Father Vincent McNabb: a Voice of Contradiction
by Michael Hennessy
"Every minister of holy religion must bring to the struggle the full energy of his mind and all his powers of endurance."
If there is one thing, one single line of text, that could be said to have motivated the tireless apostolic work of Father Vincent McNabb, it is this line from the encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII. This great papal "call to arms", issued by Holy Mother Church just weeks before Father McNabb was ordained as a priest in the Dominican Order at the age of 23, illuminated all of his work and action: after Holy Scripture and the works of St Thomas it held pride of place in his heart. This should perhaps not be so surprising since he was a Dominican working for a large portion of his life in the slums of England, and Rerum Novarum was written - it is said - by Cardinal Zigliara, a noted Dominican scholar, in collaboration with the Pope, and was undoubtedly influenced by the life and work of the great English Cardinal Manning. Yet certainly no priest, no religious in England was as indefatigable as Father McNabb in his desire - in his work - to see the blue-print of Rerum Novarum put into action. Indeed, those Dominican students he taught while at Hawkesyard Priory remembered being instructed to keep a copy of the encyclical beside their beds: and his biographer (-of-sorts), Father Ferdinand Valentine, recalled being told to memorise the paragraph which Father McNabb thought was most central to Pope Leos work:
It was to those living in the
slums and decaying tenements and to those working in the factories
and sweat-shops of London that Father McNabb brought these words
of the Vicar of Christ: and as a priest he brought to them Christs
power to inspire and to heal.
It is evident that Father McNabb is hardly known amongst Catholics today. Even amongst those who concern themselves with Tradition many may know his name but little more. Some may be aware that he is associated with that set of ideas known as Distributism (for which he was the principal inspiration); some that he was a well-known Dominican friar who frequently spoke at Parliament Hill and at Speakers Corner to the motley London throng; some that he was at one time a friend of Eric Gill and was connected with his community at Ditchling; perhaps most of those who have heard of him stumbled across his name while reading about Hilaire Belloc or G K Chesterton. All these mental associations are indeed aspects of the man, of the priest; yet he would, I think, like best to have been known for championing Rerum Novarum.
Father McNabb was - with some notable exceptions, principally within his own Order - held in high esteem by his contemporaries, even by those such as George Bernard Shaw or the Webbs, founders of the socialist Fabian Society, who could have most been expected to dislike him. During Father McNabbs life, G K Chesterton wrote of him, in the introduction to his, Father McNabbs, book, Francis Thompson And Other Essays:
Hilaire Belloc, who was in many ways temperamentally similar to Father McNabb, wrote this about him after his death in the Dominican journal Blackfriars in 1943:
Perhaps appropriately, that memorial, that obituary, was the last thing that Belloc penned (or dictated) for publication before his death some ten years later.
Monsignor Ronald Knox, who was, in many ways, Father McNabbs temperamental opposite, wrote, when asked for his opinion on the move - in the 1950s - to start a process for Father McNabbs beatification:
But perhaps my favourite tribute
to him from his famous contemporaries - in one way at least -
comes from the pen of Maurice Baring and through the eyes and
ears and reflections of an unbeliever. To give some background:
Cecil Chesterton, G K Chestertons brother, died in 1918 from
trench fever caught while serving at the Front: he had converted
to Catholicism in 1913. Before joining up, he had been a pugnacious
journalist who had fought against financial and political corruption
in Parliament, had been successfully but wrongfully sued by the
Isaac brothers for revealing their part in the Marconi Scandal,
and was in Bellocs view the more able of the Chesterton brothers
(a view that, I have to add, no-one else seems to have held,
the humble G K Chesterton aside). Father McNabb preached at Cecil
Chestertons funeral: sadly, no copy of the sermon survived (Belloc
referred to it as the greatest piece of sacred oratory he had
ever heard) but Maurice Baring published a poem in the 1943 August
issue of Blackfriars inspired by the comments of an unbeliever
friend and poet who had accompanied Baring to the funeral:
So who was Father McNabb?
