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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?"

"I guessed."

"Won't he ever change his mind?"

"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

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