Project Canterbury

Recollections of Malines
by Walter Frere, C.R.

[London: The Centenary Press, 1935 119pp]

II. From a letter of H.E. Cardinal Mercier to his Clergy.

January 18, 1924.
Feast of St. Peter's Chair.


For more than two years I have been in close and intimate touch with a few prominent Anglicans, for whom I feel a deep regard and sincere affection. We have met several times; I have exchanged letters with them on the matter which lies closest to my heart, the interests of my mother, the Catholic Church.

I had no thought of acquainting you with this intercourse, for the very simple reason that, in the nature of things, its object is confidential, and that, furthermore, we had mutually agreed to make nothing public without previously agreeing to do so.

This agreement has been maintained. The Archbishop of Canterbury has revealed nothing of the subject-matter of our conversations nor of the conclusions reached; but he has considered that the time had come for him to define, for the members of his community, the position he had taken with regard to our conferences. This was, on his part, a loyal action, and one in which, moreover, I fully acquiesced. It was also a courageous line of action to take; for in view of the state of mind, whether expressed or mute, which is, to this day, very prevalent among English non-Catholics, and often expressed in the one word, "anti-papism," it was easy to forecast that any deference, even implicit or remote, shown to a bishop, to a Cardinal of the Church of Rome, would bring down on its originator anything but sympathy and congratulations.

In a letter dated Christmas 1923, written to the Archbishops and Metropolitans of the Anglican communion, Dr. Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury, alludes to the "Malines Conversations" and states that, without having sanctioned them officially, he had cognizance of them, took an interest in them, and hoped for beneficent results from them.

Protestant circles, and a few Catholics, were greatly moved by this revelation. For several weeks magazines and newspapers saw in it a subject for lively controversy, the echo of which crossed the Channel. The public taste for daily sensational news, the keenness of journalists to provide it in a "crescendo" form, created, around our peaceful meetings at Malines, an atmosphere of artificial agitation, from which it is my duty to disengage them.

I will put the facts before you, in order to set them back in their true simplicity. I will give you the reasons that prompted them. And, seizing the opportunity afforded to me, I will endeavour, dear brothers, to draw from them, both for you and for myself, a lesson which is a governing principle of the pastoral ministry.


Religious authorities, all those, indeed, who note the evolution of human thought and the trend of events, are frightened to see the de-christianization of the masses, and the swiftness with which the disappearance of faith in the supernatural leads to the denial of all religion. The phenomenon is general; but it is more momentous, more noticeable, in Protestant countries than in Catholic.

Already in 1877, Newman wrote: "I have all that time (50 years) thought that a time of widespread infidelity was coming, and through all those years the waters have in fact been rising as a deluge. I anticipate a time, after my life, when only the tops of the mountains will be seen, like islands in the waste of water"; and he adds, "I speak principally of the Protestant world."

Yes, "principally of the Protestant world," because there the doctrinal divergences which separate the many "confessions " or "denominations" deprive religiously-inclined souls of the lightsome and comforting vision of Unity in the Faith. The splitting up of the Protestant communion leads to liberalism in religious matters, that is to say, to that vague kind of belief which holds that all religions stand for free opinions of equal value, because none of them can claim in its favour the proof of a positive and divine Revelation; then indifference to matters religious inevitably leads to irreligion, to anti-religious sectarianism.

Clear-sighted Protestants saw Newman's predictions come true. Those among them who still believe in the divinity of Christ and of his Church, those who pray for themselves and for the souls entrusted to their keeping, see the danger, and know it is their duty to counteract it; they also believe, in the words of the Acts of the Apostles, "Neither is there salvation in any other."

Such men as these it was, men of Faith and of high standing, both intellectual and moral, whom Divine Providence led towards us, and whom we had the joy of welcoming.

The two first visitors were Lord Halifax,—whom all in England irrespective of creed or party hold in honourable estimation and love —and Abbe Portal, a son of S. Vincent de Paul, priest of the Mission, formerly superior of a Seminary, who, during the pontificate of Leo XIII, was so intimately associated with the question of the validity of Anglican orders. At the present moment he is engaged in a most fruitful apostolate among the youth of the University of Paris.

They first paid me a visit in October, 1921, and came back on the 6th, 7th and 8th of December in the same year, accompanied by two prominent Anglicans, Dr. Armitage Robinson, Dean of Wells, a close friend of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Dr. Frere, at that time superior of the Community of the Resurrection, and now Bishop of Truro. Both are authors of highly appreciated works on scripture and ancient Christian literature.

