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
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
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
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
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
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
Knowing what grim historic
shade It shocks
To see wit, laughter and the
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.
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
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.
published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig,
Sixth Series, 1960.