Pioneer magazine

Monsignor Ronald Knox

Brilliant English Convert
Patrick P. Rowan

One evening in 1926, when mass communication was largely confined to print media and radio, there was a strange announcement on the BBC. A familiar voice announced that a revolution was spreading through London and that it had originated in Trafalgar Square, when a group demonstrating against unemployment had decided to march.

To the accompaniment of music normally associated with London’s Savoy Hotel, there were sounds suggesting that the hotel was being destroyed by mortar fire. Reports of people being attacked and killed heightened the tension. All of this occurred on a weekend when snow was deep on the ground, so newspaper deliveries were held up on the Monday. The result was that there was a certain amount of panic until it was realised that it was all due to a hoax and the culprit was the well-known Catholic priest, Father Ronald Knox.

This was only one side of this brilliant writer, theologian and priest. Knox, with the other well-known figures, GK Chesterton, Frank Sheed and Hilaire Belloc, were the powerful participants in what came to be known as the Catholic Intellectual Revival in the first half of the twentieth century.

Ronald Knox was born in Leicestershire in 1888 and was the son of an Anglican clergyman who would later be appointed Anglican Bishop of Manchester. Young Ronald was sent to Eton College, the famous public school in 1900, and was a shy but popular student. He gave some evidence of his academic ability by winning the Classic scholarship in 1905 before going up to Oxford University to pursue a course in Classics. His progress in university was equally  prestigious and he left having won the top prizes in Greek and Latin, including the Chancellor’s Prize for Latin verse composition. He was also made a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford.

During his time in Oxford, Ronald developed a deep spiritual life and an attraction to the Blessed Virgin, so instead of remaining in the evangelical tradition of his father, he became involved in Anglo- Catholicism. He felt he was destined to become a priest and took a vow of celibacy. In 1912, he was ordained a minister of the Church of England, and was appointed chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford.

There was much controversy about religion at this time, and he spoke and wrote supporting the Anglican Church. But, under the influence of GK Chesterton, he began to have misgivings about Anglican beliefs. For some time, he struggled between his love for the Church of England and the attractions of the Roman Catholic Church. Chesterton had not become a Catholic at this stage, but subsequently was helped by Knox to convert. When Chesterton died, Knox gave the homily at his funeral in Westminster Cathedral.

In 1917, Knox converted to Catholicism. He wrote of his conversion: ‘It was not until I became a Catholic that I became conscious of my former homelessness, my exile from the place that was my own.’ Two years later, Knox was ordained a Catholic priest and, soon after, Oxford University accepted him back as Catholic chaplain, a post he retained until 1939. During this time, he wrote a number of detective story books in a style like those written by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. These years were regarded as the golden age of detective fiction, when much of this fiction was written to a formula. Knox summarised how to write this type of detective story in his ‘Decalogue’ of ten rules, which included having the murder take place in a country house, many false suspects and, with a final twist, to expose the least likely person as the murderer. Bishop Knox cut Ronald out of his will because he forsook the Anglican Church but these detective novels provided an adequate income for his son.

Monsignor Knox thought that the decline in Christian belief could be overcome by helping people return to a study of the bible, so he undertook a new translation of the fourth century Latin version of Saint Jerome. To translate the Old and New Testaments, it took him nine years. This translation has now been replaced by newer versions. Later, he also did translations of the ‘Imitation of Christ’ and of St. Therese’s autobiography of a Soul.

Ronald Knox’s sense of humour is also to be found in his writings. In his Essays in Satire, he attempts to prove that Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam, was written by Queen Victoria. It wasn’t any wonder that one Knox brother would become editor of the humorous magazine, Punch. Another brother became an Anglican monk and the fourth was a mathematician. The novelist, Evelyn Waugh, in discussing Knox’s writing, concludes, ‘I can think of no man of this century who enjoyed such a mastery of the English language in all its varieties.’

Monsignor Knox had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin from the time he was a student and he found it difficult to understand that members of the Church of England did not have a similar level of devotion to her. He was disappointed to find that many of them thought that Catholics deified Mary. He wrote that, ‘other lights may glow and dim as the centuries pass, she cannot suffer change; and when a Catholic ceases to honour her, he ceases to be a Catholic.’ He loved the shrine in Lourdes and suggested that the miraculous spring there was an indication of Our Lady’s wish that we weep for our sins. “So many years have passed, and do we still come away from Lourdes dry-eyed?” he asked.

In 1957, Knox had begun writing a book on apologetics when he became ill. He went to London for investigations and while there, he stayed at 10 Downing Street at the request of his old friend, Prime Minister Harold McMillan. The investigations showed that he was suffering from advanced inoperable cancer. Monsignor Knox died on 24 August, 1957, and his body was brought to Westminster Cathedral. Requiem Mass was celebrated by Bishop Craven, while the well-known Jesuit, Father Martin D’Arcy, preached the panegyric. Burial then took place in the cemetery of St Andrew’s Church, Mells.