'Ad Limina' reports offer
glimpse into English Church history
The following are excerpts of a recent
publication by Canon Anthony P. Dolan, Archivist of the Diocese of
Nottingham, entitled: 'Ad limina' Reports of the Diocese of Nottingham:
Some Preliminary Reflections".
It was more or less by accident that I
first became interested in Ad limina or Quinquennial
Reports, and it happened like this. Not long after I became Archivist of
the Diocese of Nottingham, I came across copies (or drafts) of several
of these reports that had been sent to Rome in connection with ad
limina visits in the last quarter of the nineteenth century during
the episcopate of our Third Bishop, Edward Gilpin Bagshawe (1874-1901).
Some of these documents were beginning to deteriorate, so it seemed to
me a good idea to transcribe them before they disintegrated beyond
After having copied out four or five
reports, I began to realise how valuable was the material they
contained; after all, these reports give factual information, at
frequent if not always regular intervals, about various aspects of the
life of the Church in a particular area together with the Bishop's
assessment, in particular and in general, of the state of his diocese.
They should, therefore, be regarded as an invaluable primary source for
The historical background to ad limina visits
From the early days of Christianity,
Christians have come to Rome in order to visit the tombs of the Apostles
Peter and Paul. Visits on the part of bishops, as successors of the
Apostles, to the limina ("thresholds", but we usually say
"tombs") of the Princes of the Apostles have been seen as a
manifestation of the unity of the leaders of local churches or dioceses
with the chief bishop, the Pope. In 597, the same year that he sent St
Augustine to England, Pope Gregory the Great reminded one of his
ambassadors of the ancient practice whereby the bishops of Sicily
visited Rome every three years. He later determined that the visits
should take place every five years.
Over the centuries, the form and content
of the ad limina visits has varied but three elements have
remained fairly constant. These are: the visit to the tombs of Saints
Peter and Paul, the meeting with the Pope, and the report on the state
of the individual diocese. This paper will concern itself almost
exclusively with the third of these elements.
Report for 1860
In view of the fact that Richard Roskell
had been Bishop for a little over six years when he submitted his ad
limina Report in March 1860, it is not surprising that it was
Bishop Roskell notes that the total
population of Nottingham is around 100,000. Of these roughly six
thousand are Catholics of whom approximately five hundred are converts.
In answer to a later question he gives the total Catholic population of
the Diocese as around 23,000. There are 43 schools for the poor in which
2,450 pupils are educated.
The concluding observations about the
progress of religion in the Diocese are very revealing. Bishop Roskell
writes: "As regards the progress of religion in recent years, there is
no doubt that it has been tremendous. This can be seen especially in the
big industrial towns.
"Ten years ago the towns of Nottingham,
Derby, Leicester and Glossop had only about half their present Catholic
population.... Religion makes progress wherever industry and
[opportunity for] work is found; for the most part this stems from the
influx of Catholics coming from Ireland and elsewhere. These form the
basis of the congregation and make necessary the building of schools and
churches. The exercise of [priestly] ministry and preaching of the
gospel consequent upon this results in conversions, and religion grows
and flourishes. But in the older country Missions and the small country
towns where there is no industry or movement of population, it is very
difficult for religion to make any progress. The most one can hope for
in such Missions is to preserve whatever shoots of religion exist
Report for 1875
This is the first of the six complete
Reports (there are several partial ones) by Bishop Edward Gilpin
The Bishop points out that he has been
consecrated for only six months and has not yet been able to make a
canonical visitation of the Diocese; but he has made brief visits to
twenty Missions. He notes that there are forty-eight Missions of which
six do not have their own pastor.
He goes on to say: "There is a great
deficiency of Clergy. Several priests have lately offered themselves
from Ireland, and elsewhere. The Bishop hopes that the Grammar School at
Nottingham may be a first step towards the formation of a Clergy taken
from the Diocese itself and trained under the eye of the Bishop". [The
Grammar School had recently been founded in Bishop's House.]
In answer to a question about whether
the Catholic Faith has increased or diminished over roughly the last
twenty years, Bishop Bagshawe replied that he "believes that the state
of Catholicism has much diminished in the country places and small towns
of the Diocese, and somewhat increased in some of the larger ones".
Report for 1885
This is the longest of Bishop Bagshawe's
Reports: it runs to forty-four sides of foolscap in the original! We
know from the Bishop's Diary that it was handed in to the Congregation
of Propaganda Fide on 30 April 1885.
