With the support of Newman, Edward Caswall braved the wrath of his family and converted to Catholicism. NANCY BENVENGA reflects on a great Catholic hymn writer.
AS A GREAT believer in the Communion of Saints, I consider John Henry Newman a good friend of mine. And indeed, to me one of Newman's most endearing qualities is the high value be placed on friendship. Accepting that the work to which he was called required him to live a celibate life, he regarded the support and encouragement of friends as crucial to his ability to withstand the vicissitudes that faced him.
One man, whom Newman described as "one of my dearest friends", was the
hymn-writer Edward Caswall. The next time you are in church, take some time to browse through the hymn book and look at the authors' names. You will find Caswall's name under such chestnuts as See, Amid the Winter's Snow and This is the Image of the Queen.
Caswall was among those heroes who risked their careers and reputations, and even closer familial and friendship ties, to convert to Roman Catholicism during the 19th-century Catholic Revival. Eventually he joined the band of men who followed Newman to the Oratory in Birmingham and made a profound impact on the lives of Roman Catholics.
It was Caswall whose substantial financial gift and loan enabled Newman to build on the Oratory's present site in Edgbaston, Caswall whose administrative skills ensured the smooth running of the mission schools and Caswall whom Newman appointed to be the acting superior of the oratory during his absence in Dublin as rector of the Catholic University of Ireland.
Until he reached his mid30s no one would have foreseen such a career path for Edward Caswall. Born in 1814 into a staunchly highchurch family, he took a classics degree at Oxford, was ordained priest in the Church of England, and married Louisa Walker. The Caswall family his father, also an Anglican clergyman, his mother and eight siblings held the then prevalent view of "Romanists" as idolaters and believers in fables, thus it was unthinkable that any of them would turn Roman Catholic.
But then Edward read Newman's essay on the development of doctrine and began to have doubts about the Church of England's claim to be the Catholic Church on English soil, and to look afresh at such doctrines as the Communion of Saints.
Determined to witness Roman Catholicism at first hand, Caswall resigned his curacy and toured Ireland with his wife. The 600-page journal he kept over the next nine months records his impressions as well as his painful concerns about the effect his possible conversion would have on his family.
Summoned home from Ireland to his father's deathbed, he was assured that the family would be hold him responsible for his father's eventual death if he were to convert.
Ironically, Caswall's father's death intensified his interest in the Communion of Saints and his determinadon to prove that veneration of Mary and the saints was not idolatry. With his wife he set out for Rome to observe Catholicism at its centre. Their final misgivings dispelled, Edward and Louisa took the fateful step, becoming Catholics in January, 1847. Cardinal Acton officiated at the service and Newman was present.
Family fireworks soon followed. Edward's mother went hysterical and refused to receive him into her home for a number of years. An
aunt also closed her door to him, A barrage of vitriolic letters an-wed from his brothers. Reconciliation eventually occurred, but meanwhile Edward held fast to Jesus' words about leaving family to follow him.
IN ROME an eerily prophetic incident took place before Edward and Louisa's conversions. An Englishwoman staying at their boarding house asked Edward at dinner whether he was a clergyman. "Yes," he said, "but I'm not certain that I will always remain a clergyman." The woman replied, "Oh yes, you will always be a clergyman "
Two years later Louisa Caswall died in a cholera epidemic. Caswall was left a widower at age 35. Turning to Newman in his desperation, he went to stay at the oratory for a time and remained there until his death in 1878, helping Newman both emotionally and financially through the Oratory's growing pains and the crisis that saw Frederick William Faber and his group break away to start the London Oratory.
Caswall had been deeply impressed by the piety of the Irish Catholics "I must say if ever I saw true praying it was then," he remarked on seeing the rosary recited but the all-Latin service both fascinated and irritated him. How was so much devotion possible when the people could not understand what was happening? Eventually he realised that here was a religiosity which transcended the need to be chained to words; yet perhaps it was his perplexity over the Latin which sparked his desire to translate all the hymns of the Roman Breviary, thus making the Church's heritage accessible to all.
First published in 1849 in a collection entitled Lyra Catholica, Caswall's hymns were a great success. Catholics and non-Catholics alike wrote to him from all over the world asking permission to include his hymns, originals and translations, in their collections.
CASWALL was a meticulous, methodical person who kept detailed accounts and lists of things, people and events. During exactly one year he listed each confession he heard, with the date, recording the penitent's name if he knew it, and noting if he had heard a person more than once. At the end of the year he calculated the total number of confessions he had heard, and the number of different penitents.
Another time he recorded in detail the amount of weight he lost or gained on a particular diet, avoiding such foods as butter, milk and beer. Characteristically, he noted that he weighed himself at the same time of day and in the same clothes. This quality, combined with his renowned gentleness and quiet humour, meant that he must have been eminently suited to be the Oratory's acting superior.
It is thought that the retiring, gentle personality for which for which Caswall was known later in life stemmed from his deep grief at the death of his wife. He kept her newspaper obituary until the end of his life, along with a scrap of paper on which he had noted her last words. Earlier, however, Newman's sister, who met him at a party when he was a young man, described him as irrepressibly talkative and possessing an ebullient sense of humour.
As an undergraduate he had already published two hilarious treatises, The Art of Pluck and Sketches of Young Ladies, which Newman thought the best things he had ever written, and inspired Charles Dickens to want to meet him.
Edward Caswall is buried next to Newman and another loyal friend and Oratorian, Fr Ambrose St John these three close friends in life, lie together for all eternity.