The Astonishing Story of the Passionists
‘From their commencement of their existence as a body, Passionists have been sighing to shed their blood for England.’
— Passionist Father Ignatius Spencer, Anglican convert and the great, great, great uncle of Lady Diana Spencer
Of all the amazing stories surrounding England and Christianity, the story of the Congregation of the Discalced Clerks of the Most Holy Cross and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (‘Passionists’) stands out. What can one say about a group of Italian idealists – monks and priests – who consecrated their lives to the conversion of England, just when all seemed darkest for the Catholic cause?
For it was almost 200 years after Henry broke from Rome, in the waning days of 1720, that Saint Paul of the Cross recorded his thoughts and prayers in a diary kept during a Forty Day retreat whilst writing the Rule of his Passionist order. On the Feast of Saint Stephen, December 26, he tells us,
‘On Thursday I experienced a particular spiritual uplift, especially during Holy Communion. I longed to go and die as a martyr in some place where the adorable mystery of the most Blessed Sacrament is denied. The Infinite Goodness has given me this desire for some time, but today I felt it in a special way. I desired the conversion of heretics, especially in England and the neighbouring kingdoms, and I offered a special prayer for this intention during Holy Communion.’
Three days later, on the Feast of that most faithful of all English martyrs, Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Paul wrote ‘I had a particular inspiration to pray for the conversion of England, especially since I wanted the standard of the faith to be raised there so that the devotion, reverence, homage, love and frequent adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament …would be increased.’
For the fifty years of his life that followed, Paul was unable to pray without pleading for the conversion of England, such was the height and breadth of his devotion and love. He said indeed, ‘As soon as I pray, England comes before my eyes.’
He was often heard to murmur during the day, ‘Ah! England, England: let us pray for England!’ Often during Mass, he would fall into ecstasy, ‘Where was I just now? I was in spirit in England considering the great martyrs of times past and praying God for that Kingdom.’ He even had a mystical vision shortly before he died, after which he was full of tears, crying ‘Oh, what I have seen, my children in England!’
Paul’s spiritual sons, the Passionists would no more forget England than Jeremiah would forget Jerusalem — as the prophet attests in Jeremiah 51.50: Remember the Lord from afar, And let Jerusalem come to your mind. Generations of Passionists worked and prayed for the fulfilment of Saint Paul’s desire to send missionaries to England. Indeed, it wasn’t until 120 years later that it began to bear fruit in an extraordinary series of conversions.
The Italian Peasant
Dominic Barberi couldn’t have come from a more different milieu than learned and aristocratic Oxford. His parents were peasant farmers outside Viterbo, Italy who died while Dominic was still a small boy. He was employed to take care of sheep, and when he grew older he did farm work. He was taught his letters by a Capuchin priest, and learned to read from a country lad of his own age; although he read all the books he could obtain, he had no regular education until he entered the Passionists.
In 1844, Barberi wrote to the Passionist Superior General, Father Anthony Testa, declaring England is our portion, our vineyard, more than any other place in the world, That thought was always dear beyond words, and deep-rooted in the mind of our Holy Founder.
Barberi had long shared the devotion of his Founder towards England. In 1831, he wrote the Lamentation for England, modelled on the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah, Ah yes! England was once that island, that was with reason called the island of saints; ah it was that land that abounded with soothing milk for its children, with the honey of sweetness and the fruits of holiness. Oh England whither has thy beauty fled, how has thy loveliness disappeared? Ah this was the abode of all beauty, that rejoiced the whole earth! oh how it is now left destitute! her people groan, her children beg their bread, but they can find no one who gives them any thing but poisoned food. Alas! alas! unhappy England, all thy beauty is departed from thee.
The deeply emotional Barberi pulled no punches when allocating the blame for the unhappy state of the spiritual desert that was England, Our temples, those venerable churches which were built by our ancestors and dedicated to thy divine majesty which, in the happy days of old England when we were thy elect people, we used to assemble before thee, have been seized and polluted by strangers, by the followers of Calvin and Cranmer, and innumerable other heretics, who impiously blaspheme thee in their infamous conventicles. Alas my God! alas divine Jesus! alas for these holy churches erected in ancient times by the hands of thy holy saints, where thy everlasting gospel was daily announced to us! alas for these churches, in which an innumerable company of thy servants each day and each hour of the day lifted up their suppliant hands to thy divine majesty!
A Fascinating Connection
Today, the extraordinary work of these 19th century missionaries has been re-interpreted in some circles with unfortunate results. Identifying Fathers Barberi or Spencer (who founded the Prayer Crusade for the Conversion of England) as prototypes of modern ecumenism is misleading. Indeed, it tends to distract from the real-life conversation and connection amongst these Victorian-era divines, which is fascinating.
Spencer did desire Christian unity and even once visited John Henry Newman, while the latter was still an Anglican, to invite him to join the Catholic Church. Newman sent Spencer away but he was later put in touch with Dominic Barberi by an earlier convert from Anglicanism, the remarkable, John Dobree Dalgairns, a product of Exeter College, Oxford and later himself an Oratorian.
In fact, it was Dalgairns’ letter to the French Catholic newspaper, L’Univers, while he was still an Anglican (he converted in 1844) which prompted the second great piece of writing from the pen of Dominic Barberi, the heart-felt Letter to the Professors of the University of Oxford.