One cannot fail to note Bishop
Bagshawe's pastoral concern for his people. St Mary's, Glossop
(Derbyshire) was founded in 1882. In this Mission "there are [in 1885]
about 1300 Catholics. They are nearly all poor, but good and religious.
They are principally engaged in cotton factories".
Also in Derbyshire, at Hathersage, "The
congregation numbers 140. It has much diminished, and is divided and on
the whole not edifying. It is hoped that it is now in the way to
improve, and a Railway, which is to pass near the town, will probably
give an impulse to Religion".
Sleaford (Lincolnshire) comes in for
very positive comment in view of the zeal of the priest there: "Rev.
Hermann Sabela, the priest of the Mission... has also formed a
congregation of 144 Catholics in a Town purely Protestant, in which he
commenced preaching from a wagon in the open air. 50 children attend the
school, of whom half are Catholics.
Bishop Bagshawe explains that some
Catholic children are forced to attend non-Catholic schools (of which
there could be as many as two thousand in the Diocese) since the law of
the land requires all children to attend school. In the majority of
cases, Catholic children attend non-Catholic schools because they live
too far away from a Mission which has a Catholic school. But "every
effort has been made both to build schools, and to induce children to
The Bishop now gives comparative tables
of statistics for the years 1875 and 1885. The general conclusions are
worth reproducing in full. The Bishop writes: "There is great interest
felt everywhere now in the Catholic faith, and there is no difficulty in
collecting congregations to listen to Catholic teaching. The faith might
be extended indefinitely, if there were sufficient money to open schools
and chapels, and to maintain priests. Preaching of missions by the
Regulars in places which never hear the word of God would do much good,
if they were able to find the time and the money necessary".
Report for 1890
Bishop Bagshawe gives comparative statistics, in this case for the
years 1875 and 1890. The Bishop believes that "in the last fifteen years
there has been a miraculous change of attitude of English people in the
Diocese and, indeed, throughout England. This has been especially so in
the more recent times. Nowadays, most English people show goodwill
towards and even interest ("studium") in Catholics, and they accept and
even look for their participation in various public affairs. It seems to
the Bishop that this change of popular opinion offers great hopes of
conversions in the future".
Report for 1904
Prior to coming to Nottingham in 1902,
Robert Brindle had spent most of his priestly life as an army chaplain
of great distinction, and had then served three years as Auxiliary
Bishop in Westminster. Thus, this was the first ad limina Report
he had had to compile, and one can almost sense a degree of frustration
in his attempts to answer some of the questions asked of him.
The conclusions of the Report by Bishop
Roskell and the six by Bishop Bagshawe were all very positive. That of
Bishop Brindle seems, on the face of it, to be very negative, although I
do not think it is entirely so. This is how he ends his Report: "In
various places, and I say this sadly and reluctantly, many people had
lapsed from the faith, others had neglected the sacraments, infants have
been left unbaptised, and the faith was growing weak.
"I have already begun to apply a
remedy... by training young men as well as possible in colleges founded
for clergy, where these young men may be able to learn thoroughly a way
of life and conduct which is thoroughly ecclesiastical".
When Robert Brindle arrived in
Nottingham in 1902, the Diocese was financially, administratively and
spiritually in a very bad state. Although his predecessor, Bishop
Bagshawe, was a man of great faith, he lacked the administrative acumen
of many of his contemporaries. Thus the new bishop was faced with a
well-nigh impossible task, but he set his mind to it with great vigour
not an easy thing for a sixty-four year old former army chaplain.
While recognising the difficulties, as
he did particularly in the concluding section of his 1904 Report, Bishop
Brindle nonetheless held out hope for the future. Like his predecessors
and his successors in the See of Nottingham, the Fourth Bishop was aware
that he was continuing the mission given by Christ to the Apostles to
preach the Good News to the ends of the earth; and he was aware that he
was doing this in communion with the Successor of Saint Peter. As part
of this mission, he was assessing the state of that portion of Christ's
Church entrusted to his governance and pastoral care and reporting on it
to the chief Pastor, the Bishop of Rome.
The more I have seen of the ad limina
Reports, the more I have become convinced of the value of these
documents as an important source of material for those who wish to learn
of the workings of God's grace in history.