Reports of the Past from the Diocese of Nottingham
Canon Anthony P. Dolan
Archivist of the Diocese of Nottingham

'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 repair.

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 historians.

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 relatively brief.

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 there".

Report for 1875

This is the first of the six complete Reports (there are several partial ones) by Bishop Edward Gilpin Bagshawe.

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 attend them".

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.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
3 February 2010, page 10

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