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Right Reverend Monsignor Ronald Arbuthnott Knox

FROM THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND, RONALD KNOX drew his ancestry, his education and, until he was twenty-nine, his principal environment. Both of his grandfathers vere Anglican bishops and his father became one when 'lie boy was only seven. At the time of Ronald's birth, February 17, 1888 (the youngest of a family of four boys and two girls), his father held the college living of Kibworth in Leicestershire.

Upon the death of his mother in 1892, Ronald spent the next four years with his uncle, Lindsay Knox, a bachelor clergyman living at Creeton, who instructed him in the catechism, mathematics, French, Greek, Latin, and the Bible: these became lifelong influences. He is said to have read Virgil when he was only six and twenty- years later chose The Spiritual Aeneid as the title of his autobiography.

His father remarried in 1895, the year he became bishop of Coventry, and Ronald returned home. The following year, he joined his older brother Dillwyn at the prep school of Summer Fields, near Oxford, and, like him, became first in his election to college at Eton in 1900.

During the holidays at home, the six children came to understand and love their stepmother whose winning them over was partly due to her practice of reading to them evenings from such authors as Kipling, Stevenson, and Lear.

Under the leadership of Eddie (who as Evoe later enjoyed a successful editorial career on Punch), they wrote and illustrated a family magazine-a parody on the popular weeklies of the day-to which Ronald contributed a rather heavy serial drama in Latin.

His affection for and loyalty to Eton were lifelong as were the brilliant intellectual development he received there and the ardent friendships he formed there. Already resolved upon the vocation of the ministry, at seventeen he bound himself by the vow of celibacy, both as a matter of self-denial and to enable him "to attend upon the Lord without impediment."

In his last year at Eton (1906), he was Captain of the school. But more important still, that year, during a serious illness, he was visited by a leading AngloCatholic vicar and was thus first brought into direct contact with the movement with which he was to increasingly identify himself for the next ten years, during the same period that his father, who had become bishop of Manchester in the autumn of 1903, was attaining the leadership of the opposing or Evangelical Party of the Church of England.

The scholarships he won (the Balliol in 1904-a year earlier than he needed to-and the Davies from Eton, and the Ireland and the Craven from Oxford) and the monetary awards (the Hertford in 1907, the Gaisford in 1908 and the Chancellor Latin Verse award in 1910) enabled him to almost entirely support himself through Oxford. And it was as an undergraduate that he first broke into the public press: a speech he gave as president of the Union was quoted in the London Times "The honourable gentlemen have turned their backs upon their country and now have the effrontery to say that they have their country behind them." He also contributed articles and light verse to Isis, of which he became editor in his third year; and his first two books date from this period: Signa Severa (Eton, 1906) and Juxta Salices (Oxford, 1910). He was unsuccessful in his try for the Newdigate Poetry Prize in 1910.

During his first three years at Oxford he resided at Pusey House and in his fourth year at the Old Parsonage, St. Giles, but still attending the High Church devotions at Pusey. At this time he made the first of his several visits to the Anglo-Catholic Benedictine monastery of Caldey and, in 1907, for classical sightseeing he went to Rome. In 1910 he attended the Passion Play at Oberammergau, where he bought and learned to use the rosary; he reported feeling at home in Catholic Belgium, to which a later visit (1913) revived in him, as he expressed it, "a fervid belief in the religion of Belgium as a working religion which must be transplanted to English soil." Returning from his 1910 trip, he wrote his acceptance of a Fellowship at Trinity College. He became an Anglican clergyman and chaplain there in 1912, the Bishop of Oxford having waived for him the usual theological training, suggesting instead that he prepare himself privately in retreat that summer at Caldey. Ronald believed his mission was to rescue the Church of England from the skepticism into which its brilliant young leaders were drifting. Learning that they were planning to justify their several positions in a book to be entitled Foundations, he lampooned the weaknesses of each in a poem in the Dryden manner, "Absolute and Abitofhell." First published in the Oxford Magazine, it retained its popularity in his book, Essays in Satire (Sheed, 1928). Some Lose Stones (1913) was his more serious refutation of Foundations. Two highly controversial sermon collections, Naboth 's Vineyard in Pawn (1913) and The Church in Bondage (1914) dealt with the present and possible future positions of Anglicanism. In his pasquinade in the manner of Swift, Reunion All Around (1914), he satirized those Anglicans who held that it was the duty of all Christian bodies to unite for worship, sinking their theological differences. Both wise and witty, the work was hotly debated, and, added its author, ,It won, in cold print, the commendation of my earliest master and model, G. K. Chesterton." Conferences on impetrative prayer comprised his next book, Bread or Stone (1915).

