This is a transcript of Mike Hennessy's speech on Vincent McNabb. Which was presented on the 12th of November in London. Once again, I would like to thank him for his commitment to all things Bellocian.
I would like now to cite some quotations from Fr McNabb’s own works to throw light on what he was saying to his 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. As such, it serves as a useful introduction to his thought over those years of his public apostolate:
As Father McNabb wrote in 1925:
We too easily perhaps these days dismiss calls for renunciation of material goods when simply trying to live a faithful Catholic life seems to involve renunciation enough – but turning away from the lures of the World, the Flesh and the Devil is not the same as turning resolutely towards God, and committing ourselves without cavil to live for Jesus' sake and the love of souls.
My final word on this subject – or rather Fr McNabb's – comes from his book, The Church and the Land: it concerns the young man with great possessions from the Gospels:
Before I move on to describe Father McNabb’s death, I feel I must counter-act any possible impression that Father McNabb must have been a miserable fanatic. He had a well-developed sense of humour – and of mischief, and was adept as dealing, often lightly but effectively, with hecklers at Speakers' Corner or on Parliament Hill. He once 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 (the occasion of his striking up a friendship with Chesterton who was also opposing the Bill and with whom he often shared a platform). After listening to various medical experts explaining how they would certify as mental 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 all as moral degenerates!” He stormed out of the meeting to rapturous applause and the meeting broke up in disarray.
Now, if it is true that it is possible to tell something important about a person from the manner of their death then it seems only appropriate that we should now turn to the last long weeks of Father McNabb’s 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 know 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 Dominic’s 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 would also 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.
On Monday 14th June, he collapsed during Prime, on Monday 14th June. Experiencing a slight recovery, he wrote his last letter, again to his niece, Sister Mary Magdalen. The next day he received the Last Rites, following another collapse, 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 didn’t 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 and with his favourite ejaculation from Holy Scripture written upon it in Greek: “Lord, Thou knowest if I love thee.”
The coffin was drawn on an open-backed wagon (an old beer 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:
We live amongst a declining, decadent, post Christian people, too deracinated and intoxicated with technological advancement and complete licence in matters of physical pleasure to even approach the lowest rungs of pagan dignity. We are not – in all likelihood – their betters in any natural respect. Only supernaturally has it been given us by God’s grace to see where we should aim, and to turn our eyes from the gutter to the stars.
Yet we cannot shun the world, nor must we see it in every respect as our foe. As Fr McNabb wrote:
Our lives must be like little flames amidst this hurricane of amoral, immoral, madness. So long as we are connected to God’s grace, and we do not sever that connection through Mortal Sin or apostasy, the light that is within us cannot be blown out no matter how wildly the winds rage, no matter how much light flickers and sometimes fades. And we must share that light. When the world is fully dark, even a little light will seem a supernova.
So, why have I called him ‘the Apostle of First Principles’?
We have all, I imagine, argues, controverted from time to time with family members, friends, colleagues, strangers, about matters of Faith. Below each initial disagreement always lies another – and then another still beneath that. We chase these errors back to try and find common ground. A lot of the time we never make it. The point at which our thinking has parted from that of our antagonist is often a long way back in the chain of reasoning. We cannot expect the person with whom we are arguing to have the ability let alone the patience or determination to return to the root, to the source. Nor can we always trace our way back. We have accepted what the Faith is from those with authority to teach us – and often we have ourselves looked no further.
We must learn to try and get back to the root, to the source. “Go to the Book!” Father McNabb used to say – referring to Holy Scripture, to the works of St Thomas, to the proclamations of the Councils of the Church – “...don't just read a book about the Book!”
We must build from the bottom up – return to first principles to make any head-way. Even in the first half of the twentieth century, Father McNabb saw this. He saw it particularly in how Church teaching applies to society, to the pragmatisms of politics and to how economic life could be configured within the natural law and the teaching of Christ and his Church. But he applied this too to the rest of his thinking and writing and preaching and teaching. He knew that those first principles could only be found in Authority, in natural law and in sound metaphysics: not in our own assumptions or particular views and opinions, even when we think them conformable to the Faith.
Father McNabb has much to teach this age, and not just those who are not of the Household of the Faith. He is a challenge to all our assumptions, to all our false knowledge, our false understanding. Do any of us really know as much as we sometimes think we do? Let us return to the source.
I will conclude my talk this evening with a few more words of Fr McNabb’s, and with a prayer of his: