A Saint For Our Times ? Richard Challoner
Richard Challoner 1691-1781
Richard Challoner was a boy of eight when the 18th century opened.It is known as the period of 'Enlightenment' when it was fashionable to look down on Christianity as not worth any sensible person's notice. For Catholics it was worse, much worse.
In 1688 James II had been kicked out for favouring Catholics. William and Anne were brought in to ensure a Protestant succession. Legislation then closed professions to Catholics, incapacitated them from inheriting or purchasing land whilst priests were made subject to imprisonment for life and a reward of £100 was offered to informers.
Richard Challoner became vicar apostolic of the London district - covering ten counties - in 1758. It was a century of decline. The most serious cause of defection was the natural desire of young men to share the same rights and privileges as their friends who were not penalised for belonging to a small religious minority.
The poor were another problem. A census of 1767 showed "there are near 10,000 Papists, most of them poor miserable people, who live in the purlieus of St Giles'. These were Challoner's flock. "In general he left the more splendid audiences to other preachers and chose for his own part to preach to the poor..."
Charles Butler, no sentimentalist, records of him that "attention to the poor could not be carried further than it was at all times carried by him".
The first Catholic Relief Act was passed in 1778 and resulted in the Gordon Riots. The Bavarian and Sardinian embassy chapels were wrecked and set on fire. Workshops and houses belonging to Catholics were systematically destroyed. Challoner confronted a situation more baffling and discouraging than anything he had known.
He was a great spiritual leader on the basis of a personal life of systematic prayer reflected in the famous and enduring prayer-book 'The Garden of the Soul. The standard English Catholic Bible until the 1960s was his updating of the Douai Version. His Memoirs of Missionary Priests is still our chief source for the lives of our martyrs of the Reformation. How a man achieved so much, harassed as he was in his pastoral work over so large an area and never living in his own house but always in lodgings, is astonishing. There was no exaggertation in the plain statement made at the beginning of Bishop Milner's funeral oration: "When on every occasion I represent Bishop Challoner as a saint, I say no more of him now after his death than all who knew him have said of him during his life".
Why, then, has he not been canonised? Catholic Emancipation was - more or less - completed only in 1829. We have since been busy re-establishing ourselves as a community. It took us till 1936 to achieve the canonisation of Sts Thomas More and John Fisher. Attention is switching now to Bishop Challoner because it is being recognised that he is a model for our time - when again the tide is ebbing and we are needing a share of his spirit.