FATHER IGNATIUS SPENCER:
ENGLISH NOBLE AND CHRISTIAN SAINT
By Gerard Skinner
446 pages, £17.99 (about $24)
Did you know the late Princess Diana Spencer has a relative being considered as a candidate for sainthood?
Servant of God Father Ignatius of St. Paul, aka George Spencer (1799-1864), is still not widely known in America, but he is an intriguing figure and the subject of this detailed and sympathetic biography, replete with generous quotes from its subject.
Spencer was born into British aristocracy, a son of the Second Earl Spencer. Under British custom, the eldest son was expected to carry on in his father’s steps; younger boys were sometimes steered into ecclesiastical careers.
That was true of Spencer, who was ordained in 1824 as an Anglican clergyman. However, Spencer took religious questions seriously, not content to relax on the tradition, nationalism and “smells and bells” of Anglicanism. As an Anglican clergyman, Spencer wrestled with God’s will and his struggle ran up and down the theological spectrum, from Methodism to Catholicism. He never just took religious convictions for granted, and that searching eventually led to his conversion to Catholicism in 1830.
The erstwhile Anglican clergyman quickly found himself studying for the priesthood at the English College in Rome, whose leadership — English and Roman — recognized the unique value of landing not just a Church of England minister but also a British nobleman, especially as Catholic Emancipation was occurring. Spencer’s money eventually funded many church building projects; more importantly, his name still gave the Church access to circles in class-conscious British society (and across Europe) that might otherwise have stayed closed.
Although a priest and later responsible for the Catholic college in Oscott, Father Spencer’s searching continued, eventually leading him to the Passionists, where he made his profession in 1848. Father Spencer was indefatigable, preaching missions and hearing confessions all over Britain.
Two things especially struck me: Father Spencer’s resoluteness and his zealous charity. He struggled to discern God’s will, and, when he found it, he never wavered. Consider his conversion, which occurred on a Saturday when he was already an Anglican minister:
“At length, I answered: ‘I am overcome. There is no doubting the truth. One more Sunday I will preach to my congregation and then conclude this business [of being received into the Church].’ But then Spencer asked himself whether or not he had any right to stand in the pulpit of his Anglican church having made such a decision? Then he said … ‘If my step is right for me to take next week, it is my duty to take it now. My resolution is made; tomorrow, I will be received into the Church.’”
Hand on the plough, he never turned back.
The other trait I appreciate is Father Spencer’s zealous charity. Throughout his priesthood, he tirelessly promoted weekly prayer for the conversion of England, using all his contacts to promote the idea among bishops across Europe, all the way to the Pope. That dedication turned some people off and probably ended his chances to be a bishop, as his zeal for souls was deemed evidence of his imprudence: “The bishops concurred in [Bishop Walsh’s] judgement: ‘unfit — an enthusiast — no prudence.’” While often precipitous in his actions, Father Spencer’s readiness to think outside the box clearly rankled more conventional and politically calculating clerics who dared not.
Father Spencer’s life is a fascinating view of British social, Catholic and religious life in the 19th century. Kudos to the author, Gerard Skinner, and to the publisher, Gracewing: Father Spencer deserves to be better known; this biography performs that service.
John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., Fordham, writes from Falls Church, Virginia.