He was born Joseph McNabb, at Portaferry near Belfast on 8th July 1868. He was thus - I think importantly - senior to both Belloc and Chesterton, by two and six years respectively. His father was a sea captain whom he seldom saw: his mother was just that, a mother, and - in his eyes - all the more blessed for being ìjustî that (before her marriage, at a very young age, she had occupied an important sales and administration position in a New York department store). Not that she didnt have other things than bringing up the children and managing the home to occupy herself with: one of Father McNabbs first memories is of his mother taking him on a sick visit to a lady with a cancerous growth in her chest whom Mrs McNabb would wash and comfort. Mrs McNabb appears always to have played a leading part in parochial charity, and frequently to have commanded her childrens assistance. She was the mother of eleven children in total, Joseph McNabb being the tenth. In his later years he wrote a book, almost an autobiographical study of his early years, called Eleven, thank God! which he dedicated to his mother and which stands as a great apologia pro familia magna. Family always held a central place in Father McNabbs world, as it indeed holds a central place in Rerum Novarum.
Although born in Ireland, by the age of 14 he had moved with his family to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on account of his fathers work. A move to London had been considered but the capital was thought to be too terrible a place for the bringing-up of children. For a short while Joseph McNabb continued to board for most of the year at St Malachys in Belfast until he was 16. However, the influence of his time in Newcastle was important to him, for his family moved into the parish of St Dominics which was - unsurprisingly - run by the Dominican Order. He was profoundly impressed by all he saw of Dominican life and spirituality, of their asceticism, their love for Holy Scripture and their profound learning; and so, after leaving St Malachys and taking one unsatisfactory year at St Cuthberts Grammar School in Newcastle, he decided to become a Dominican. Curiously, what appears to have been the principal human motive behind Father McNabbs vocation was the same thing that drove Chesterton into the Catholic Church - fear of Hell. As he put it: "I dont want to go to Hell; I think Ill go to the Novitiate!" Undoubtedly, while many reasons can be identified for the motivation behind his vocation, the simple fact was that he felt God was calling him to become a friar in order to save his soul.
At the age of 17 - despite his fathers initial anger at his son deciding to pursue a vow of poverty: "Ill never, no I'll never consent to a child of mine becoming a voluntary pauper!": an anger which only abated after a visit from a Dominican from the local Priory to explain the nature of poverty - Joseph McNabb entered the Dominican novitiate at Woodchester. The Dominicans at this time were but a small band: following their establishment at Woodchester in 1854, at the point of their lowest ebb in England, they were by 1885 only just beginning to attract novices and still barely had enough of them to justify a novitiate. Joseph McNabbs entrance to the Order coincided with the beginnings of a comparative deluge of able and devout novices who entered in his year and the three or four years following, novices who once professed formed the basis of the Orders rise to prominence during the first half of the twentieth century, principally under the aegis of Father Bede Jarrett.
As we have seen, Father NcNabb was ordained in September 1891, shortly after his 23rd birthday, and in the year of Rerum Novarum. He was the most brilliant scholar of his year in the novitiate, although the following years were to see some greater academic minds entering the Order. One of Father McNabbs contemporaries wrote that ìonly Father Humbert Everest - who had left the novitiate for Louvain two years earlier - could have challenged [Father] McNabbs intellectual supremacyî.. Indeed, Father McNabb followed Father Everest to Louvain for further studies. Interestingly, when he took his Ad Gradus examination in Rome prior to his Mastership, PËre Garrigou-Lagrange was one of his examiners. By 1894, three years after his ordination, Father McNabb was sent back to Woodchester with his Doctorate in Sacred Theology.
For the next 26 years, Father
McNabb was sent hither and thither as holy Obedience demanded.
He taught novices at Woodchester for 3 years upon his return
from Louvain and was then sent to Hawkesyard (where the senior
novices were now taught) again for 3 years, to teach theology.
