FATHER IGNATIUS SPENCER, C.P. (1799-1864) by EDMUND ESDAILE
ON January 30, 1830, over fifteen years before the conversion of Newman and three years before the Oxford Movement began, the Revd. the Honble. George Spencer, Rector of Brington, Northamptonshire, having a few days before been overcome in argument by the young convert squire, Ambrose Phillipps, was at Leicester received into the Church by Fr, Charles Benedict Caestryck, 0.P. It was a momentous event: yet how widely is it now remembered? How many have a clear vision of the heroic labours, the high and varied talents, of George Spencer—and in particular of the relevance to our times of his manysided personality'? A quick succession of great events—the Oxford Movement, Newman's conversion, and the Restoration of the Hierarchy —has until recently tended to obscure the exceedingly interesting period of Catholic history between the Relief Acts and, Emancipation. This, and perhaps also the apparently visionary nature of the Crusade for England which Spencer inaugurated, may be adduced as reasons for his comparative obscurity to-day. Further, although a C.T.S. pamphlet about him is obtainable, the biography written some fifteen years ago by Fr. Urban Young, C.P., is now (thanks to the Wits) hard to acquire. But as Spencer's Catholic contemporaries did not doubt his greatness and holiness, so to-day his message is not out of date. In a short space one cannot, of course, do more than select a few of the points at which, more than eighty years after his death, he touches our modem England. Yet any essay on him is an essay on England, even though it be composed of little more than hints at a subject so large. For he was utterly English, and there is an England older than the London School of Economics or the years of unemployment between the wars. There were, for example, no factories at Slough to jostle Eton about 1810, no factories in Northamptonshire, none at Cambridge when George Spencer went up to Trinity in 1817. Years later he wrote (of Hertfordshire): "It is a most interesting rural district, just a fit one to see what can be made of the English population, genuine English yeomanry and peasantry. Pray for us." Genuine English yeomanry and peasantry—he recognized them at sight even as we, despite the murk of an industrialised age, recognise Robin Hood and Coeur de Lion and Alfred and Arthur, or an old rustic sitting on a bench by a village green. But he recognised more than that in them.
In his day such villagers as did not attend Anglican services went to chapel. Of course there were some who attended neither, but there was no absenteeism from both on a scale comparable to that of to-day. For (as Mr. E. I. WatkM pointed out In his Catholic Art and Culture) the countryman being the slowest to lose his religion, is also the slowest to regain it. Irreligion in the countryside is one modern problem for which Father Ignatius' Crusade of Prayer for England is more apt than ever.
Growth of Industrialism But a man whose life covered the first half of the nineteenth century watched also the huge growth of industrialism. The slums which he Hamlets! are now greatly improved: the worst of the evils familiar to him are gone, but different evils rage instead. Do our towns need prayer less than in his day? He was assaulted by roughs both in Liverpool and London, but undeterred he laboured heroically in towns as everywhere else: in his very first year's work as a priest, of 110 confirmandi 70 were converts. His interests would have been engaged, too, upon our amusements. Even in his Oscott days, when he was over forty, he retained his love of cricket and shooting, and, indeed, proved himself " an apt coach at all games." Now cricket and the rural sports (to take the countryside first) have in common a characteristic not found, for instance, in either code of football: amateur and prolessional combine. Leaving aside such exaggerations as grouse-moors and I. fashionable " hunts, this is a point worth pondering. The non-Catholic hero of Mr. Christopher Hollis' Death of a Gentleman. no lover of urban stadia, represents a valuable type of Englishman who will increasingly need the sympathy and prayers of Catholics. As attendance at church by villagers diminishes they form an increasingly large, disproportionately large, section of many a village congregation. They are increasingly disquieted. And although our urban mechanical amusements were unimagined a century ago, Father Ignatius, " apt coach at all games," inspired by a lifelong pastoral zeal, and well acquainted with towns, would certainly have included them, had he known them, in his large sympathies.
Beginning at 48 !
