Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Monsignor Ronald Knox
By John Janaro
Monsignor Ronald Knox was a pillar of the 20th-century English Catholic revival. The path that led him to enter into full communion with the Church at the age of twenty-nine prepared him for his special ministry of preaching and his prolific writings that remain a treasury of wisdom to this day.
Born in 1888 into an Evangelical Anglican family, Ronald learned Scripture and hymns as a child, but his personal conversion to Christ was bound up with his concrete discovery of the Church during his student days. At Eton, he first discovered the Oxford Movement and the Catholic imagination of Robert Hugh Benson. There too, and later at Balliol College (Oxford), he made strong friendships with others who desired a more ritualistic and sacramental form of Anglicanism.
From the start, however, Ronald was drawn toward something more than just a “party” within the Anglican system. He sought a deeper faith rooted in Christ’s universal Church, and he became convinced that the English Church needed to be freed from its post-Reformation constraints so that it could reaffirm fully its ancient, inherently Catholic identity in communion with the Bishop of Rome. He came to accept virtually all Catholic doctrines and practices, but pursued Anglican ordination, hoping to work for the collective submission to Rome of his own national church.
By 1912, Ronald was a devout Anglican priest and a professor at Trinity College (Oxford) who was also witty, openhearted, deeply human, and passionately committed to his mission. Numerous undergraduates became attached to him, following what Evelyn Waugh called his “apostolate of laughter and the love of friends.” For those few years at Oxford, these young men didn’t simply promote a cause; they experienced profound Christian friendship with one another and with their teacher. This small but vital “Catholic movement” gave Ronald hope even as Anglicanism’s overall Christian identity grew increasingly obscure.
Then, suddenly, it was August 1914, and England went to war.
Ronald’s students and other friends rushed to enlist. But as the unprecedented deadly horror of the conflict became apparent, some of them asked their mentor whether they should individuallymake their full submission to Rome before going into battle. Their friendship was suddenly confronted with its most radical test. And Ronald found that he was not so certain after all of his own conception of renewing the Church of England. In advising them to follow their consciences, Ronald was challenged to scrutinize more deeply his own. Soon his best friend, Guy Lawrence, wrote to him from France that he had become Roman Catholic.
From 1915 to 1917, Ronald confronted his doubts about the basic foundations of his Anglo-Catholic project. Meanwhile, the Great War’s gruesome casualty lists reported one friend’s death after another. He prayed, sought advice from Roman Catholic priests, revisited Church history, and suffered from the realization that as an Anglican he had been “trying to force God’s hand.” He corresponded with Guy Lawrence, who encouraged him to join Rome. Finally, during a retreat at Farnborough Abbey—praying through his interior darkness to do God’s will—Ronald was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Guy Lawrence lived long enough to learn this joyful news before he was killed in 1918. Thus Ronald Knox’s old life and all his old ambitions came to an end, but he found peace in the heart of Christ. He had surrendered to God’s will, and his greatest work was just beginning.