For the following 6 years, 1900 to 1906, he was returned to Woodchester
as Prior (at the tender age of 32): in 1906 he first went to
St Dominics Priory in north-west London for the first time as
parish-priest for two years from whence he was plucked
back in 1908 to become Prior of Holy Cross, Leicester, for 6
years until 1914. In 1914 he was elected Prior of Hawkesyard,
where he faced his severest personal and spiritual tests (and
made some enemies - a point we will have to come to later), a
position he served in for 3 years: for a further 3 years he served
there as Professor of Dogma before returning to St Dominics Priory
in London, where he served again as parish-priest until his death
on 17th June 1943, some 23 years later.
That, in breathless and unsatisfactorily cursory summary, was his life. From whence then flowed his high reputation? It flowed from his words, from his works, from the substance of his life.
Now let us look in more detail at the work and thought of Father McNabb. Like every other religious, he took some time to find his own apostolic feet: he was little known to the outside world until his appointment to Holy Cross, Leicester, when a more public apostolate began. As he came into contact, through his apostolate, with more prominent Catholic and non-Catholic figures, he came into greater national prominence as he was asked to write articles and essays, to preach, and to address public meetings of almost every conceivable variety. It was not until he finally settled down at St Dominics Priory in Cobbetts ìgreat wenî at the age of 52 that he found a context for his work and contacts with those able best to assist him in his work and so - per accidentem - became a national Catholic figure. His preaching at Parliament Hill and Speakers Corner with the Catholic Evidence Guild were instrumental to this growing renown.
Just as at the beginning of this piece I threw up some quotations concerning Father McNabb to illumine what he meant to his contemporaries, I would like now to cite some quotations from his own works to throw light on what he was saying to those contemporaries.
This first piece is from the introduction to the book, Old Principles and the New Order, published in 1942, which was a collection of his essays printed in Catholic journals over the previous twenty years:
The occasion of sin which Father McNabb was particularly - but not exclusively - referring to was the temptation placed before poor families living in poor conditions to resort to methods of birth control ("no birth and no control" as G K Chesterton so famously put it - "race suicide" as McNabb put it rather more grimly).
While the state in which so many of his contemporaries lived and worked filled him with grief and anguish - he regularly records in his books the latest statistics concerning the numbers of families living in one room (or even sharing one room) in the filthy and crumbling tenement blocks of London and elsewhere - it was largely amongst these people that he worked, and to these people he ministered and preached. Despite his popularity, and its usefulness to his mission, he was consistent in urging his congregation, his audience, to leave him and to leave London. He encouraged all those who could to desert the Babylon of London - ìBabylondonî, as he often referred to it - and vowed to remain behind to serve those who could not, or would not, leave: at least until the way had been prepared by those who had gone before them into the countryside. And it must be remembered that this flight to the Land was no foolish idea: towards the end of Father McNabbs life the Government was itself was in the face of war to encourage a return to the land, so as to increase agricultural produce from a degraded and untended land.
While objective material poverty may not now - save in exceptional cases - be so great as it was then, before the Second World War, who here would dare say that the various scourges of metropolitan life today are no worse?
