Reverend John F.T. Prince
MY EARLIEST RECOLLECTION IS
THAT OF BEING SMACKED. The smacking was remarkable only in that
it was a cheerful augury both of more to come and of my life-long
immunity to the moral effect of smacks. As far as I can recollect,
it had no effect at all and I went on doing it (whatever it was):
and I cannot even remember the name of the smacker. The latter
is largely due to the fact that she was succeeded in her office
(she was my nurse) by another, one Nurse Benham, who came to
the family when I was three and stayed till I was nearly nine.
She was an outstanding character, so much so that she obliterated
all others in my infant memory. I was broken-hearted when she
left; but though she herself departed, her influence remained:
her standards were those to be adhered to, her judgments mine,
and I verily believe they still are!
Her judgment was, on the whole,
as sound as her intuition, and she-had lots of commonsense. She
had also a more important virtue, and that was her extraordinary
fidelity. Her loyalties were staunch and unchangeable as far
as people were concerned: once a friend, always a friend; and
she stuck by her friends through thick and thin. Opprobrium on
their account was nothing to her. "Old friends," she
would say, "are better than new." "Always?"
I enquired. "Always," she said, and that was that.
Her opinions were almost as much sinecures as her friends. This
is not necessarily a virtue and may be quite the reverse like
the terrifying unchangeableness of Miss Murdstone and her irrevocable
judgments. Nurse Benham, however, did in one instance alter entirely
her judgment and way of life; that was when she became a Catholic.
Well I remember that outstanding
event! My parents were Anglicans of the High Church variety.
But for many years (longer, he used to aver, than he cared to
say), my father had been fully convinced of the truth of Roman
claims. But he procrastinated, salving his conscience by making
of himself a sort of signpost to Rome. And one of the people
he put on the right road was Nurse Benham. He was a first-class
apologist: a convincing and attractive talker as well as a student.
So that in the case of my nurse not a long time elapsed between
her speaking to him of her religious difficulties and her arriving
(already more than half-instructed) at the door of the Oratory
seeking admission to the Catholic Church. That was, so to speak,
the beginning of the end: my father had started sending his own
household before him into the Church: and now he could no longer
evade the issue. One evening in the spring of 1914 I awoke from
sleep (seven o'clock was bedtime) to find my mother in the room
half crying. She was talking to my nurse and this is what I heard:
"I suppose you knew all
this was coming, nurse?"
"Won't he ever change
"I think not."
"Or come back?"
"I'm sure he won't."
There was a fearful rift at
first; then unreluctantly my mother followed my father and we
all "came in."
That is how I come to be a
Catholic and a convert. Entirely without personal credit in the
matter. How did I become a priest?
I was never what is called
"a religious child." We were sent (while still Protestants)
to church on Sunday-to the country parish church nearby, whereas
my father and mother attended an Anglo-Catholic church in the
town some miles away. Nurse took us to church which was Evangelical,
or Low Church; and I remained throughout the service on a mute
condition bordering on terror. The vicar wore an apostolic halo
of white hair (in fact, at one time I thought he was an apostle
or at least intimately associated with the angels and saints)
and having the gift of repetition, preached sermons which were
both terrifying and interminable. I knelt down morning and night,
by my bedside, but prayed (if I prayed at all) without devotion.
When we became Catholics religion became at least colourful.
That I came to regard it as much more than that was due, in the
first instance, to my being sent unavoidably for a period (with
Nurse Benham) to my maternal grandparents. They were ardent Protestants
and no doubt considered it their duty to prove it to their seven
year old Papist grandson and his nurse. They lived in a gloomy,
rambling house in a small Midland town- everything was redolent
of solid Victorian Protestantism except the nearby Catholic church,
and that was out of bounds. I need not recount the details of
persecution which followed the usual pattern. But I remember
the hours which my grandmother devoted to railing against Popery.
Her three brothers were clergymen in the Church of England and
one of them, black-browed and bearded was a thousand times more
terrible than the vicar at home. From him, I fancy, did my grandmother
(for she was really a religious and charitable woman) get her
ammunition for the onslaught. Anyway, the effect, of course,
was to develop an immense reverence for the Papacy and love of
the Church which, please God, I may never lose. I loved the Church
first when I first saw her hated and with that love came a pity
for the folk that hated, and a great yearning somehow to help
in the work of getting them to see so that they could no longer
hate-any more than they could hate our Lord. There (if anywhere)
was the beginning of a vocation: not in any conscious love of
the church's liturgy nor in her external beauty nor in admiration
of this or that priest or missioner, though later all these things
were to be experienced. Through childhood and youth, through
joys and sorrows (and of the latter, one stands out casting the
long shadow of a mountain against the setting sun), the desire
for the apostolate survived. I was ordained in 1931 at the age
of twenty-four, after doing my studies at Fribourg University.
