Sunday, June 17, 2018

St. John Fisher and His Biographer, Father Vincent McNabb

Father Vincent McNabb, OP, the Irish-born Dominican who championed the Distributist cause, died on June 17, 1943. offers this biography:

Father McNabb was born in 1868 in Portaferry, County Down, Ireland, within a few miles of the rock that covers the bones of St. Patrick. "My father," wrote Father McNabb, "was a master 'Mariner' (to give him his noble title) and my mother, a dressmaker." Vincent, who was proud he was the seventh son and the tenth of eleven children, spent his schooldays at the diocesan seminary of St. Malachy's College, Belfast. When asked by the editor of The Catholic Times to lend assistance to Ireland during one of the last crises, Father McNabb wrote in his scalpel-like way that both peoples alike, the people of England and the people of Ireland have been martyred by the same imperious few. He said that he loved Ireland like a mother and England like a wife.

Except for a period of study at the University of Louvain, Father McNabb's Dominican life had been identified with the English province for which he was ordained in 1891. On November 10, 1885, he had joined the novitiate of the English Dominicans at Woodchester in Gloucestershire. He walked about London in habit and army boots. A born controversialist, he often spoke in Hyde Park for the Catholic Evidence Guild. He had a fine sense of humor and a soaring eloquence. A zealous priest, he did a lot of work among the poor. In St. Pancras, London slum, he actually lived the extreme poverty enjoined by the gospel. An admirer wrote, while Father Vincent was still alive: "It is wonderful to see that happy lace with its look of smiling quizzical inquiry come from among a swirl of anxious self-absorbed London faces, the habit billowing from the lean, alert old figure like the drapes of winged victory.' He practiced a rigid asceticism. While he had a chair and a bed in his room he never used them. He either stood or knelt. There were just about four books in his room, a Bible, a Breviary, the Dominican constitutions, and the Summa of St. Thomas.

Father McNabb was a prolific writer:

He is the author of about thirty books. Among them are: Infallibility; The New Testament Witness to St. Peter; Oxford Conferences on Prayer; Oxford Conferences on Faith; Our Reasonable Service; Frontiers of Faith and Reason (thirty scholarly papers on Scripture); The Catholic Church and Philosophy; Thoughts Twice Dyed. Father McNabb's The Church and Reunion, shows a long interest in the subject. On this topic he wrote numerous articles between 1902 and 1936. An authority on economics, he had long been an advocate of the "Back-to-the-Land" movement and treats of it in his book, The Church and the Land. The city, he said, is the graveyard of religion and the machine age is the doom of mankind. His book Old Principles and the New Order has for its main theme the principle that true economics must rest on true faiths and morals. During the first World War, he learned practical farming in his leisure, as a recreation. He had been, also, a shining light in the Distributist Movement.

Father McNabb was, however, not only a polemic writer, but an informal essayist of undeniable charm, as shown particularly in: Francis Thompson and Other Essays; The Wayside, and the lovely Path of Prayer. Many people not of the Catholic faith read Blackfriars, the Dominican literary monthly published in Oxford, for which he was a regular contributor. His words are racy [?] of the soil. Writing with his capuche on, he used the back of old letters and envelopes for his manuscript. His motto was, "produce as much as you can, consume as little as you need." He urged the scrapping of all machinery and wanted people living as members of family-owned subsistence farms. The reader is never permitted to forget that here is a son of St. Dominic, a follower of St. Thomas. His vocabulary smacked of pre-Norman times, even in such a title as The Craft of Prayer. More recent books have been in the field of hagiography-on St. John Fisher or on St. Elizabeth of Portugal, the patroness of peace, who rode upon her little mule between embattled armies. In A Life of Jesus Christ Our Lord, hitherto shadowed places in the divine chronicle are illumined by a penetrating flash.

So Father McNabb died on the 408th anniversary of St. John Fisher's trial for treason in Westminster Hall. As Mediatrix Press, who reissued his 1935 biography of the Cardinal martyr describes it:

Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P., a prolific Dominican known for his humility and preaching, takes advantage of the historical research of his contemporaries to weave the drama of St. John Fisher’s amazing life.

This is a short work, rather than a detailed historical analysis, that is both endlessly enjoyable as literature-even a work of art, yet at the same time pious and inspiring to faith. McNabb’s life of Fisher traces the saint’s early days from his childhood to his enrollment in Cambridge, his becoming a priest, a chaplain to Lady Margaret Beaufort, and at last, being appointed Bishop of Rochester, in which office he would be cruelly put to death by Henry VIII, the exemplar of tyrants.

Fisher is an important study for us today, not only because he died for the Catholic Faith, but also because he died for not believing as the monarch would have him believe. Henry VIII, in his quest to divorce his wife to marry his mistress, created the model of the Totalitarian state. Fisher is for us, a witness both of solid adherence to faith, as well as the courage to speak out when most others are content to get along. The perfect antidote to
Wolf Hall!

The original Sheed & Ward edition is online here.

On June 17, 1535, John Fisher was tried for treason, with Sir Richard Rich as the main witness against him, and have been found guilty, was sentenced to death by being hanged, drawn, and quartered. He spoke to the court:

My lords, I am here condemned before you of high treason for denial of the King’s supremacy over the Church of England, but by what order of justice I leave to God, Who is the searcher both of the king his Majesty’s conscience and yours; nevertheless, being found guilty, as it is termed, I am and must be contented with all that God shall send, to whose will I wholly refer and submit myself. And now to tell you plainly my mind, touching this matter of the king’s supremacy, I think indeed, and always have thought, and do now lastly affirm, that His Grace cannot justly claim any such supremacy over the Church of God as he now taketh upon him; neither hath (it) been seen or heard of that any temporal prince before his days hath presumed to that dignity; wherefore, if the king will now adventure himself in proceeding in this strange and unwonted case, so no doubt but he shall deeply incur the grievous displeasure of the Almighty, to the great damage of his own soul, and of many others, and to the utter ruin of this realm committed to his charge, wherefore, I pray God his Grace may remember himself in good time, and harken to good counsel for the preservation of himself and his realm and the quietness of all Christendom.

St. John Fisher, pray for us!

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