Of course, the primary reason for Father McNabbs detestation of squalid and degrading urban conditions was the effect they had upon family life. The family is the prime unit of Christian society - indeed of any society - and precedes the State in every respect. Father McNabb knew that all economic, social, and political acts had some effect upon the family: it was by their effect upon the family that he would measure their worth or morality. The family was what he called "the Nazareth measure". As he wrote in his book, The Church and the Land:
Father McNabb knew the importance of the strength that he had derived from his natural family, and the strength that he daily drew from his new spiritual family, his Dominican community. He always stressed that what changed when he ìmovedî from his natural family to his supernatural family were not the virtues he pursued but the vows he had taken. He was keenly aware of the need for lay people to be inspired amidst the many snares of the modern world to pursue heroic virtue, to imitate the evangelical counsels so far as their duties of state permitted. In his book, Old Principles and the New Order - a title that sounds quite prophetic to our own ears - he writes about charity, poverty, and obedience:
On one level what Father McNabb says here is a truism - we must all strive to be chaste, poor - in spirit, let us say - and obedient: but upon closer examination Father McNabb is pointing out that these three virtues should be as much a daily call to arms as they are to the religious who have professed vows. For after all, as Father McNabb said:
Moreoever, Father McNabb added:
In many articles Father McNabb traced the decadent and withering effect of the State upon society to its neglect of poverty - through reckless expenditure, financial mismanagement, usurious practices - to its neglect of obedience - by going against the natural moral law and the laws of revealed religion - and to its neglect of chastity - by permitting, even encouraging, activities that undermined sexual or conjugal morality. Just as every individual should strive to be poor, chaste, and obedient, so too the State should aim to adhere to these three cardinal virtues.
One of Father McNabbs hardest lessons to his own and to our generation concerns poverty. People nowadays are especially reluctant to consider what Father McNabb may have meant by poverty when he so encouraged people to embrace it. He was certainly not referring to indigence. To Father McNabb poverty meant having enough for your duties of state but no more: having no excess, no extravagance, no luxury - always giving, as Christian charity dictates, to those less fortunate what you yourself or those for whom you are responsible do not need. Certainly, what constituted "enough" in Father McNabbs eyes would be considered as much too little by most of our contemporaries and even by most of us. But he was not recommending that we all become mendicants or fall into a life of helpless wretchedness and pauperism - only that we attempt to be self-sufficient, restrict our desires, limit our needs, and give from any over-abundance we possess. Many Catholics throughout the ages have fallen into complacency on this point by retreating behind the wall of "spiritual poverty", by allowing themselves anything and everything on the basis that they are poor in spirit. Father McNabb of course realised the importance of spiritual poverty; realised that it was possible for a poor man to be more avaricious and more greedy than a rich man. But he also realised the dangers of riches, the difficulty of achieving spiritual poverty when surrounded by excess - and he also realised that the demands of justice and especially of charity required people to have less than they would probably like or would naturally have. Furthermore, he saw the embrace of poverty as a means of defeating the increasing materialism and destitution of the world about him.
Before moving on from the subject of poverty, I will leave you with this excerpt from The Church and the Land: it concerns the young man with great possessions from the Gospels:
We must, however, not forget that Father McNabb would never claim originality or even ingenuity for any of the things about which he taught or preached. His great pride - if we are permitted to use that word in this context - was that he taught only what the Church taught: in particular that he taught almost exclusively from Holy Scripture and from the works of the Angelic Doctor. All that may strike us as unique about Father McNabbs teachings - he himself would never claim anything unique for them, of course - was in their emphasis and application.
And there were many sides to Father McNabb: as well as being the devoted preacher of Rerum Novarum in works such as The Church and the Land, Nazareth or Social Chaos and the aforementioned Old Principles and the New Order; as well as being the celebrity friar who appeared at public meetings, who spoke at Speakers Corner and at Parliament Hill, and preached at great Catholic funerals such as that of Cecil Chesterton: as well as all this Father McNabb was a busy teacher and a retreat master, in both cases for lay people as well as clerics. His classes on St Thomas - open to all-comers - were very popular; and from his retreats a devotee of his - Dorothy Findlayson - culled sufficient verbatim shorthand notes to have printed, with his permission, a number of slim but rewarding volumes of spiritual advice: Stars of Comfort, In Our Valley, The Craft of Prayer, The Craft of Suffering, Joy in Believing, Gods Way of Mercy and Mary of Nazareth. Most of the chapters in these volumes are meditations on a few lines of Holy Scripture, or a line-by-line analysis of one of the great prayers of the Church.