I asked the Abbe Portal and our learned and trusted Vicar-General Mgr. Van Roey, Master in Theology of Louvain, to meet them.

From the start it was agreed that the subject-matter and ultimate results of our conversations were to be private until such time as, by mutual consent, we should consider it useful and advisable to publish them.

The two groups met again in Malines in March, 1923. Last November, a third meeting took place. This time, besides Dean Robinson and Dr. Frere, we were joined by Dr. Charles Gore, a well-known figure,—who relinquished the bishopric of Oxford to devote himself completely to study and religious science,—and Dr. Kidd, Warden of Keble College, a foremost figure in Oxford.

Mgr. Batiffol, Canon of Notre-Dame in Paris, widely known for his works on the origins of Christianity, and Abbe Hemmer, parish priest at Saint-Mande, who formerly taught history at the Catholic Institute in Paris, kindly consented to give us the benefit of their presence and valuable assistance.

Such were our guests: I will now retrace the character of our meetings.

These were, from first to last, private: they were conversations in a private sitting-room. There was no question of ecclesiastical authorities sending official delegates to meet one another.

This assertion of ours was clearly stated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his message to his Metropolitans; though some seem to be unwilling to take account of it. He knew, of course, that his friends were in touch with members of the Catholic clergy in Malines; he followed, with sympathy and interest, the development of our talks; but, from the beginning he insisted on stating, as I did also, for that matter, that we in no way committed, either the communions to which we belonged, or the authority which, in some measure, we represented.

Our discussions were thus in no sense negotiations. To negotiate, it is necessary to possess a mandate; and, neither on the one side nor on the other were we invested with a mandate. I, for my part, had asked for no such commission; it was enough to know that I was acting in agreement with the supreme Authority, blessed and encouraged by it.

We set to work, inspired by a common desire for mutual understanding and brotherly aid, firmly resolved to banish the spirit of barren controversy.

Obviously on several fundamental questions the disagreement of both sides was notorious; we all knew that. But we said to ourselves that if truth has its rights, charity has its duties; we thought that, perhaps, by dint of open-hearted converse, and the intimate conviction that in a vast conflict centuries old, all the wrongs were not on one side; by an exact formulation of certain controverted points, we might break down preconceptions, dispel ambiguities, smooth the way along which loyal souls, aided by grace, might discover, if it pleased God, or recover, the truth.

As a matter of fact, at the close of each of our three meetings, we all felt closer to, more trustful towards, one another, than at the start. Our guests told us so ; wrote it to us ; we said as much to them, and I am happy to repeat it here.

Need I add, nevertheless, that neither my friends nor I, when essential questions were mooted—such as the Primacy of the Pope, as defined by the Vatican Council, which was the first and the last of our business—gave away, in a foolish desire for union at any price, one single article of our Catholic Apostolic and Roman Creed?

Our gatherings were thus private, and they pledged only our personal responsibility; they were quite friendly; I add that they were both instructive and edifying.

No book is as valuable as personal intercourse. Conversation sheds light on intimate things which do not pass into print. Men are created to love one another; how often men who are strangers to one another, and who in separation might have felt at enmity, in getting to know one another, experience a moving delight which they had never anticipated.

When the time came for parting, this result of the Conversation was so prominent that heartfelt joy filled our company.

"It is probably the first time for four centuries," said one of them, "that scholars, both Protestant and Catholic, have been able to converse, with complete frankness, for hours and hours, on the gravest matters which intellectually divide them, without the cordiality of their relations being disturbed for a moment, or their confidence in the future being shaken."

No doubt the kindling of hearts towards one another is not itself unity in Faith, but it certainly prepares the way.

Men, especially groups of men, who have been total strangers for years, living in an atmosphere laden with distrust if not antagonism, anchored in the depths of their consciousness by a tradition four centuries old, are ill-prepared to admit the arguments, however cogent, with which their opponents wish to convince them.

Does not the Council of Trent, before defining Christian justification, assert that in order to be prepared therefore, men's hearts must be fitted to receive God's word: "Praeparate corda vestra Domino"?

If Divine Providence has led towards us, rather than towards others who are more directly involved in religious controversy, some separated brethren, may it not be precisely because, by virtue of our very isolation, we were able to accomplish, in a calmer atmosphere, a task which is quite preliminary to any negotiations and any decisions, which would need to be eventually conducted and concluded elsewhere?

