Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Monsignor Ronald Knox - would have been a great blogger

He died at the age of 69 years on 24th August 1957. In my family home the name 'Ronnie' Knox was in common use, mainly by the many priests and seminarians from Ware who frequently visited (and often stayed on for two or three weeks).

A wit and a classicist - there were
quite a few like him before 1970!

As with so many great Catholics, Mgr 'Ronnie' Knox was a convert who was received into the Church in 1917. A year later and he was ordained - he had enjoyed a spectacular period at Oxford where he excelled as a classicist.

This was a  man of great talent, he was witty, erudite and devout but he never lost the common touch.

He was the author of many books on the faith and, in particular, his 'Mass in slow motion' (written from his talks to schoolgirls on the subject) is to be treasured. In it the Monsignor likens the Mass to a dance (not the liturgical dance kind that we know and hate today), but a dance where the priest and the server first tentatively approach the Lord with the prayers at the foot of the altar. It climaxes at the Consecration and Holy Comunion before winding down to the 'Ite Missa est' and the last Gospel.
He also translated the St Jerome Vulgate from the latin into English painstakingly bringing the Old and New Testaments up to date in a language style that made the Bible accessible to all - I am particularly grateful for the manner in which he brought the letters of St Paul into the 20th century as some of them were impossible to construe with any meaning.

He lived, of course, in the time of Chesterton and the two were great friends, Mgr Knox actually gave the sermon at GKC's Requiem in Westminster Cathedral, and, like Chesterton, he enjoyed writing detective novels and wrote a series of ten; this is a man who packed his life full of value.
He was not altogether approved of, especially by his fellow clergy who found his style of writing and his views somewhat out of sync with the ultra conservatism of the times. His views on indulgences verged (so his accusers believed) on disrespect as he stated on several occasions that he thought the Church should make them available: "when we get up to make room for an old lady on a bus". He was also not one for Marian devotions (which does, admittedly, make him hard to admire). 
 It is reported that he claimed: "......most of the literature about her (Our Lady) and the popular devotions connected with her leave me cold.”

The following passage is a good indication of his somewhat unorthodox views and is taken from his obituary in The Point, July 1958:-

"....As the above comments are phrased, one might get the impression that Monsignor Knox thinks that Saint John (despite all the doting senility he ascribed to the Saint) actually wrote the Holy Gospel according to Saint John. Not so. “Saint John,” writes Knox, “never really sat down and wrote a Gospel; what we’ve got is the result of a series of Press Conferences, at which his disciples were plying him with questions all the time.” The series of reminiscences that were thus “elicited from him piecemeal” were later shuffled together, the Monsignor says, and made into the Fourth Gospel. And so it happens that Monsignor Knox in the Gospel of Saint John, readily and without scruple blames those unknown disciples: “It looks as if their notes got muddled.”
A few weeks before his death, Monsignor Knox completed work on a new English translation of the autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus. The book has just been published in this country and has been hailed as witness to the “abiding influence” of the late Monsignor.

It is impossible to look at Knox's life in the faith and not see strong similarities between him and some of our priest bloggers today, in particular,
Humour has always been an integral part of Catholic life, from the gallows humour of St Thomas More and the Martyrs to the likes of Chesterton, Belloc,  Tolkien (anyone who created a Hobbit must have had a great sense of the absurd) and, of course, Evelyn Waugh who was a personal friend of the Monsignor.
Perhaps Knox's most extravagant jest was his radio hoax which he pulled off in 1926 which is believed to have been the inspiration for The War of the Worlds hoax orchestrated by Orson Welles in 1938.
Knox's broadcast came out of the blue on an unsuspecting audience; London was being invaded, rioters were storming Broadcasting House. It was a very obvious spoof but it succeeded in panicking many people who were, as then, unused to serious subjects such as a news broadcast being parodied and the BBC had to issue the following reassurance the next day......

“Some listeners, who apparently only heard part of Father Knox's talk at 7:40 this evening did not realise the humorous innuendoes underlying the imaginary news items and have felt uneasy as to the fate of London, Big Ben and other places mentioned in the talk. The preliminary announcement stated that the talk was a skit on broadcasting and the whole talk was, of course, a burlesque. We hope that any listeners who did not realise it will accept our sincere apologies for any uneasiness caused. London is safe. Big Ben is still chiming, and all is well.”

Remember him in your prayers today - he would have made a great blogger!


  1. Hello Richard,

    I have to admit I find his writing on Our Lady candid, honest and inspirational. I think it was "Mariology" that he found difficult, and I can relate to this, here is a quote from his retreat to priests "The Priestly Life" (1958):

    " each of us, she is a personal romance. Because a natural instinct makes us unwilling to discuss such things in public, I will leave it at that. The real secret of her influence on our lives is something undefined, something indefinable."

  2. Hi Rita, good to hear from you. I am sure this great man did have a devotion to Our Lady but there is a deal of evidence against him, he very roughly translated Our Lord's words to His Mother at Cana...not a very good interpretation (can't find it at present).
    But, it would be unthinkable for a Catholic priest of such good standing not having a strong tie to His Mother.

  3. "Nay, woman, why dost thou trouble me with that? My time has not come yet." John 2:4
    Knox translation from the Latin Vulgate in the light of the Hebrew and Greek originals.
    My sister and brother-in-law gave me a copy for my 21st birthday 19...hmm

  4. 1. There were six detective stories, not ten. They're very good!

    2. Mgr Knox loved Our Lady so much that, even as an Anglican minister, he resolved always to mention her in every sermon he gave, to make up for others' neglect. You need to note that the quotation given above (about being left cold) was written to a potential convert who was - as are many non-Catholics - very worried by Marian devotion; he's reassuring his correspondent that the sort of language used by St Alphonsus or St Louis de Montfort is NOT compulsory! He loved the rosary, and his sermon on praying the rosary is the single most helpful commentary I've read on that devotion.

  5. PS It was through reading Ronald Knox that I converted from evangelical Protestantism and became a Catholic.

  6. Brits are great hoaxsters, even when that involves Bible translating.