Father McNabb was also an enthusiast for Chaucer and Francis Thompson and wrote essays on these, and other, poets and writers. His diverse collections of essays are entitled Francis Thompson and Other Essays, Our Reasonable Service, Thoughts Twice-Dyed, From a Friars Cell and The Wayside: A Priests Gleanings. He was also - it has to be admitted - a rather casual biographer: he wrote a slim work on St John Fisher. He also wrote a number of small books on aspects of Holy Scripture: The New Testament Witness to Our Lady, The New Testament Witness to St Peter, Meditations on St John, St Mary Magdalen, The Doctrinal Witness of Infallibility of the Fourth Gospel. His work, The Life of Our Lord, was written under strict obedience: it is a strange book, full of curious omissions and odd emphases, which unhappily reflects the authors reluctance to take on such a demanding subject.
Interestingly, the very first book for which Father McNabb was responsible was an edition of the decrees of the First Vatican Council: his first printed pamphlet, entitled Infallibility, was a version of a lecture he had been asked to give to the Anglo-Catholic Society of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Father McNabb showed great interest in the possibility of the Anglican Church re-uniting with the Catholic Church: he often spoke to Anglican and Anglo-Catholic meetings and expressed great concern for the continuing de-Christianisation of their sect, from which concern sprang his book The Church and Reunion.. He also took an interest in the poor Jews of Whitechapel and East London in general, and was held in great affection by the Jewish community there.
In a more theological context, Father McNabb initially made his name as a preacher and teacher - beyond the walls of the Dominican institutions which he served - with his conferences on faith and prayer at the Catholic Chaplaincy of Oxford University. Initially published separately, these conferences - with some slight revisions - were eventually published in one volume, Faith and Prayer, and constitute the most substantial contribution Father McNabb made to more academic theological writing. He also wrote a slim book on the Blessed Sacrament - Gods Good Cheer - a collection of theological essays, Where Believers May Doubt, which concentrates on the relationship between Holy Scripture and scholasticism, and another collection of similar essays, Frontiers of Faith and Reason, which covers a variety of topics from the origin of the epiclesis to a plea for the re-introduction of the Sarum Rites of Betrothal and Marriage.
Aside from these works Father McNabb was also a great contributor to periodicals of many sorts, from GKs Weekly, where his writings rubbed metaphorical shoulders with those of Chesterton, Belloc and TS Eliot, to the more obvious Catholic periodicals, Blackfriars and the then-orthodox Tablet. While Father McNabb was clearly more than a one-issue man it is striking how many of these books and articles touch upon, even dwell upon, matters relating to the social teaching of the Church and to the family.
A little more should now be said about Father McNabbs life as a friar in order once again to put flesh upon him after such a tedious catalogue of books and anthologies.
Even amongst his fellow Dominicans, as yet untainted by modernism and its laxities, Father McNabb was considered to be an ascetic. As Prior of Woodchester, Hawkesyard and Holy Cross he had developed a reputation for being hard on others, but certainly no harder than he was on himself: and he could always lend someone a sympathetic ear, something he never seems to have had for himself! He ate sparingly - he blamed his "Protestant stomach" - and his face and body demonstrated the hard self-denial of his religious life. He slept on the floor of his cell - which floor he scrubbed daily - and his bed lay unused even through illness and his final death-pangs. He had no chair in his room until the last days of his life when - still refusing to lie on his bed - he finally consented to be seated in a chair. When writing, he knelt at a table surmounted by a crucifix and small statue of the Blessed Virgin: on the table lay his only books, a copy of the Vulgate, his Breviary, and the Summa Theologica.. He kept a compendious box of notes, all written on scraps of paper - the backs of cards, used envelopes and the like - on a huge variety of subjects some penned in English, some in Latin, some in Greek and some even in Hebrew (this box is now with the Dominican archive in Edinburgh and is looked after by the oldest Dominican in Great Britain, Father Bede Bailey, a pupil of Father McNabbs). Everything he wrote was hand-written: he abominated most machinery and had particular a vehemence for type-writers! Hilaire Belloc, who shared many views with Father McNabb, always had a fascination for machinery and considered the type-writer - and the telephone (something else Father McNabb loathed) - as a great boon (Bellocs handwriting was notoriously slovenly: Father McNabbs was habitually neat and legible). It would no doubt have been both interesting and amusing to have been a fly-on-the-wall as they discussed the desirability of the automated writing machine!
