From Out the Flaminian Gate

The English stereotypically delight in their (self-imagined) superiority and ascendancy over lesser mortals (everyone else). This self-assurance was famously encapsulated in the phrase “the wogs begin at Calais”. But if anything has regularly caused the “stiff upper lip” to quiver, or the tea cups to rattle, it is the spectre of the Catholic Church. As the Anglican Archbishop of York said in 1850: “Rome’s ever wakeful ambition (is) plotting for our captivity and ruin”, whilst his brother Bishop of London referred to Catholic Priests as : “emissaries of darkness”!

From the Guy Fawkes Plot onward, England was recurrently possessed by bouts of anti-Catholicism – like the pangs of a bad conscience.

In 1850, only 21 years after the Roman Catholic Emancipation Act, after very lengthy consideration, Blessed Pope Pius IX, then only 48 years old, re-established the English Hierarchy. Even before Emancipation, the Catholic population of England was burgeoning, from 80,000 in 1767 to almost 800,000 in 1851. The reason was not hard to find – refugees from religious persecution following the French Revolution in 1789 and refugees from Ireland’s Potato Famine from 1845 onwards.

Blessed Pope Pius IX appointed Nicholas Wiseman Metropolitan Archbishop of Westminster and a Cardinal. Cardinal Wiseman was a good generous-hearted man who had spent years in Rome as Rector of the English College and had been well-known to the last six Popes. Although he wrote in the very florid style of his day, his writings remain very easy to read to-day. He wrote very often” with a full heart “and, in keeping with his spirit, he wrote “con amore”when speaking of Holy Church.

No-one could have imagined the furore which would be stoked up in the English press and Parliament by the publication of his first Pastoral Letter, sent from Rome before his return to England. It is generally known by the title “From Out the Flaminian Gate”. The ancient Flaminian Gate (now the Porta Del Populo) led out to the ancient port of Ostia, so Cardinal Wiseman’s letter looked forward to his voyage home and a happy return. It was a very emotional letter over-flowing with joy and with love for the Church on the occasion of the re-establishment of the English Hierarchy. Listen to him:

“The great work, then, is complete; what you have long prayed for is granted. Your beloved country has received a place among the fair Churches, which, normally constituted, form the splendid aggregate of Catholic Communion; Catholic England has been restored to its orbit in the ecclesiastical firmament, from which its light had long vanished, and begins now anew its course of regularly adjusted action around the centre of unity, the source of jurisdiction, of light and vigour. How wonderfully all this has been brought about…….”

“Then truly is this day to us a day of joy and exaltation of spirit, the crowning day of long hopes, and the opening day of long hopes, and the opening day of bright prospects. How must the saints of our country, whether Roman or British, Saxon or Norman, look down from their seats of bliss, with beaming glance, upon this new evidence of the faith and Church which led them to glory, sympathizing with those who have faithfully adhered to them through centuries of ill repute for the truth’s sake, and now reap the fruit of their patience and long suffering.”

Even Queen Victoria was not amused and is reported to have harrumphed: “”Am I Queen of England or am I not?” Lord John Russell then Prime Minister trusted “in the people of England, a nation which looks with contempt on the mummeries of superstition”. The Pope and Cardinal Wiseman were burned in effigy and windows of Catholic buildings were smashed. The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury described the Catholic Clergy as “subtle, skillful and insinuating “. THE TIMES examined every provision of the Papal Brief re-establishing the Catholic Hierarchy with growing outrage.

The Anglican Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey also protested, unnerved by the use of the title Archdiocese of Westminster – the British Government had forbidden the use of the traditional Catholic Diocesan names (London, Canterbury, York, Durham etc.) which were now used by the Anglicans. The hysterical silliness had perhaps reached a peak at which the hysterics themselves began to see how foolishly they were acting. Cardinal Wiseman responded with an APPEAL to the good sense of the English people. IN it he addressed the none too subtle suggestion that the Catholic Church sought the return of the treasures and temporal dignity of the Abbey. He responded in a most effective way, highlighting en passant the contempt of the English Establishment for the mass of the impoverished English population... “Its treasures of art, and its fitting endowments, form not the part of Westminster which will concern me… for there is another part which stands in frightful contrast, though in immediate contact, with this magnificence. In ancient times, the existence of an abbey on any spot, with a large staff of clergy, and ample revenues, would have sufficed to create around it a paradise of comfort, cheerfulness and ease. This, however, is not now the case. Close under the Abbey of Westminster there lie concealed labyrinths of lanes and courts, and alleys and slums, nests of ignorance, vice, depravity and crime, as well as squalor, wretchedness, and disease; whose atmosphere is typhus, whose ventilation is cholera; in which swarms a huge and almost countless population…This is the part of Westminster which alone I covet, and which I shall be glad to visit, as a blessed pasture in which sheep of Holy Church are to be tended in which a Bishop’s godly work has to be done, of consoling; converting and preserving.”

Thirty thousand copies of the APPEAL were sold within a week and THE TIMES published the full text.

At the subsequent installation of Bishop Ullathorne (the very same Dr. Ullathorne who as a young Priest in his mid twenties had been sent to the Colony of Botany Bay as Vicar Apostolic) as Bishop of Birmingham, the preacher was Father John Henry Newman, who said in his sermon: the much-vaunted “private judgment “of the Englishman, is but the “passive impression … of his intellectual servants…the newspapers and periodicals…that are employed to tell him what to think or say.”This “cheap knowledge… should be ready to hand, as he has his tablecloth laid for breakfast.”In matters of religion, he is not teased or troubled about it…..it is an insult to be told that God has spoken and superseded investigation… he thinks the Englishman knows more about God’s dealings with men, than anyone else.

The hysteria fizzled quite quickly leaving Cardinal Wiseman and his Suffragans to get on with the development of the Church in England ,which proceeded apace until the post Vatican II era.

This article originally appears in the August, 2010 issue of FOUNDATION. Copyright.
Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman


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