And how did I come to write?
Or rather, why have I written such a lot-saying (so it seems
to me) much the same thing over and over again?
I must admit that I wrote a
great deal (even before I became a priest) without saying anything
in particular. I also drew and painted pictures and continued
to do so until my sight gave out. And my pictures (like my poetry
and stories and fantasies, and even an operetta) sold. That was
because, like most people, I needed money and the only way to
get it in my case was to work for it.
I also travelled and had a
great many adventures and met many people who had nothing at
all to do with the Catholic Church or any other church. And the
more people I met, the more like they seemed to be to the people
that Nurse Benham talked about and even took me to see on her
days out. It is true that the highlights of her world were a
flour mill, complete with its miller, a lovely old farmhouse,
squalidly respectable streets which could however contain veterans
of the Indian Mutiny and Balaclava and many sad or sick or angry
people who were friends of hers. These, however, were just the
people I was to meet later. though one of them was a world-famous
artist and another a communist commissar. And though the 19141918
war changed much, it had not changed human nature, and the code
by which one knew it. That code was Nurse Benham's and through
the use of it I arrived at certain conclusions. There was, for
instance, the great postwar challenge of communism. I saw it
from the angle not only of the artist and the commissar and my
own superiors, but also through the eyes of the sick and sad
and angry friends of my old nurse. I recognized the same tired
and hungry faces, and God knows there were enough of them in
the 1920's and 1930's. I recognized also the same flash in desperate
eyes-and I knew that it was from fire that could not be put out.
Indeed, I began to see that it was not desirable that it should
be put out. "I am come to cast fire upon the earth"
and I found a formula for it. I started to write articles and
books about it and at the suggestion of the late Father Bede
Jarrett, O.P., I called it Creative Revolution. That was the
name of my first real book. It was published in the United States,
with a good preface by the late Father Joseph Husslein, S.J.,
and was a Catholic Book Club selection.
For Creative Revolution was
not an acidulous arraignment of Bolshevik errors nor a documental
calendar of atrocities. These shock but do not convert. It was
a demand that Christians conduct their lives so that by the very
force of example, the millions of disciples who acknowledge Christ
as their leader, remake the world of today as He and His "chosen
few" repatterned the Roman Empire. "We shall then achieve
the true revolution. For we must rid ourselves of the delusion
that in opposing Bolshevism the Church falls into line with those
who oppose it because it seeks to subvert the present wretched
economic order. What the Church opposes is the materialistic
philosophy of communism, negating all the true worth of man."
Alas! we must admit that materialism is not peculiar to the Soviet.
What the world needs is a revolution which would have the power
to make Christianity fully effective as the best means of completely
reforming modern society. The revolt of the twentieth century
is an outstanding indictment of neglectful Christians, and only
when Capital and Labour will revolt against Mammon with the same
energy that Bolsheviks have revolted against God can we hope
for light. The best antidote for the failure of modern society
is the Christian (that is, Creative) Revolution!
Today all this, of course,
sounds pretty obvious but it was not so twenty five years ago
and there was a whole lot of hammering to be done before the
nail got really driven home. It is, in short, the constructive
approach that is needed. But people find destruction so much
easier. (It was more fun, wasn't it, until we were taught better,
to knock our bricks about when we were children?) So with communism.
I believe, for instance, that there can be nothing more futile
and more dangerous than the belief that communism can be destroyed
by military warfare, that you can fight to the finish (in the
spiritual arena) with anything but spiritual weapons. Foster
this illusion (as the enemy would have you do) and you will make
sure of a victorious communism rising, rank and prolific out
of the rubble and the carnage.
To Father Bede I once quoted
Longfellow's pathetic lines:
"Poor sad humanity Through
all the dust and heat Turns back with bleeding feet By the weary
round it cameUnto the simple thought By the great Master taught."
"When will that be?"
I queried with a sigh. And Father Bede answered, "Perhaps
not today, but for certain tomorrow." God grant he was right!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Father Prince's
books include The Death of Iris (Curtis, Switzerland, 1928),
Creative Revolution (Bruce, 1937), A Christian in Revolt (Douglas
Organ, London, 1946), A Guide to Pacifism (Shelton & Murray,
England, 1956), Peter the Ludicrous, an operetta (1925), as well
as poems and carols.
Originally published by Walter Romig
in The Book of Catholic Authors