Of course, as a religious, indeed, as a Catholic, prayer was central to his life. His profound attachment to Holy Mass and the Office aside, Father McNabb devoted much of his energy to praying and to encouraging others to pray the Holy Rosary. As a man of formidable intellect and deep learning he had nothing but impatience for those who claimed that the Rosary was a prayer, a devotion, for simple beginners, for the unlettered, for those who have not yet ascended to the sublime heights of spirituality. Such people rendered Father McNabb almost speechless with indignation. "The Rosary", he would say, "is the safest and surest way to union with God through mental prayer". What impressed him the most about the Holy Rosary was the prayerfulness of many of the faithful who had been taught or had grown up to pray to God through Our Blessed Lady. Again and again he would say: "Most of the contemplatives I have met are in the world, and these have found union with God through the Rosary." Devotion to the Rosary, he insisted, should be fundamental to a Catholics prayer life. As he said during a sermon on Rosary Sunday on 1936:
Father McNabb wore a homespun habit - he only had the one at any one time - and marched around London in the same heavy hob-nailed boots from year to year. Over his shoulders as he trudged about the streets he had slung his "McNabb-sack", a capacious if battered means of carriage for his Vulgate, Breviary, and whatever other books he needed. Although he was not averse to rail travel, or public transport in general, he usually refused to travel by car or by cab: the long distances he had to cover in London from St Dominics Priory to the various convents to which he was chaplain, to Speakers Corner and to Parliament Hill, he managed on foot and at a startling pace. Hilaire Belloc, who astonishingly still holds the time record for walking between London and Oxford, was full of admiration for Father McNabbs speed and endurance: indeed, he gave him advice on how to follow his own route from Toul to Rome, famously walked and recounted in The Path to Rome. Father McNabbs superior would not however allow him the vacation time to accomplish this walk, which he had so wanted to do - at the age of 68 (Belloc had been 31!) - to celebrate the golden jubilee of his profession in the Dominican Order.
There is a moving account of an occasion when Father McNabb actually took a cab back to his Priory. For months he had made sick calls to a young girl - an only child - who was dying. The mother - who had asked him to come - was a Catholic; the largely absent father was not, and moreover was one of his chief hecklers at Parliament Hill. They were a poor family, lodged with another family in a single, small room in a crumbling tenement block near St. Pancras Station. Sadly, the daughter died: McNabb said the Requiem Mass. Just a few weeks later the mother died - she had been ill throughout her daughters illness but had said nothing about it to anyone. McNabb again said the Requiem Mass. As he left the graveyard the husband approached him, gave him a flower from a funeral bouquet that Father McNabb had arranged from a pious benefactor, and asked him how he was planning to return to his Priory. The sky was thunderous and rain was beginning to fall. Father McNabb replied that he planned to return as he had come - on foot. The husband - trebly poor now - pulled from his pocket enough money to pay for a cab: at first Father McNabb demurred and then he realised that this was the widowers mite. With tears in his eyes he accepted the money. He never forgot this instance of simple charity. As he wrote:
The full extent of Father McNabbs own charity will of course never be known. What he did privately remained private even after the public death that we will shortly be considering. One known instance may have to suffice. In another rotting block of flats close to Camden Lock lived an old bed-ridden woman. For months, possibly for years, someone came regularly to talk to her, to tidy the room and to scrub the floor. A few weeks after Father McNabb had died, a group of people living in rooms near to the womans were discussing who would do the job as the old lady who had come to do the work before had evidently stopped coming. Only the bed-ridden ladys best friend knew that this lady had in fact been Father McNabb, on his way to Parliament Hill, dropping in for an half-hour-or-so to see the old lady.