In the very midst of the outcry which greeted the Archbishop's letter to his Metropolitans, one of our colleagues, the one to whom I have just alluded, wrote to me: "It is hard for any one outside England to understand how serious the step will appear in the public mind, both among those who care deeply and among those who do not. Even if we get but little further at present, I believe that this will mean a new outlook for very many, and that we shall have good reason for true gratitude to God. . . ."

Further, at the close of each of our meetings we separated with a mutual promise to pray, and to ask our flocks to pray, for the success of the holy cause which had brought us together.

I remember that Dr. Kidd, at the beginning of our last discussion, said to me, and I hope it is no indiscretion to quote him: "I prayed with my pupils before leaving Oxford, and I know that they are now praying to the Holy Ghost for the successful issue of our labours."

Such are the facts; let us see why these conversations took place.


Why? First and foremost because I am not entitled to shirk an opportunity which comes in my way of fulfilling a duty of brotherly love and Christian hospitality.

I would not for the whole world tolerate that one of our severed brethren should have the right to say that he knocked trustfully at the door of a Roman Catholic bishop, and that this Roman Catholic bishop refused to open it to him.

A great nation was, for more than eight centuries, our beloved sister; this nation gave to the Church a phalanx of saints whom to this day we honour in our liturgy; astonishing reserves of Christian life have been maintained in its vast empire; from it numberless missions have gone out far and wide; but a gaping wound is in its side; we Catholics, kept safe, by the grace of God, in the whole truth, we weep over the criminal sundering which tore it away, four centuries ago, from the Church, our Mother. And forsooth there are Catholics who would that, like the Levite and the Priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan, a Catholic bishop should pass by this wound with proud indifference, and refuse to pour a drop of oil into this gaping wound, to bandage it, and try to lead the wounded man to the Hospital whither God's mercy calls him!

I should have been declared guilty, had I committed such an outrage.

Oh! I know well that those who misjudge us will not deny our charitable intentions, but they consider our interference inopportune or ineffective.

Inopportune—because they think it is wiser to let the separated churches go to complete decay, the contrast between truth and error become sharper. Then the evil in an extreme form will arouse alarm, and the moment will have come for the triumph of truth.

Ineffective—because, so it seems, we do not adopt the right method of apostolate, i.e. the appeal to individual conversions.

Let us weigh, for a moment, these two charges.

Nowhere in the Gospel do I find this policy of extremes either taught or commended. On the contrary, I read that the smoking flax must not be quenched.

How many Protestant believers fall into religious liberalism; its victims, become indifferent to any positive creed, lose all religion, swell the ranks of atheism, and thereafter of anarchy; this is an evil, a great evil!

Sincere Christians feel powerless—a feeling which we also share in a minor measure—to arrest this evil. They appeal to us for help, at least they invite us to discuss with them the means of stemming the tide of irreligion. And there are some extremists who would fain bar the way!

Here at hand we have one way of giving actual help to our separated brethren; that is one good reason for welcoming them open-heartedly.

"So far so good," will perhaps be the answer; "but this was not the primary object that you had in sight; the main point was to bring immediate weight to bear on believers, members of the 'High Church' in order to win them back to Rome."

The main point! How does the critic know?—We never had a thought of ranging in order of importance the guiding motives of our conduct.

We took a view of a general situation, in which there were found men whose souls were keenly alive to their duties towards themselves, and towards others by reason of their social influence.

We ventured to think that we might hold out a helping hand of spiritual help to our brothers. Thus we had a second reason for conversing with them.

Next you tell us that we are going the wrong way to deal with this situation and that our method is a clumsy one; "experience" you say, it is alleged, has taught you not to consider groups; individuals only must be taken into account." Here I say to my critics, "By what authority do you limit the workings of the divine Mercy? By all means, be stirred about individuals, enlighten, pray for, work for, as much as you may, every soul whom God sends across your path; no one will think of blaming you."

But what entitles you to put aside groups of men? It is your exclusiveness which is to be blamed.

