The Catholic Missionary Society (1903-2003)

After serving in World War I (in France and Italy–and being wounded), Fr. Dudley joined the Catholic Missionary Society in 1919, and became its Superior from 1933 until 1947.

This storied society was founded by Cardinal Herbert Vaughn to convert England and Wales back to Catholicism.  Some remarkable priests served with it:

  • Fr. Thomas Byles, one of the original CMS priests, died bravely performing his duties during the sinking of the Titanic.
  • Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson was with the first motor chapel the Society operated in 1911 (near the end of Msgr. Benson’s life).
  • Fr. Basil Maturin was among the second group of priests to join: he went down with courage with he Lusitania.
  • Fr. Francis Joseph Ripley served in the Society as first a priest and then as Superior.
  • Cardinal John Carmel Heenan served as superior after Fr. Dudley before Fr. Heenan becoming bishop.  The letters between Cardinal Heenan and Evelyn Waugh concerning the liturgical changes in the wake of Vatican II are contained in A Bitter Trial.

The official identity statement by the Westminister Diocesan Archives concerning the Catholic Missionary Society:

…The central focus of the organisation was the conversion of non-Catholics, rather than non-Christians. Although there is a secondary note of those who ‘profess no religion’, the Church of England and in particular the ‘High Church’ party were the main targets. The other element which increasingly came to the fore in the practice of Parish Missions and Retreats by the CMS was reaching the ‘lapsed’. The mission was seen as a chance to visit those whose practice of the faith (most obviously their attendance at mass and confession) were less than they had been. Often these were called ‘Missions to Catholics and non-Catholics’ indicating that their purpose was to deepen and renew the faith of Catholics, to bring back those whose faith was becoming inactive and to reach out to those who were members, if not necessarily active members, of other Christian Churches. The CMS ceased service in 2003, with its work being continued by the Catholic Agency to Support Evangelisation. Its assets were transferred to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

Clearly there was increasing discomfort with this mission (perhaps among other concerns).  Although the origin, source, and progression of that discomfort is not yet sufficiently researched, the original intention of the Bishops of England and Wales was to let the Catholic Missionary Society die rather than to appoint a new Superior to succeed Fr. Dudley in 1947. However, the Apostolic Delegate (Archbishop Godfrey) successfully pleaded for a reprieve–indicating that abolishment would be poorly received by the Vatican which would assume that “evangelical zeal was cooling and that the Catholics of England had abandoned hope of winning the country back to the Old Faith.”

However, in 2003, the Bishops prevailed, ending the Catholic Missionary Society (involuntarily) after a hundred years of service.  The Society’s publication, the Catholic Gazette, documented developments over the years.  Just a few examples towards the end:

  • In 1965, the editor identified the greatest failure of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain as its inability to integrate itself into English culture: “The Catholic population in England continues to stick out like a sore thumb from ordinary Englishmen…The result is the miserably small percentage of Catholics in Parliament or public affairs.” But Fr. Dudley stressed that Catholics were, and should be, different: and that difference was the basis for successful evangelization.
  • The January 2002 issue had cover stories concerning “Interfaith Dialogue,” “The Role of Dialogue in Mission,” and “Developing Dialogue.”
  • The August 2002 issue announced the end of the Catholic Missionary Society.

An current view of the conversion of England and Wales may be found here.

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