I touched earlier upon Father McNabbs homespun habit. When one was worn out he received another - and the donor from 1917 onwards was the Ditchling Community, an artistic variant of the back-to-the-land movement which Father McNabb supported throughout his life. Eric Gill and Hilary Pepler had been the two talents behind its genesis in 1907. Father McNabb acted as the Communitys chaplain - many of the its members became Third Order Dominicans - but nonetheless fault-lines soon apeared. Its attempts to live off the land faltered - most of its members were artists and had little aptitude for real land-work - and gradually it became an artistic rural retreat rather than a self-sufficient community with an artistic bent. Father McNabb was disappointed that the members of the Community had not applied themselves more to the primary thing - to working on the land. On this matter he did not see eye-to-eye with Eric Gill. Eventually, Gill departed for Wales in 1924. Thereafter, despite his enthusiastic advice to all who asked for it to return to the land, to strive for poverty and self-sufficiency away from the stink of the cities, Father McNabb never again attached himself to any particular project as he had to Ditchling.
Indeed, Father McNabb was always concerned with the primary things and saw any work or activity that moved even one stage away from the primary thing as less worthy and possibly less virtuous. As a result he loathed international finance which was as far removed from reality and the primary things as it was possible to go. As he put it, cuttingly:
Before I move on to describe Father McNabbs death, I feel I must offer up a few examples of his wit in order to derail any growing impression that Father McNabb must have been a miserable fanatic. Father McNabb certainly had a way with words. He was particularly adept at dealing with hecklers. On one occasion during a long disquisition on sin at Speakers Corner an Irish woman shouted out: "If I was your wife I would put poison in your tea!". Grinning, Father McNabb replied: "Madam, if I were your husband I would drink it!". On another occasion he famously compared hearing nuns confessions to being pecked slowly to death by ducks. On a more serious note, he once attended a public meeting on the subject of the Mental Degeneracy Bill then passing through the House of Commons. After listening to various medical experts explaining how they would certify as degenerates, and as a result sterilise, many types with whom Father McNabb was familiar in his pastoral work, the good friar stood up and, having been called to speak by the chairman of the meeting, bellowed: "I am a moral expert and I certify you as moral degenerates!" He stormed out of the meeting to rapturous applause and the meeting broke up in disarray.
If it is true that it is possible to tell a lot about a persons life from the manner of their death then it seems only appropriate that we should now turn to the last long weeks of Father McNabbs life and to his eventual death.
On 14th April 1943, as he was drawing to the end of his seventy-fifth year, Father McNabb was told by his doctor that he had only a short time to live. That same day he wrote to his niece, Sister Mary Magdalen, a Dominican sister, "Deo Gratias! God is asking me to take a journey which everyone must sooner or later take. I have been told that I have a malignant incurable growth in the throat. I can, at most, have weeks to live." The following day he preached to the Sisters of Mercy. It was Thursday in Passion Week, and, after a few vivid words of reflection concerning the imminence of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Father McNabb said:
It was to be approximately nine weeks before Father McNabb finally died - and these last two months were as busy a period for him as any that had gone before. He carried on his teaching courses on Aquinas and the Psalms, even offering to start a course on the Angels for as long as he lasted: "I do not now what sort of Angels they will put me amongst, dear children! I am not good enough for the good Angels." He warned his students that at any time he may have to send them a telegram to say that he was dead.