Besides lecturing at Oxford on Logic, Homer, and Virgil, he was a leading High Churchman in demand as a preacher and a public speaker. His "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes," first delivered to the Gryphon Club in 1911, was praised by Holmes' creator, Conan Doyle, as well as by the general public although his real purpose in the piece had been to satirize the German Biblical higher-criticism which was begining to infect teachers as well as students of the Scriptures in England.

In 1914 the Caldey community submitted to Rome and Ronald's family (his father excepted) and his closest friends seemed to expect him to do likewise, for his forming a Catholic mind somewhat paralleled his associations with Caldey. But his life was full and active and, on the surface at least, he seemed very pleased with it. But his complacency in the Church of England was soon shattered by the war. His own offer to go to Germany as a prisoner of war in order to minister to Anglican prisoners was favored by Bishop Bury who forwarded it to the Foreign Office which rejected it. His war-time prayer book, An Hour at the Front, circulated
something over 70,000 copies. Early in the war, he began a service by asking prayers for the recently deceased 'Pius, Bishop of Rome, and Robert Hugh Benson, priest." Although he had met Monsignor Benson personally but once, he later wrote "I always looked on him as the guide who had led me to Catholic truth." (Like Ronald he was the son of an Anglican bishop and also an Etonian). Among the many sermons Ronald delivered during this period was his first (and only) one from Newman's old pulpit at University Church, Oxford, with the congregation singing the future cardinal's "Lead, Kindly Light." (Later Ronald said he noted but was only amused by the incident.)

Meanwhile, one after another of his prize pupils and close friends were entering military service. Faced with forming a true conscience in what little time they might have remaining, a number of them became Catholics. Many sought his counsel and, to help himself help them, he drew up a list of reasons for and against entering the Church himself. If he could not defend their Anglicanism to them in their need, how could he do so for himself? He read and meditated over the problem for two years. Among the incidents which helped to materialize it was this: a friend of his had his application refused because in an interview with the Anglican Chaplain-General he was asked what he would do for a dying man, and answered: "Hear his confession and give him absolution." But the correct answer was "Give him a cigarette and take any last message he may have for his family."

To think and pray in a fresh atmosphere, he took a leave of absence from Trinity to teach for a year and a half at Shrewsbury where he had the congenial surroundings of several old friends and some former schoolmates. It was also the time of his spiritual reappraisal. "I don't want anything less than complete conviction to justify a change," he wrote to an intimate friend. At Shrewsbury Ronald met the convert and Jesuit, C. C. Martindale, who was gathering material there for a biography of Robert Hugh Benson. Rather abruptly he asked the priest to receive him into the Church because he "didn't believe the Church of England had a leg to stand on." Father Martindale advised him to wait till he had positive reasons for becoming a Catholic.

Ronald left Shrewsbury in December 1916. At home for the Christmas holidays, he met the opposition of his father who said he would have to resign as bishop if Ronald became a Catholic. Ronald denied this, adding that he would never embarrass him by undertaking any public activities within his dioceses, and concluding with the statement that his decision in a matter of conscious ought not to be influenced by the way in which others might take it.

At the suggestion of the convert and Oratorian, Father John Talbot, Ronald made a retreat at the Benedictine abbey of Farnborough. He was received into the Church there on September 22, 1917, by Father Abbot, Sir David Hunter-Blair, a convert baronet.

Between then and Christmas of that year he wrote his apologia, A Spiritual Aeneid (1918). His religious superior, Cardinal Bourne, sent him to live with the Oratorians, not as a novice, but to accustom him to Catholic life and practice. Early in 1919, he was appointed a teacher at the Cardinal's beloved St. Edmund's, Ware, a combined seminary and college. He spent seven and a half years there, in the meantime (October 5, 1919) being ordained a priest at Westminster, again, as with his Anglican bishop, being permitted to prepare himself personally without benefit of a seminary.

