Project Canterbury

Arthur Ritchie, D.D.: An Appreciation Given While He Lives

By William Harman van Allen

Reprinted from The Living Church

IT is not only obituary notices which make one realize the passage of the years. Now and then we read a brief news item, announcing a change not unlike those that come often among all the varied relations of men, and yet shocking and startling the reader as if it meant an alteration in the signs of the zodiac. Where could Leo be, except between Virgo and Cancer?

So I felt, with thousands of others, when I saw by a paragraph in a New York paper that Father Ritchie was about to resign the rectorship of St. Ignatius' Church. Thank God, it is not to the Book of his work that Finis is written, but only to one chapter in that Book. Yet because to so many of us Father Ritchie seems an essential part of St. Ignatius' and of the good Cause in New York, it is perhaps not unfitting to pay some grateful tribute to him for all he has done there, and, even more, for all he has been.

Put together the records in Who's Who and The Clerical Directory, and you get nothing but bare elementary facts: "Arthur Ritchie, 552 West End Avenue, New York: Univ. of Pa., B.A., 1867; G.T.S., S.T.B., 1871; Nashotah, D.D.; Deacon, 1871; Bp. H. Potter, Priest, 1873; Bp. Niles. Formerly Rector, Church of the Ascension, Chicago; now Rector of St. Ignatius' Church, New York." And yet, to those who know American Church history for this past generation, it is easy to elaborate the sketch into an heroic portrait of the true knightchampion of Catholicity, whose sword has never slept in his hand all through these forty-one years of his fruitful priesthood.

What changes have come, from the days when he stood almost alone, suspected of offences quite as heinous as that in the English Churchman's indictment of "Ritualists" overseas, "openly and unblushingly practising celibacy in the streets!" Whether in Chicago, where he went from his too brief but still vividly remembered curacy at the Advent, Boston, or in New York as the youthful successor of Ewer, he was "extreme," "dangerous," "advanced,"—all the other things that vexed centrally-minded Episcopalians then. And now, much of what he once stood almost alone in maintaining is accepted throughout most American dioceses as lawful and loyal, with Bishops not merely tolerating but practising "What Catholics Believe and Do." Not, of course, that he did it all, or was ever contra mundum: but his influence, in sermon and tract and Church newspaper, was immeasurably far-reaching; and even men violently opposed found themselves affected by the charm of his personality, once they actually encountered him.

I shall never forget that hot July Sunday of 1888, when a Junior of my intimate acquaintance, on his first visit to the metropolis, wended his way to old St. Ignatius' on West Fortieth street, delightfully uncertain of what he would find there, but knowing that it was "just as High as High could be," and very different from the academic Prayer Book Churchmanship in which he had been trained. The homelike beauty of the little church itself, the reverent splendor of the Missa Cantata, the fragrance of the incense that, somehow, seemed quite Scriptural, and not at all an abomination there, all come back as if it had been yesterday. But best of all was the simple and direct cordiality with which the rector welcomed the young enquirer, answered his rather vague questions, and sent him away with a blessing. That gentle, vibrant voice, with its unexpected slides and cadences, sounds as gracious to-day as then: and they are blessed indeed who hear it often.

Father Ritchie is an outstanding Personality. Perhaps we have had fewer in the American Church than in the English in proportion to our numbers: so many of our best men seem made according to pattern. Doubtless it is a good pattern; but individuality is vastly more interesting, and on the whole more useful, even though sometimes it tends to individualism. (Who was that "High and Dry" professor at the General Theological Seminary that used to call St. Ignatius' ways of doing things "pure Ritchielism?")

Of the great figures in the Catholic Revival in Britain whom this generation has known, Dolling seems in many ways the best pendant to the rector of St. Ignatius'— though, as you read the suggestion, you are doubtless startled by it. But, in his emancipation from merely conventional fetters, from the decrees of "the Sacred Congregation of Stareh"; in his warm and sunny humanity; in his ardent love of souls; and in the evangelical fervour of his preaching; the parallel does not fail. Strangers go to hear Father Ritchie's sermons, expecting a mixture of scholastic definition, the Council of Trent, and fond things vainly invented, but come away filled with the memory of such sweet and transparent Gospel preaching as would have moved a Spurgeon or a Moody or a Chapman to loud Amens.

Not that controversy was ever shirked when demanded: let his tracts and the pages of Catholic Champion bear their witness across the years—"Catholic Scorpion," some profane persons used to call it. But the pulpit of St. Ignatius' has testified positively and lovingly, rather than negatively and irritatingly, to the great verities which make up the Catholic Faith; and everything else has been duly subordinated. As I remember the sermons heard there, or read, and consider their clarity, their simplicity, their convincing power, it seems to me that Father Ritchie is the first preacher of to-day in the American Church; and one's only quarrel with him is that he refuses most invitations to preach away from home.

As confessor and spiritual guide to multitudes, and notably to men of affairs, to seminarians, and to his brethren of the clergy, he has been of incalculable service; and his Spiritual Studies in the Gospels are unsurpassed, since the Catena Aurea itself, for illuminating usefulness. One comfort about his resignation is that we may hope he will have more time for such writing, and for special sermons ad clerum. As one of many who owe him more than can ever be repaid, I am constrained to this public "Thank you," even at the risk of his displeasure. Serus in coelum redeas!

Project Canterbury