When the press - Catholic and secular - found out that such a popular figure was about to die they hounded the Dominican Community at St Dominics Priory. Father McNabb was determined that his death should be as much a sermon as his life as a Dominican had been. He knew that the last weeks would be difficult. He had been told that he would effectively die slowly of starvation, and may well experience some severe breathing troubles, as the passage of his throat narrowed and finally disappeared. While his strength was still with him he continued to preach and speak across London, marching along its dreary streets in his habit and hob-nailed boots with his heavy McNabb-sack over his shoulders. He went to all his choir duties until a few days before his death: although he was able to speak to the end, and his breathing problems were slight, he was not able to eat for about a week, and could not swallow any liquids for three days, before he died. In the end, he collapsed one morning at Prime, on Monday 14th June: he experienced a slight recovery and wrote his last letter, again to his niece, Sister Mary Magdalen. The next day he received the Last Rites and slowly deteriorated until the morning of Thursday 17th June when he summoned Father Prior to his cell (under obedience he was seated on a straight-backed chair - they didnt dare suggest to him that he should take to his bed!). There, amidst the bare surroundings of a familiar austerity, Father McNabb sang the Nunc Dimittis for the last time, confessed his sins to Father Prior, and renewed his vows. He then became unconscious for half-an-hour, sneezed, and died.
Crowds of people, young and old, rich and poor, but especially old and poor, came to see him, pray for him, and touch his habit as he was laid out in the Lady Chapel at the Priory for three days. The Requiem Mass took place on Monday 21st June: the Church was packed, principally with Catholic luminaries - the streets outside were thronged with the poor from the tenements he had so often visited. As requested, he was buried in a plain deal box, marked with a simple black cross: it was drawn on an open-backed wagon to Kensal Green Cemetery to where amidst even more crowded scenes Cardinal Manning had been carried almost half-a-century before. The newspapers were full of stories and details about his last few days, his death and his funeral. Truly, his last sermon, his death, was what reached his greatest audience. As his Prior, Father Bernard Delaney, said at his funeral:
There is much more that could be said about Father McNabb. His work for the social reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ was great: he touched many, many souls, and after his death a small movement started for his beatification. It got nowhere, despite several significant endorsements, largely because his own Dominican family was in two minds about him. Whereas those who perhaps saw less of him considered him a saint, several of his brother friars thought him a play-actor, a rigid and harsh ego-maniac who craved attention and utter obedience. Many of the friars with such negative views appear to have suffered under his authority when he was Prior of Hawkesyard and they were his charges many years ago.
This sense of division comes across in the only (pseudo-)biography of Father McNabb, written by a Dominican pupil of his, Father Ferdinand Valentine (one too young to remember those gruelling Hawkesyard days), who grew from hero-worship to perplexed uncertainty as he wrote the book and encountered views of the man that differed markedly from his own. The greatest asset of this book - more a slightly hysterical quasi-psychological poly-conjectural study of the man than a proper biography or examination of his work - is the appendix which contains a wealth of letters and testimonies that make up over a quarter of its pages. Sadly, Father McNabb has suffered under the pall of this book for many years. In 1996, the Chesterton Review bravely brought out a very useful if rather ambivalent special issue devoted to him: aside from this the only other book dealing with him was one full of peculiar admiration written by E A Sidermann, one of his chief hecklers at Speakers Corner and an atheist to boot.
Although some aspects of Catholic social teaching which he championed would certainly be enthusiastically cheered by elements amongst the typical May Day anti-capitalist and anti-globalization protesters, and some aspects would be limply applauded at ghastly Justice and Peace hand-holdings across the country by the polo-necked pseudo-Dominicans who sadly today often pass for St Dominics sons, much of what Father McNabb stood for - integral, upright, unapologetic, strong, fervent Catholicism - is of course now out of favour. There can be no doubt that Father McNabb would have been desolated by what passes for Catholicism in so many churches up and down the country, across the world, indeed, today. He would have prescribed as its antidote an apostolate of Catholic Action, but only if it were founded on a strong and well-anchored spiritual life. He knew that our lives - well-lived - would accomplish more than our words.
I will conclude this piece with some more of Father McNabbs words, and with a prayer of his:
[A talk given to the UK League of the Kingship of Christ by its Treasurer, Michael Hennessy, at St Georges House, Wimbledon, on Saturday 15th June 2002]