Besides his teaching and frequent outside preaching and lecturing, he wrote regularly for the press. A number of these essays were later collected in An Open Air Pulpit (1926) and On Getting There (1929). His gentle satire on various current whims, Memories of the Future (Methuen, 1923), had a limited if cultured audience. He collaborated with Sir Shane Leslie on The Miracles of King Henry Vi (Cambridge U.P., 1923). Henry founded his beloved Eton in 1441. Sanctions: a frivolity (Methuen, 1924) was an unfrivolous penetration of the ultimate sanctions in life. From the puzzles he contributed to a periodical he collected A Book of Acrostics (1924). He also wrote six detective stories: The Viaduct Murder (1925), The Three Taps (1927), Footsteps at the Lock (1928), The Body in the Silo (1933), Still Dead (1934), and Double Cross Purpose (1937). His aim and method in this genre he explained in his Introduction to The Best Detective Stories of the Year (1928). Other Eyes Than Ours (1926) is the story of a hoax played on a circle of spiritualists. From his infrequent radio talks "Broadcasting from the Barricades" has been preserved as "A Forgotten Interlude" in his Essays in Satire (Sheed, 1928). It created a mild national furore as a public scare incident similar to Orson Welles' imitation of it on the American radio a decade later.

His Catholic contacts began to expand with his appointment in 1922 as Chaplain of the Knights of Malta and with his friendships for Lord and Lady Lovat and with the writers Sir Compton Mackenzie, Hilaire Belloc, Maurice Baring, and G. K. Chesterton. G.K. symbolized his regard in the quatrain "Namesake."


Mary of Holyrood may smile indeed

Knowing what grim historic shade It shocks

To see wit, laughter and the Popish creed

Cluster and sparkle In the name of Knox.


In 1926 he was appointed Chaplain to the Catholic undergraduates at Oxford (an office which his four postReformation predecessors had unofficially designated as Catholic Chaplain to the University). There he remained until 1939. During those thirteen years his annual flock increased from about 130 to some 170 souls. At the suggestion of Cardinal Bourne, he imparted a continuous course in apologetics to them; selected and revised this series was later published as In Soft Garments (Burns, Oates, 1942). More diverse in theme were his Sunday conferences which appeared under the title The Hidden Stream (Sheed, 1952). It was at publisher Frank Sheed's suggestion that he collected his Essays in Satire and his first volume of Catholic sermons, The Mystery of the Kingdom (both, 1928) and that he wrote both his taking apart of such popular faddists as Arnold Bennett, Conan Doyle, Israel Zangwill, Hugh Walpole, etc., in Caliban in Grub Street (1930) and scientific publicists like Julian Huxley and Bertrand Russell in Broadcast Minds (1932). Sir Arnold Lunn, since 1924 when he penned the hostile sketches of Roman Converts-including Ronald-had progressed to writing Flight From Reason in 1930. This last was an attack on the same type of pseudo-thinkers as Ronald's Caliban. After reviewing Ronald's book, Sir Arnold challenged him to a debate by correspondence. In 1932 these exchanges were published under the title Difficulties and in 1933 Ronald received him into the Church. Since then Sir Arnold has become one of her most distinguished apologists.

In Barchester Pilgrimage (Sheed, 1935) - dedicated to Maurice Baring - Ronald imitated Trollope's style and carried on his Barsetshjre characters in a gentle satire on the present age. Let Dons Delight (Sheed, 1939), reviewed with admiration by Belloc in The Tablet, pictures Oxford professors reviewing the changing scene at intervals during 350 years.

In the year he was invested as a Domestic Prelate (1936), he was included by the hierarchy in a committee to revise The Westminster Hymnal. To this work and to the revision of The Manual of Prayers, for which he was drafted the following year, he contributed zealously and effectively.

G. K. Chesterton had said that Ronald, together with Maurice Baring, had done most in his time of uncertainty to help into the Church. And at his death in 1936, Ronald preached his panegyric in Westminster Cathedral: "He will almost certainly be remembered as a prophet, n an age of false prophets."

Cardinal Hinsley offered Ronald the presidency of St. Edmund's, Ware, in 1938. Both his confessor and his close friend and counselor, Fr. M. C. D'Arcy, S.J., advised him against accepting on the grounds that he was not the administrator type and that his talents could better be employed for the Church in writing, preaching, and lecturing. Instead, he was given the task of making a new English translation of the Bible. This formed his principal occupation for most of his remaining years.

