Project Canterbury

An Appreciation of Francis Joseph Hall, Priest and Doctor
by Gregory Mabry

American Church Monthly, volume 31, pp 333-337

AN invitation from one of my old seminary professors to write an appreciation of a former faculty associate sent me to "the trunk room" to rummage. Sentiment moves us to keep souvenirs not only of youthful triumphs but of mental effort, and it was a box of notes taken in lectures in Dogmatic Theology which I sought in my trunk room--an inadequate substitute for the spacious attic of a certain rectory which I inhabited for eleven years. Twice each year that attic had to be cleaned and straightened out. Each time my old negro servant would beseech me to throw away "that box of paper which you never open, and never will."

I thought I should never refer to those notes, but I kept them because of their association with a man I venerated. Priests may not always have stored away in their secret lives little packets of letters tied with a ribbon, or a glove, or a pressed flower, but most likely there will be some things which mean much to them and nothing to others.

And so when I moved some fifteen months ago I brought the box of notes along, though I knew common sense demanded that they be given no place in the moving van.

Of a sudden last Monday I became conscious of why I had clung to those notes which had never been looked at since I left the General Theological Seminary eighteen years ago, for turning over the pages of the daily paper I found that Francis Joseph Hall had died: Doctor Hall who had been our professor of Dogmatic Theology when I was in the Seminary: Doctor Hall whose notes I kept these many years, never looking at them, but still treasuring them because they were a link between my life and one of the most holy men I have ever known.

So today I went to the trunk room to look out those notes. I wished to discover what brought forth a storm of applause at the end of one of his lectures shortly after his advent at the General. This is what I found: "Gentlemen, the Faith is a precious jewel given to man by God. Treasure it and defend it, and in time you will find life's experience proving its value and its meaning"; then, his voice rising to a high pitch, "God has no greater gift for you."

Doctor Hall was interested in no abstruse subject for its own sake, nor was he primarily interested in scholarship; he was not first a teacher, nor even a defender of the Faith. He was interested in and loved all these things because he was first, last, and all the time a great lover of God. I think he was a passionate lover of God. That love most surely lay behind the reason for his insatiable quest for the minutest details of any learning which would bring him further knowledge of God. And he loved God in no abstract way, but he had a firm grasp of the reality of God and of all spiritual things; God was vital in his life and he had a very close, personal relationship with him. One morning, after he had vested for Mass, before we had left the sacristy for the altar, I saw him turning the pages of a note book as he prayed. He later showed that book to me. In it were the names of numerous persons, living and departed, for whom he was about to offer the Holy Sacrifice. From him I gained my first idea of ordered intercessory prayer and Mass intentions. He prayed ceaselessly, and no one valued or used sacramental grace with more frequency, regularity, and knowledge of its power. No one knew better the atoning power of Christ's Sacrifice presented in the Mass. He loved God and, I believe, lived his life in God's Presence.

Doctor Hall was more than a bit of a saint, therefore, if we mean by a saint one who has surrendered himself completely to God. One hesitates to declare saints, yet we all meet people now and again whom we know to be such. Miss Sheila Kaye-Smith, the novelist, is reported to have given as the reason for her departure from the Anglican Communion that she had come to the opinion that it does not produce saints. Surely she could not have meant that we produce no saints simply because we have no formal saint-making machinery, such as the Church of Rome! And if she meant that the Anglican Church had not the spiritual vitality to rear saints, she exhibited, a limitation in her otherwise piercing penetration.

It may appear presumptuous for me to suggest that Doctor Hall was far advanced in sanctity. The reader might well say, "There is no use reading this article further; the writer is unreliable, for he is a hero-worshipper." Granted, but of the several heroes the writer has known, Doctor Hall is the only one in whose character there is no flaw to overlook, no apology required for some infirmity, no explaining away some peculiarity. I knew Doctor Hall for a score of years, and so far as I know no one ever had to make allowance for any defect. That is more than can be said for most of the saints who have been formally canonized. He is a proof that the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion, has all the vitality necessary to produce holiness. But, on the one hand, some one will point out that one does not necessarily have to be a Christian in order to be a saint. Gandhi is so regarded by his followers, I believe, and not a few Christians unhesitatingly call him such. But a Catholic saint is different from other saints, and Doctor Hall was saintly in the Catholic sense. On the other hand, some one will demand a miracle for evidence. His miracle was in making his character what it was and devoting himself as he did in spite of what would have been to most people an overwhelming obstacle. I refer to his total deafness, which, I understand, afflicted him from the age of twenty. Surely the great miracle is to change self into a recognizable image of our Lord.