Countryman, athlete, scholar, priest in the industrial slums, an indefatigable and (being a countryman) observant trudges of the roads, a beggar for Christ and for souls—. he was more yet than this. He was also a linguist, widely travelled, a lover of Ireland—not to mention his missions, his affectionate nature, his private holiness. Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, French, German, Dutch — he learned all these languages either at school or subsequently as occasion arose. It is no mean feat for a man of 48 to master a new language, but this was his age when he taught himself Dutch in order to act as confessor to a Dutch Passionist newly arrived in England, He travelled widely in Europe. which he had known since the Grand Tour of his youth, preaching, begging, calling on Emperors and statesmen to interest them in the conversion of England. At home he called on such men as Palmerston and Lord John Russell— end, however visionary calls on men so unlikely to sympathise may seem, who shall say that they may not in a hidden way have served England and Europe well by softening the minds of politicians in nation-states not united by a common religion? May he not in like manner, by the double influence of his preaching in Ireland and his calls at the Vice-regal lodge in Dublin upon his old Cambridge friend, Lord Clarendon, who was then Viceroy, have eased in some degree the uneasy Anglo-Irish relations?
As a missioner he was heroic. One cannot read of his Little Missions without deep emotion. These were an ingenious invention of his own which he conducted without any help, and they consisted of short,
' concentrated missions of half a week's duration. They involved continual journeyings and an estimated daily average of twelve hours in the confessional. The last six and a quarter years of his life were largely devoted to them, and during this period he conducted an average of 75, occuping some thirty-six weeks, a year—excluding the time needed for travel, They were typical of the versatile imagination which led him to crusade for the sanctification of Ireland. in order to assist further his crusade for England: yet his memory for his friends or for anniversaries never failed, and whatever he was doing he kept a regular diary and maintained a voluminous correspondence. He had also a pretty humour (for example, he once. with Ven. Dominic Barbed and another Passionist, conducted a "Know Popery " campaign), and his charity to the poor was unending. If to-day we English seem ready to subordinate our country's financial stability to our love of tobacco (I write as a persistent smoker myself), we may remind ourselves of his dislike of smoking at least in public vehicles. Of his austerity as a Passionist it is not my place to speak; his interest in Catholic schools must not be omitted (and incidentally he advised the young Teresa Higginson to teach and well discerned her un usual quality), One should note, too, a fact different from any of these, but important—namely that he was greatly helped to concentrate on holiness and to avoid, in a controversial age, undue controversy by the continuing kindness of his nonCatholic relations. The tradition of the Spencers as able and highminded public men is a very fine one. Father Ignatius' father had been Nelson's First Lord of the Admiralty; of his brothers one was a leading supporter of Emancipation and piloted the Reform Bill through the Commons. and another was publicly supporting Emancipation as early as 1812. Details of the family's relations with Fr. Ignatius cannot be here given, but his touching and abiding affection for them and his old home, and (despite occasional, inevitable friction) their touching and abiding affection for him are not to be lightly dismissed.
The Crusade of Prayer Such, in the briefest outline, was the nature and the career of George Spencer, or, as he was to become, Fr. Ignatius Spencer, C.P., sometime Acting-Provincial of his Order in his beloved England—and his dear friend Ven. Dominic Barbell has only had one casual mention. That mention of Ven. Dominic, opening as it does the entry to yet other aspects of the story, should have been so late deferred only to have to he set aside, is some measure of the manifold versatility of Fr. Ignatius, which touches modern England at so many points that we should surely take his memory very seriously. The mainspring of his life was his Crusade of Prayer for Eng land. Was this merely a passing event in history? Whatever its message to-day may be, whatever effect it may yet, in God's good time, produce, it cannot have been wasted and, considered seriously, has not lost As challenge. Now, indeed, may be the time for it: who can say? The plain truth is that among a number of great Catholic figures in nineteenth-centufy England, Father Ignatius was one of the greatest. Here was a man who gave up all for Christ, who adorned the most varied activities with the most varied talents, who risked and experienced not only hardship and pelting but also condescending, sceptical, amused toleration, who died alone and unseen, as he had prayed to die, having lived dependent on the Will of God and devoted to the Passion of Our Lord; a man who when over sixty once, by error but without demurring, had to sleep in a bedless, fireless room of which the incomplete door admitted plentiful snow. A stray kitten cowering in a corner snuggled up under his cloak for warmth when he lay down to sleep on the floor. In the morning he was found making little snowballs for the kitten to play with. If ever a statue be made in his honour, may that kitten be shown curled up at his feet, the natural sign and token of his childlike humility and joy and compassion.
(Note.—Free use has been made of Fr. Urban Young's biography, published by Burns Oates & Washbonnie, which was. mentioned at the beginning and which I acknowledge with thanks.)