During his last two years at Oxford he spent the greater part of every vacation as the guest of Lord and Lady Acton at Aldenham (Lord Acton was the grandson of the historian), and, upon resigning from Oxford in 1939, he became their private chaplain. But all during World War II a group of fifteen Assumptionist nuns from London together with three lay teachers and fifty-five girls occupied Aldenham. Ronald said Mass for them, heard their confessions and gave them a short instruction after Sunday Benediction. From these instructions came some of his most popular books: The Mass in Slow Motion (1948), The Creed in Slow Motion (1949), and The Gospel in Slow Motion (1950).

In 1941 he was delighted at begin elected an honorary Fellow of Trinity College.

While giving a retreat at Belmont Abbey, Hereford, he met a young novice, Michael Oakley (now Brother James, O.S.B.), at whose invitation he taught by correspondence to write Latin verse. Later, on Ronald's recommendation, Michael translated the Aeneid for the Everyman Library and to him Ronald entrusted completing the translation of the Imitation of Christ, left unfinished at Ronald's death.

While at Aldenham he published under the title Stimuli (Sheed, 1951) the monthly meditations he had written for the London Sunday Times; and he wrote one of his major works, God and the Atom (Sheed, 1945). His version of The New Testament (2 vols., Burns, Oates, 1949), "for private use," bore the Westminster imprimatur. To answer his critics as well as to explain his purpose and procedure, he wrote On Englishing the Bible (Burns, Oates, 1949), published in America as Trials of a Translator (Sheed, 1949).

The Assumptionists left Aldenham in 1946 and early the next year Lord Acton sold the estate. That autumn Ronald became chaplain to the Asquiths at Mells, near Bath. Here he continued his translation of the Old Testament, in the meantime completing a book he had worked on intermittently since 1918 and which he stated was the only one he had done wholly for the love of doing: Enthusiasm: a chapter in the history of religion with special reference to the 17th and 18th centuries (Oxford Univ. Press, 1950). Of course, he was happy, too, with the imprint under which the work appeared. There followed St. Paul's Gospel (C.T.S., London, 1950), a collection of Lenten conferences, The Hidden Stream (1952), a second series of Oxford conferences, Off the Record (Sheed, 1953), a selection of his letters to individual inquirers, A Retreat for Lay People (Sheed, 1955), The Window in the Wall (Burns, Oates, 1956), and Bridegroom and Bride (Sheed, 1957), wedding addresses.

He was appointed a Protonotary Apostolic ad instar by the Holy See in 1951 and a member of the Pontifical Academy five years later. The National University of Ireland, through its chancellor, Eamon de Valera, conferred an honorary D.Litt. upon him in 1954. He was invited to deliver the annual Romanes Lectures for 1957 at Oxford in which series Gladstone had given the first in 1892, followed by such men as Bryce, Curzon, Balfour, Theodore Roosevelt, Asquith, Trevelyan, Churchill, Gilbert, Murray, and Galsworthy. On the death of Belloc in 1953, he delivered the panegyric. He influenced the reception into the Church in 1957 of his friend and neighbor at Mells, the poet Siegfried Sassoon.

In 1953 he visited the Oxfords in Zanzibar and the Actons in Rhodesia. It was on this trip that he began his translation of the Imitation of Christ and, upon his return to Mells, his translation of St. Therese's Autobiography of a Soul. He also began a work of apologetics intended to reach a wider than the student audience of his Belief of Catholics (1927). But all his activities were curtailed by his sudden and serious illness early in 1957. At the invitation of his old friend, Harold Macmillan, he stayed at 10 Downing Street while in London to consult a specialist. The doctor confirmed the verdict of incurable cancer. At Ronald's death on August 24, 1957, his body was brought to Westminster Cathedral. Bishop Craven said the requiem at which Father Martin D'Arcy, S.J., preached the panegyric. Burial was in the churchyard at Mells.

Several of his books were published posthumously: Literary Distractions (Sheed, 1958), a collection of essays on various great writers; In Three Tongues (Chapman, 1959), selections from his prose and verse in Greek, Latin, and English; The Priestly Life (Sheed, 1958), a retreat; and Proving God: a new apologetic, with a Preface by Evelyn Waugh (The Month, London, 1959). His earlier apologetic, The Belief of Catholics, was reprinted in Doubleday's Image Books in 1958.
Ronald had named the distinguished writer Evelyn Waugh as his literary executor with the understanding that he would also write his biography. The work, entitled Monsignor Ronald Knox, was published by Little, Brown in 1959. This and Ronald's own Spiritual Aeneid (new edition, with Preface by Evelyn Waugh; Sheed, 1958) are the chief sources for the life and works of this greatly gifted, courageous, and saintly man.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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