Challoner is believed to have had the assistance of Robert Pinkard (alias Typper), the London agent for Douay College, in preparing the 1749 and 1750 revisions. The chief points to note in these revisions are the elimination of the obscure and literal translations from the Latin in which the original version abounds, the alteration of obsolete terms and spelling, a closer approximation in some respects to the Anglican Authorised Version (for instance, the substitution of "the Lord" for "our Lord"), and finally the printing of the verses separately. For the next 200 years Challoner's revisions were the groundwork for nearly all English Catholic Bibles, including those published in America, beginning with a Philadelphia edition in 1790. Rather than use any particular revision, later editors tended to pick and choose from the several versions available. This means that many of the Douai-Rheims Bibles available differed from each other in the texts they contained. Significantly, the American editions tended towards the later, more natural, revisions, while the English ones tended towards the earlier, more conservative versions (which were closer to the Latin).

Other works and later career

In 1753 Challoner brought out another of his best-known works, the Meditations for every Day of the Year, a book which has passed through numerous editions and been translated into French and Italian. Besides the works mentioned above, and a good number of tracts, other writings, whose titles convey the atmosphere of an era, include:

In 1753 Pope Benedict XIV put an end to the long disputes that had been carried on between the secular clergy and the regular clergy, in the last stages of which Challoner took a leading part. There were several points at issue, but the matter was brought to a head over the contention put forward by the regulars, that they did not need the approbation of the vicars apostolic to hear confessions. The bishops opposed this and, after a struggle lasting for several years, obtained a final settlement of this and other questions, a settlement, in the main, satisfactory to the bishops. In 1758 Bishop Petre died, and Challoner, as his coadjutor, succeeded him at once as Vicar Apostolic of the London District. He was, however, nearly seventy years old, and was so ill that he was forced immediately to apply for a coadjutor in his turn. The Holy See appointed James Talbot to this office, and with the help of the younger prelate, whose assistance considerably reduced his labour, Challoner's health somewhat recovered. But from this time he lived almost entirely in London, the visitations being carried out by Talbot. He continued to write, and almost every year published a new book, but they were more usually translations or abstracts, such as The Historical Part of the Old and New Testament. One more work of original value remained, and that was his little British Martyrology published in 1761.

Final years

Image:Westminster Cathedral IMG 4530.JPG
Tomb of Bishop Richard Challoner in Westminster Cathedral

As a bishop, Challoner usually resided in London, though on occasion, as during the "No Popery" riots of 1780, he was obliged to retire into the country. In fact Challoner's extensive activity is the more remarkable because his life was spent in hiding, owing to the state of the law, and often he had hurriedly to change his lodgings to escape the Protestant informers, who were anxious to earn the government reward of £100 for the conviction of a priest. One of these, John Payne, known as the "Protestant Carpenter", indicted Challoner, but was compelled to drop the proceedings, owing to some documents, which he had forged, falling into the hands of the bishop's lawyers. For some years Challoner and the London Roman Catholic priests were continually harassed in this way. Finally the harassment was remedied by the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, by which priests were no longer liable to imprisonment for life. This concession speedily aroused religious dispute, and two years later the Gordon Riots broke out. Many chapels and houses of Roman Catholics were wrecked and plundered by the rioters. From his hiding-place the bishop, now nearly ninety years of age, could hear the mob, who were searching for him with the intention of dragging him through the streets. They failed to find his refuge, and on the following day he escaped to Finchley, where he remained till the riots came to an end.

The aged Challoner never fully recovered from the shock of the riots. Six months later he was seized with paralysis, and died after two days' illness, on the January 12 1781, and was buried at Milton, Berkshire, in the vault of his friend Bryan Barrett at the parish church. In 1946 the body was reinterred in Westminster Cathedral. His name continues to be held in reverence by English Roman Catholics. Efforts have been made to attain beatification for Challoner. He now has a number of schools named after him; in Shortlands near Bromley, Basingstoke and Surrey among others. (NB Doctor Challoner's School at Amersham is named after another Challoner, who was a Canon at St George's Chapel, Windsor.) In addition, the oldest catholic school in England, St Edmund's College in Ware, Hertfordshire, (which Challoner himself helped to re-establish from Douay, France to its present site), name one of their five houses after him. The colour associated with the house is Royal Blue. The house is one of the original houses in the school when the house system was established in 1922.

References

  • Joseph Gillow, Bibliographical Dictionary of the English Catholics, vol 1, pp. 452-458, Ganesha Publishing facsimile edition 1999 ISBN 978-1855068247 for a complete list of Challoner's writings
  • Eamon Duffy, "Richard Challoner 1691-1781: A Memoir", in Eamon Duffy (ed.), Challoner and his Church: A Catholic Bishop in Georgian England, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1981, pp. 1-26, ISBN 978-0232515275 along with the other essays of the volume
  • John Bossy, The English Catholic Community 1570-1850, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1975 ISBN 978-0195198478
  • J.C.H. Aveling, The Handle and the Axe: The Catholic Recusants in England from Reformation to Emancipation, Blond & Briggs, London, 1976 ISBN 978-0856340475
  • Godfrey Anstruther, Seminary Priests, Mayhew McCrimmon, Great Wakering, vol. 4, 1977, pp. 59-61

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