Richard Challoner would become the leading figure of English Catholicism for the greater part of the eighteenth century. He was bright but not exceptionally so & had a well-grounded piety that was infectious, and was hard working coupled with an integrity to his life that meant that he was trusted by the traumatised Catholic community which was still semi-underground. As a Bishop, he grew in stature as an effective leader. His integrity and the trust that he had built meant that large amounts of money would pass through his hands and be redirected to apostolic ventures such as establishing schools and poverty relief. In this way he was a very effective leader in a complex and challenging climate when the Catholic community in England was still under great threat and felt very fragile.
He was very popular amongst the poor as his spirituality was very practical his first clandestinely published work, was a well-known little book of meditations under the quaint title of "Think Well on't". This would be followed by the "Garden of the Soul", which has lasted long as a favourite work of devotion, and his popular "Meditations for every Day of the Year", passed through many editions and was translated into French and Italian. Academics will remember him now for his revision of the Douay-Reims Bible, which was for a long time the leading English Catholic Bible. Releasing an edition of the New Testament in 1749, and a first edition of the Old Testament, in 1750. Finally he worked hard as a historian, and published Britannia Sancta in an attempt to promote among Catholics a pride in their ancestry, as one of the Protestant criticisms of Roman Catholics was of their alleged departures from the practice of the early Church. This calumny would be disproven by the later work of John Henry Newman (see pod of June 16) and Challoner sought to demonstrate continuity of Catholicism with the primitive Church and also to encourage Catholics by showing them that their present sufferings were not as hard as those endured by the martyrs and saints of the past. His continual work of publishing was all the more remarkable because much of his life was spent in hiding and often he had hurriedly to change his lodgings to escape the Protestant informers, who were anxious to earn the government reward of £100 for the conviction of a priest. One of these spies, John Payne, known as the "Protestant Carpenter", indicted Challoner, but was compelled to drop the proceedings, owing to some documents, which he had forged, falling into the hands of the bishop's lawyers
Challoner had not wanted to become a bishop in the first place, as he had been a student and then teacher at English College at Douai in France and was very well established there and happy with his life. Bishop Benjamin Petre, the Vicar Apostolic of the London District, wanted him an as assistant bishop and appealed to Rome. Challoner had spent the next twenty-five years in Douai and when today papal briefs arrived appointing him to the see of ‘Debra’ in partibus. This was actually in West Bengal in India, but was an administration category by the Vatican, as he was intended to work in London. It was at the time the practice to add the term in partibus infidelium, often shortened to in partibus meaning "in the lands of the unbelievers", to the name of the see conferred on titular (non-diocesan) Latin Church bishops. The restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in England would not happen until 1850, meaning that the Church could not function as an official ecclesial structure until then. However, Challoner was reluctant to become a bishop, he wrote to Rome explaining that as he had been born and brought up a Protestant, he did not feel suitable. The delay lasted a whole year, and Challoner was consecrated a bishop in a private chapel at Hammersmith, London. Catholicism was still illegal in Britain since 1559 after Queen Elizabeth’s Act of Uniformity and so the consecration had to be done in secret, and it is likely that the chapel in Hammersmith was only tolerated because of diplomatic immunity.
A new bishop's first task is to visit the area of their ‘see’ that is where their authority extended, the first methodical visitation of which there is any record since the creation of the vicariate in 1688. The district included ten counties, besides the Channel Islands and the British possessions in America—chiefly Maryland and Pennsylvania and some West Indian islands. The missions beyond the seas could not be visited at all, and even the home counties took him nearly three years. His flock included the old Catholic nobility families in the countryside and recently arrived indigent Irish workers. Challoner avoided the houses of the rich, preferred to live and work among the poor of London, and in his spare hours gave himself to study and writing, which ultimately enabled him to produce several works of instruction and controversy. He provided for his people a suitable prayer and meditation book, as well as convenient editions of the scriptures, the Imitation of Christ, and a catechism.
Challoner was born in Lewes, Sussex, his father, who was a Presbyterian cooper making barrels for wine. After he died, Challoner’s mother was reduced to poverty, and became housekeeper to the Catholic Gage family, so Richard was brought up as a Catholic, although he was not baptized until he was about thirteen years old. He was sent to the English College at Douai (France) where he was to spend the twenty-five years there, first as student, then as professor, and as vice-president of the university of Douai. Teaching classes of rhetoric and poetry, which were the two senior classes in the humanities, his nickname was "Book" and his success as a teacher was due to devotion to this work.
Though the penal laws against Catholics were no longer enforced with extreme severity, the life of many Catholic priests was still a difficult one, especially in London. Disguised as a layman in London, Challoner ministered to his flock there, celebrating Mass secretly in obscure ale-houses, cockpits, and wherever small gatherings could assemble without exciting remark. He spent much time in the poorest quarters of the town and in the prisons. He opened two schools for boys overcoming significant obstacles, finance was a serious problem, but there were legal ones as well, as Catholics were forbidden to buy land or to run schools; so various subterfuges had to be used to get round the law. He also founded a school for poor girls at Brook Green, Hammersmith, and although he was trusted with large amounts of money, his private life was marked by scrupulous mortification. As a bishop, Challoner usually resided in London, although when there were spasms of anti-Catholicism such as the "No Popery" riots of 1780, he was obliged to retire into the country.
In 1758 Bishop Petre died, and Challoner succeeded him as Vicar Apostolic of the London District. He was, however, nearly seventy years old, and was so ill that he was forced immediately to apply for a coadjutor in his turn. The Holy See appointed James Talbot to this office, and with the help of the younger prelate, whose assistance considerably reduced his labour, Challoner's health somewhat recovered. From this time, however, he lived almost entirely in London, the visitations being carried out by Talbot. Unfortunately anti-Catholic harassment continued, particularly in London but finally the harassment was remedied by the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, by which priests were no longer liable to imprisonment for life. This was short-lived as there was a reaction and two years later the Gordon Riots broke out with rioters attacking any London building that was associated with Catholicism or owned by Catholics. From his hiding-place the bishop, now nearly ninety years of age, could hear the mob, who were searching for him with the intention of dragging him through the streets. They failed to find his refuge, and on the following day he escaped to Finchley, where he remained till the London riots came to an end. Challoner never fully recovered from the shock of the riots. Six months later he was seized with paralysis and died on 12 January 1781, aged 89. He was buried at Milton, in Oxfordshire in the family vault of his friend Bryant Barrett in the Church of England parish church. In 1946 the body was reinterred in Westminster Cathedral.