Ignatius, Censorship and Skullduggery in Rome
As a young Anglican curate in 1824, Ignatius Spencer was working in the parish on the Althorp estate. He faithfully visited all of his parishioners, and those of other denominations, always exhorting them to lead good and holy lives. He was convinced from his earliest days that we are all called to a life of perfection.
By 1831 Ignatius had become a Roman Catholic and had moved to the Venerable English College in Rome to study for the priesthood. While there he became acutely aware of a set of principles which indicated that the most perfect way of life was to live out one’s life under the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. On one level he saw that the monastic life was the nearest thing in the Church to following Christ, but it left him uneasy. He was convinced that it should be possible for a diocesan priest, in a manner in keeping with his particular state, to make to his Bishop religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
He discussed the problem with his Jesuit spiritual director, and said he was not at ease with the hierarchical structure, whereby at the top were people living monastic lives, then the clergy, then the laity. He began to grapple with the idea of everyone living out the Christian life while also living lives of poverty, chastity and obedience. Ignatius planned to present his idea to the Pope, but accepted the negative reaction of his spiritual director, and did not act.
Ignatius was not concerned solely with other people achieving perfection; he also felt the need to live a life of perfection himself. So, while he was parish priest in West Bromwich, he persuaded the Bishop to take all of his money so that Ignatius could live in absolute poverty. Ignatius wanted to live out his life as a Religious, but he recognised that this would mean his leaving the jurisdiction of the Bishop, and he had been convinced that the best way to evangelise in England was through the parish structures.
Following a serious illness in 1839, Ignatius was appointed spiritual director of the students at Oscott seminary. While there he tried to organise not only the clergy and students, but also the lay staff, to live out their lives as if vowed. The eventual outcome of all of this was for Ignatius to enter the Passionists in 1846.
It was probably in 1847 that Ignatius wrote a paper entitled “On the Christian Perfection of the Laity”. Unfortunately, this document is no longer in existence, but Ignatius refers to it several times in his Diary and Letters. We know that Ignatius discussed it with the Passionist General Consultor, Fr. Pio Cayro. We also know that on three preaching tours of Ireland in 1854, Ignatius insisted that England could only be converted by the prayers and personal sanctification of the Irish. On a number of occasions, he wrote reflections on the evangelical counsels and Christian Perfection.
In November 1855 Ignatius moved to Sutton, St. Helens, and immediately read his paper on Christian Perfection to the Community. In January the following year he read the paper to Bishop Turner of Salford, Canon Croskell, and Fr. Gaudentius Rossi, all of whom had been together at the founding of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion.
Ignatius tried to gain support for his idea by presenting the paper to various Bishops on the Continent – not always successfully. The only recorded negative comments came from the Bishop of Nancy and the Master General of the Dominicans. In April 1856 Ignatius translated the document into Italian with the intention of sending it to Propaganda Fide after receiving approval from the Passionist Superior General.
However, in June 1856 Ignatius received a fatal blow: Fr. Ignatius Paoli, a lecturer in theology in SS. John and Paul, wrote on behalf of the Father General. The letter contained a formal directive to stop speaking and writing about the evangelical counsels. Ignatius drafted a reply to Paoli, but then decided not to send it – he wanted to accept God’s will, as revealed in his Superiors.
Interestingly, Propaganda asked Ignatius to write down “his rules for perfection”, and two days later Ignatius sent them to Rome. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to find either the original or a copy.
If we step back two years to 1854, we find a letter from Ignatius to his Provincial, Fr. Eugene Martorelli, in which he clearly indicates both the origin of his ideas, and the basic content of the paper. Ignatius explains he has discussed the matter with Bishop Turner who was very interested in what Ignatius had to say, especially about a young woman, a convert of Ignatius eight years earlier. She had made several attempts at entering a convent, but had never succeeded, either because of her health or for other reasons. Ignatius allowed her to take a vow of chastity. He wrote to the Provincial:
Dr. Turner was much distressed about her, and so I begged leave to explain to him what had been on my mind for 24 years, and what has been sometimes approved, sometimes disapproved by learned people, but what I still wished very much to be allowed to propose, namely the practice of religious perfection in the common body of the Church. I said also what I have felt all along, that this is the very thing wanted for the conversion of good Protestants, namely that they should see in practice what we try to convince them of theoretically, that our Church is the same as that of the Apostles; by seeing that the same beautiful fruits which the primitive Church bore as related in the 2nd. and 4th. chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, may be brought forth again by the Catholic Church, without the necessity of people entering Religious Orders for the purpose, unless they have a special vocation to one; and that the new restoration of the hierarchy in England makes it, to my mind, a beautiful opportunity for the attempt in this country.
Ignatius saw that if Christians lived the vowed life, they would be living in close imitation of the Primitive and Apostolic Church. While initially he thought of his proposal as a new way of Christian living solely for the clergy, he now wanted to expand it to the laity.
It is possible to reasonably summarise what might have been the content of Ignatius’ paper on the sanctification of Christians in the world.
- He did not envisage writing a treatise on the spiritual life of Christians in the world, although he was familiar with the example of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and the “Introduction to the Devout Life” of St. Francis de Sales.
- His starting point could only have been the expression of his conviction regarding the priority of prayer for the conversion of England, and for Church unity. He always insisted on this fundamental necessity, citing the words of Jesus at the last supper: “May they all be one.” Ignatius had an unshakeable confidence in the power of prayer for unity. The sanctification of Christians was planned to support this power.
- The example of the faithful in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, led him to promote a model of Christian life with complete abandonment of worldly riches. The Christian life put into practices as perfectly as possible, not only by the clergy, but also by lay people, would have a considerable influence on the conversion of non-Catholics.
- Ignatius envisaged the possibility of there being a certain number of lay people in a position to live a Christian life based on the private profession of a form of religious vows adapted to their particular state.
The fact that Ignatius Spencer’s paper met with the disapproval of certain ecclesiastical authorities, including those of his own Congregation, is not surprising. Given that vows, based on the evangelical counsels, were considered as being solely reserved for those who had embraced the religious life: the distinguishing features between priests and Religious on the one hand, and the laity on the other, was in the nineteenth century, accepted without question.
One has the impression that Ignatius’ paper was made to “disappear” because he went too far in treating the laity as though they were Religious living in the world. For Ignatius, perfection consisted in responding to the evangelical counsels by the commitment of vows. The tendency to seek perfection is perhaps typical of converts; it was certainly true of Ignatius Spencer. It can be affirmed however, that not only was Ignatius a pioneer in regard to ecumenical prayer, but in his own day, he advocated the opening up of the way for all those who, as lay people, wished to live the evangelical counsels in the world as perfectly as possible.
The Second Vatican Council was to make real much of the vision of Ignatius. The fruit of his thought can be found in the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium); The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes); The Decree on Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis); and |The Decree on the Laity (Apostolica Actuositatem). Ignatius was no enclosed contemplative Religious, but a man who believed that all the children of God are called to live a life of perfection.