Monday, May 7, 2012


This charming biography was written in 1957, shortly before Msgr. Knox's death.

By Wilfrid Sheed

WHEN a pair of English Catholics decide to get married, one of the first questions to be settled is inevitably "Can we get Monsignor Knox to preach the sermon?" Only after that is it possible to discuss bridesmaids, flowers and how to keep Uncle George sober during the reception.

It is a curious fact that one of the world's deepest scholars should double as a last-minute marriage counselor for so many young Catholics. Monsignor Knox is best-known for his colossal, almost unique achievement of translating the whole Bible by himself-a task which might have broken the spirit of a whole university -and yet he still succeeds in being the happiest man at many a wedding feast, as well as the wisest.

Monsignor Knox probably holds the record for sanity among scholars. Just as he was the right man to translate the Bible (with his uncanny combination of erudition, concentration and style), so is he the right man at a wedding, or a funeral, or any great human occasion. He has the great pastoral gifts of compassion, sincerity and genuine spirituality; and he has also the social gifts of wit, good nature and taste, which make his presence a pleasure as well as a comfort.

In spite of his pre-eminence in both these fields (a collection of his wedding sermons will be coming out in the spring which will illustrate his excellence in that form), nobody would dream of calling Monsignor Knox a Bible-specialist, or a wedding-specialist. He is so completely equipped as a scholar and as a thinker, that his choice of activity can be dictated not by his capacities, but by the needs of the Church.

AT the moment, he is probably England's most popular Catholic preacher. He has assumed this position unobtrusively, without any of the usual devices of the spellbinder. Unlike many popular preachers, he doesn't wave his personality about, or try to ingratiate himself with his hearers. He would never dream of attempting to reduce a mob to hysteria in the name of Truth. And unlike many popular preachers, he would have no objection to being silenced, for there are many things he would rather do than preach and it is almost his misfortune that he does it so superlatively well that he has to go on with it.

Throughout the year he interrupts his intense work of Scripture commentary to travel to different parts of the country, wherever he is asked to go. His preaching method is restrained, but his voice is strong and vibrant, and at no point do you find your attention wandering. Every sermon is carefully constructed, so that it remains to be read afterward as a highly satisfying work of art. But more important, each sermon is packed with challenging ideas, absolutely new, so that one becomes suddenly aware of the presence and pressure of a really creative mind. It would be an assignment worthy of a Ph.D. thesis to try to find a single stale idea in Knox's sermons-or even a repetition.

AT least three times a year, Monsignor Knox descends on Oxford University for a sermon, and there he really seems to roll up his sleeves and enjoy himself. The University Catholic Church is invariably packed for him, and many people squash into the auditorium upstairs to hear him over the loud-speaker. Some of the best seats are taken by non-Catholic professors and dons, who are in search of intellectual entertainment: they are never disappointed. His university sermons, some of them collected in a book called In Soft Garments are a model of lightness and urbanity.

Oxford serves as a kind of holiday for Monsignor Knox. It was his spiritual home before Rome took its place, and he is still more at ease there than anywhere else. If he had remained an Anglican, he could have had a blissful life at Oxford; before he became a Catholic he was already a legend there, and he was well on his way to becoming a monument as well. But he had a special quality differentiating him from the other great wits and scholars which caused him to swerve off the foreordained track; and it is this quality, rather than his vast catalogue of attainments, that makes his story unique and important.

Read the rest in PDF