When I was a student at Oxford, I woke up before sunrise several mornings a week, donning my windbreaker, and hopping onto my bicycle – a green dinosaur I had bought for ten pounds on consignment – to cycle the mile or so down from north Oxford to Christ Church Meadow, where the rest of the crew would meet at the boat house for rowing practice.
After hefting the boat from its rack and dropping it gently into the water, we eight would take our places. As captain of my boat and stroke seat, I sat directly opposite the coxswain. His voice – along with the gentle lapping of our oars in the water – would be the only sounds heard as we rowed down the Isis through the fog, our breaths misty in the bitterly cold dawn, spreading slowly overhead in shades of gold and pink.
Rowing provided a pleasant – if not at times challenging – break from the grind of daily studies. I was working towards a master’s degree in theology, with a focus on ecclesiastical history. Not yet a Catholic, my studies – particularly of Patristics and Reformation history – would provide the first chink in the Protestant armor I wore, challenging my assumptions about the Catholic Church.
I knew nothing then of the rich Catholic history of Oxford, and of the many Catholic luminaries who had graced its halls: Blessed John Henry Newman, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Fr. Ronald Knox, Fr. Robert Hugh Benson, Evelyn Waugh, J. R. R. Tolkien.
I would often cycle past St. Aloysius Church, home of the Oxford Oratory, my bicycle groaning past its yellow stone façade, never knowing or understanding what took place on the High Altar within: that the Lord of heaven and earth, the One for Whom I was created to know, love, and serve in this life in order to share in His eternal happiness in the next, was daily called down from heaven by the priest to hide Himself in the form of a piece of bread, so that – in what St. Catherine of Siena called the “love unto madness” – He might unite Himself to us body and soul.
It would be several years before I would acknowledge this stupendous truth about the Catholic Faith, the central point, one could say, distinguishing Catholic from Protestant.
Hilaire Belloc was among the first historians to challenge the assumption – taught as fact to schoolchildren everywhere – that the English Reformation was a noble protest based on the desire to protect theological purity. It was, he argued, much more a land grab driven by a king whose coffers were empty from war, and who purchased the loyalty of powerful patrons by offering them titles and newly seized Church lands.
The Acts of Suppression ended up shuttering over 800 religious houses throughout England. Among these was Godstow Abbey, situated on a footpath along the Isis River, whose ruins we would pass on warm summer days when we trekked to a local pub for fish and chips. Home to Benedictine nuns since 1133 until it was suppressed in 1539, an acquaintance told me with a chuckle that the nuns had led dissolute lives, running their house as a brothel. Not knowing any better, I believed him.
But such falsehoods about Catholic religious were commonplace, concocted by Thomas Cromwell to justify the mass seizure of Church property (and all its riches) by the Crown.
As you wander the desolate grounds, looking at the tumbling masonry and the rocky partitions overgrown with moss, you might think of the many lives that passed through those walls, that lived, worshipped, and died there; walking through the chapel that is no more, you might imagine the rustic choir stalls where once the nuns knelt to pray Matins on bitterly cold mornings, or gathered at dusk to entreat their Lord on the King’s behalf. Standing beneath the east window, you might imagine the stone Altar where previously stood some venerable priest to offer the Holy Sacrifice, or the roughly paved floor where the habited sisters knelt to receive the Sacred Host.
You might consider the place where the Tabernacle once rested, the presence lamp casting dim shadows on the chapel walls, a flame kept burning daily and nightly for centuries – until that unfortunate day in 1539, when the King’s men arrived to tell the abbess and the sixteen women in her charge that this would be their home no longer. Driven out, with meager pensions, to make their way in the world as laypeople, this scene played out hundreds of times all over that land made sacred by the blood of martyrs – blood that would once again flow at York, Dorchester, and Tyburn.
It wasn’t until 1829 – nearly 300 years later – that the right of Catholics to vote and hold public office in England was restored, and not until 1871 that restrictions against Catholics were lifted at Oxford. Before then, students were required to take an oath upholding the Thirty-Nine Articles. To this day, heirs to the British throne are forbidden by law from marrying Catholics.
I knew nothing of such things then, content to believe the Protestant interpretation of English history. It would take studying the works of the Early Church Fathers, learning about the early heresies and the Church’s struggle to protect doctrinal purity, and acquainting myself with the witness of martyrs like St. Thomas More, to sow seeds of doubt in my mind about the simplistic Protestant narrative I then believed.
Those seeds would bear fruit some years later when I came back to the Faith of my youth, returning to full communion with the Church, and uniting myself to her and all her members, present and past – including the many souls who lived and died for the Faith on that venerable isle. I like to think those souls knew me then, even in my unbelief, and prayed for me, and rejoiced to see me reunited to the Faith for which they gave their lives.