A consuming love for God--a love that consumed self--was the key to Doctor Hall's life.

That love led him to be a scholar. "A good man is always a learner," so says a proverb. He followed the traditional ways of Catholic scholarship--the Fathers, the holy Doctors, and the Church's formularies. One can not help but be conscious of how thoroughly he was imbued with Saint Thomas Aquinas. But his scholarship did not end there. He carefully read and considered in all fields of knowledge, especially in philosophy and theology. Of course, he looked at all learning from what he conceived to be the Church's point of view; he used it if it supported or threw any new light on revealed Truth, and he refuted it if he believed it to be injurious. It is but necessary to look at his full bibliographies, indexes, and numerous and meticulous footnotes to see what a voluminous and constant reader he must have been all his life, how extensive the field over which he ranged, and how he sincerely studied and weighed what he read. To those who were privileged to visit him in his library he appeared to be even a greater student and thinker, for there were shelves upon shelves of indexed notes. It was amazing.

It may be that some of our present day theologians will look upon his twelve or more volumes as of no ultimate consequence. The critical method seems to be taking us more and more back to the traditional Catholic position. By Catholic position I do not mean Fundamentalism, of course. Doctor Hall was in no sense a Fundamentalist. On the other hand one doubts that he could have gone all the way with not a few of our Anglo-Catholic theologians of today. But it may be that the difference between them is a matter of temperament and need. Personally I have no criticism to offer, since one can be reasonably sure that a sincere lover of God, living a life of prayer and in the power of the sacraments, who is trying to meet the need of his day, will not stray far from Truth. But Doctor Hall always knew where he stood, and why he stood there. His position was ultra conservative, but he believed in it, and he gave those of us who were fortunate enough to sit under him a foundation which has proven a rock. He did well to turn out for parish priests lovers of God rather than critics. So far as I know none of his students have ever belittled the importance of dogmatic theology, much less played fast and loose with it. His students are honest. Rather did he give us a wholesome respect for the Church and her teaching, at the same time exhorting us to despoil the Egyptians by taking all truth which might be garnered from any source. He was a great teacher, therefore.

But he did a finer thing: he taught us to love God first of all, even as he did. And that was undoubtedly a secondary reason for his constant inquiry for further knowledge, to teach future priests to love God so that they in turn might teach men to do so. While he presented his subject in a classified manner yet it never seemed dry, for the instinct back of his teaching was pastoral. That probably explains why he often attained to sublime heights in his lectures not to be found in his writings. Teaching was not a vocation within itself to him; it was a part of his priesthood.

Doctor Hall's books are stilted, undoubtedly due to the fact of his total deafness which prevented any appreciation of sound, color, or rhythm in writing. But his books make a fine foundation upon which to build, even though they are hard to read. As a scholar and teacher it can be most truly said that he served his Church and his day rarely well. He gave not only the best he had to his vocation, but he gave his all, and Doctor Hall's all was very fine indeed.

But Doctor Hall's character was his supreme attainment. From what has been written that must already be obvious. Being a lover of God he was possessed of a heavenly charity and a divine humor. Deafness is supposed to make people suspicious and unhappy. That was in no sense true in his case. There was nothing but generosity in his consideration of others. Disciplined in mind and personal living to a rare degree he emanated a benignity, a grace and sweetness which was almost fragrant. The sweetness of his lips undoubtedly increased his learning, to paraphrase the Wise Man. His interior austerity enabled him to be most kind to others. Who of us does not remember his smile! His real strength lay not in his monumental scholarship or in his teaching ability, but in that he was possessed of a great Christian character. He was a great priest, not only in his work but in his being. He could accomplish what he did because he was first of all a holy man.

"O most excellent teacher, thou light of holy Church, thou lover of the divine law, entreat for us the Son of God."

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