Allow me to refresh your memory. Listen to Leo XIII's weighty words, when on April 14, 1895, in his Apostolic Letter "Amantissimae Voluntatis," he spoke not to individuals, but to the whole English people, "ad Anglos." Read that Encyclical once more; it is addressed to a nation, "gens anglorum illustris"; and, when ending his Letter the holy Pontiff foresees the objections which pessimists will raise against his optimism, he writes: "Difficulties lie in the way, no doubt, but they are not such as may slacken a whit our apostolic charity, or discourage your purpose." "No doubt, disagreement has taken root and developed by the change of events and long lapse of years: but is that a reason to despair of reconciliation and peace? By no means, if it be God's will." "The results which the future may bring are not to be measured by human reckoning alone, but above all by God's power and Mercy." "When we are engaged in a great and toilsome task" (it is still the Pope speaking), "let us have a good motive and undertake it with a pure and generous heart; God then will be with us, and His Providence will be the more gloriously revealed by triumphing over these difficulties." A year and a half later, in September, 1896, the Pope finds himself obliged to inflict on Anglicans a bitter disappointment: he proclaims the invalidity of their orders. Will he give up his far-reaching hopes, and advise only a propaganda addressed to individuals? Far from it; he ends his Apostolic Letter "Apostolicae Curae" by a direct appeal to the ministers whom, to his sorrow, he has grieved; and he calls on individuals and on the whole mass, to follow them in their conversion.

"We will, to the best of our powers," he says, "never cease to further their reconciliation to the Church: and we fervently hope that their example will be followed by individuals and the whole mass."

The truth is, dear brothers, that to this day, notwithstanding all the loud ranting about the intellectual progress of the people, about the independence of their judgment, and the sovereignty of their initiative, it remains true that the masses do not lead, but are led; do not command, but obey. Even in a democracy, the social system remains an oligarchy. Demagogues on the one hand, an elite on the other, strive for the leadership of the masses, the former so as to preach violence and raise revolution, the latter to safeguard order and discipline.

Therefore, if it be God's purpose that one day our brothers, severed from us since the days of Luther, Henry VIII and Elizabeth, should re-enter the Church, it will be the duty of the elite to show the way for this return. And if men placed in authority and of high moral standing, esteemed by all, take a calmer view of the relation which Christ established between the faithful, the episcopate and the Papacy, a great step will have been taken towards Catholic Unity. That is what Leo XIII so clearly asserts in his letter "Ad Anglos." It is that spirit which we endeavoured, in obedience to that illustrious Pontiff, to instil into our "Conversations of Malines."

And now if you ask us what we hoped for, and still look forward to, we can only answer, in the words of Our Holy Father Pope Pius XI, that "the unity of nations in the Catholic Faith is, above all, God's work."

God's universal Providence "reacheth from end to end mightily and ordereth all things sweetly," but the appointed time is His Own secret. For His ends He makes use of secondary causes; He condescends to ask the servants of His divine Son to work with Him: but of no one does He claim, to none does He promise, success.


In conclusion, my dear brothers, I wish you to understand that if I have written to acquaint you of an attempt which, in my judgment, was to remain private, it is because I notice that some of our brothers in England, misled by fanciful news and chance comment in the press, misinterpreted my line of action and were offended by it; I have also spoken lest, distorted as my doings have been, in your sight, I might be deprived of the pious help which I expect from you in this matter, as in all that I undertake for God's glory, and lest the spiritually unselfish conception that you should have of your apostolate should be warped.

I trust I have been able to dispel the slight cloud of dust which, for a moment, drifted between us and our friends in England.

I hope too that I have quickened your sympathy for the holy cause of the Church's Unity, in answer to the supreme wish of the Pastor of all pastors, Our Lord Jesus: "That they all may be one!"

"I am the good shepherd," He says, "and I know (and love) mine, and mine know me, as the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father: and I lay down my life for my sheep."

But at once He adds: "And other sheep I have,"—Our Lord does not say "I will have" or "I would fain have," He says "I have, they are mine, habeo";—"other sheep I have, that are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd."

There you have, dear brothers, the Master's own word: "Oportet," "I must . . ." and following Him, you also must go forth through the bushes, along the rocky paths, under the burning desert sun, go forth, wherever sheep are to be found and won back.

Be not anxious about success; God does not demand it of you; what He does require of you, says St. Bernard, is the care of those that are ailing,—He gives the healing: "Curam exigeris, non curationem."

In all parts of your pastoral ministry, pray and toil and give, tire yourselves out; make a start, hold out, be steadfast; true, always, to St. Bernard's saying: " Never lose hope; yours is the care, His the healing."

Yours most devoted in Christ,

D. J. CARD. MERCIER, Archbishop of Malines.

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