Dalgairns had maintained, against the clearest meaning of the text and all reason, that the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Book of Common Prayer could be interpreted as being consistent with the Decrees of the Ecumenical Council of Trent. This theory Barberi methodically and lovingly takes apart, prefacing his remarks in the most emotional of terms:
Although I have never seen you with the eyes of the flesh, I have always kept you in my heart; and on, how often and how fervently in the bitterness of that same heart have I besought the Lord for you! How long, O Lord, wilt Thou be forgetful of us? When will the heart of the Father be turned towards His children? How long am I to wait in expectation? When shall there be one fold and one shepherd? Wilt Thou be angry with us even for ever? Wilt thou forget us in the length of days? Thee, O Lord, do the islands expect, and thy name will they honour: but how long are they to wait?
Not only does the Church militant here on earth, but the Church triumphant in heaven pray for you. Beautiful hope, which can be founded on the faith of the Church in the communion of saints, and on her belief in the intercession of the saints in paradise. The saints pray, especially SS Gregory, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas; they pray for England, as they always have done, I hope, even after the separation.
Barberi chose his words – and his saints – carefully, intending that the stories of these ancient connections with Rome would stir some response in his learned readers’ hearts. He was also alluding to the close connections across time and space between England and Rome, tied intimately to the Passionists’ own history.
Centuries before, it had been Pope Saint Gregory the Great who had sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to England, who then converted the people by first converting the King. (This was not dissimilar to the way that Barberi hoped first to convert the nation’s intellectual and social elite of Oxford.)
Saint Augustine had been sent from the Benedictine Monastery of Saint Andrew’s on the Caelian Hill which, by providence, is adjacent to the even more ancient Basilica of Saint Paul and Saint John, of which the Passionists took possession in December 1773. In May 1832, Ignatius Spencer had been ordained in the Church of Saint Gregory, which is attached to Saint Andrew’s, on the Feast Day of Saint Augustine of Canterbury itself.
Father Spencer waited another fifteen years before seeking admission into the Passionists, but in his person and on this day united the special place in which England is held by the Benedictine and Passionist orders. Every Saturday, the English Benedictines are meant to say a Salve Regina for the conversion of England, following a promise made to Father Spencer by the Rector of the English Benedictine College at Douai in 1854.
Aristocrats and Intellectuals
Dominic Barberi’s first meeting with an Englishman was when he instructed the widowed Sir Harry Trelawney, 5th Baronet, on how to say Mass. The seventy year old convert, about to be priested, was accompanied by his daughter, who had herself been the first to convert. Trelawney was a living connection with history, as the 1st Baronet had distinguished himself in the service of King Charles I.
After finally arriving in England and establishing a religious house in Aston, Dominic Barberi’s greatest convert, however, was undoubtedly John Henry Cardinal Newman. The historical importance of this conversion should not be underestimated- Masses of thanksgiving were said and Te Deums sung throughout the continent when they heard the story of England’s greatest theologian kneeling before the astonished Italian peasant priest:
‘What a spectacle it was for me to see Newman at my feet! All that I have suffered since I have left Italy has been well compensated by that great event and I hope that the effects of such a conversion may be great.’
Barberi could not have known what a bounty he would help to harvest. Indeed in the nineteenth century the list of converts from the English aristocracy and the gentry filled no less than 106 pages, headed by a duke, two marquises, ten earls, twenty-two lords, twenty-seven baronets or knights, seventeen honourables and forty squires.
“The second spring did not begin when Newman converted nor when the hierarchy was restored. It began on a bleak October day of 1841, when a little Italian priest in comical attire shuffled down a ship’s gangway at Folkestone.”
In February, 1842, after twenty-eight years of effort, Dominic Barberi established the Passionists at Aston Hall in Staffordshire. His reception was less than welcoming, as local Catholics feared these newcomers would cause renewed persecutions. His attempts to read prayers in English were met with laughter from his congregation. But the community increased in numbers and as the people of Aston grew to know Dominic they began to love him – the Passionists soon began to receive a steady stream of converts.
In neighboring Stone where Dominic would say Mass and preach to the local populace, youths would throw rocks at him. (Two such converted to Catholicism when they saw Dominic kiss each rock that hit him and place it in his pocket.) Local Protestant ministers often held anti – Catholic lectures and sermons. One followed Dominic along a street shouting out various arguments against transubstantiation. The priest was silent, but as the man was about to turn off, Dominic suddenly retorted: “Jesus Christ said over the consecrated elements, “This is my body” you say “No. It is not his body!” Who then am I to believe? I prefer to believe Jesus Christ.” Converts increased at Stone, so much so that a new church had to be built.
It was at Aston however that in June 1844 that the first Corpus Christi procession since the Reformation was held in the British Isles, an event which attracted thousands of Catholics and Protestants alike.Dominic then began to visit other parishes and religious communities in order to preach. His ‘missions’ frequently took place in the industrial cities of northern England, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham – just as John Henry Newman (see article, this issue) had requested as a sign of the ‘true’ Church.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Christopher Gillibrand, MA (Oxon) MBA is a European policy consultant. He lives in Wales.