Poor Fr Charles is getting more and more obstinate in his ways by keeping the people too long waiting for him, and when he goes he keeps them for hours on their knees, shouting like an energumen, reading prayers o his own which the people do not understand. The saintly man has not the common sense to see how much he inconveniences the poor people who come by hundreds every day. Unless something is done for poor Fr Charles, he will lose his brain entirely. He never comes to recreation with the community, never takes a little walk in the garden or any other place. He keeps his eyes almost always closed, and never sees what is going on before him, being constantly wrought up in prayer -- and if you speak to him, he seems not to understand what you say.
Writing in his diary in July 1890, Fr Salvian was very concerned about what Charles was doing. Nor is this an isolated passage in the diary; during the last years of Charles’ life, Salvian expresses from time to time his unhappiness with Charles’ way of doing things. A little earlier had had expressed his annoyance at what he saw as Charles’ refusal to listen to him:
I am constantly advising him, but I may spare my breath; his obstinacy is worse than that of a mule. The poor man is really religiously mad, and should not be allowed to say Mass or to bless the people in the way he does. No doubt he is not responsible for what he does, but the Superiors should look to it. Many people come for his blessing every day, and on Sundays by hundreds, being considered a living saint, and indeed such he would be if he would be guided by others. right: Salvian Nardocci, C.P.
Since, as he say it, the superiors were failing in their duty by not keeping Charles under control, Salvian had made it his business to act as his advisor and help him to arrange his life. He had already succeeded in giving him a timetable by persuading the Rector to have fixed times for the blessing; now he felt that something should be done about how he conducted himself on these occasion, but in this he was having less success:
He never takes the advice of anyone; his impression about sanctity seems to be in reading some prayers which he has found in devotional books or pamphlets, and you cannot convince him that some of these prayers are not approved by the Church and there are no indulgences attached to them. Every day he spends hours morning and evening in reading these prayers before blessing the people, who come by hundreds, and he shouts at them like an energumen, evidently not knowing what he is doing. The poor saintly man is doing everything with the best of intentions, but he will not listen to the advice of anyone and continues to do his own will.
Salvian could never understand why Charles would not take his advice. Only a few months younger than Charles, he had been his superior at Cotton Hall and at Sutton; they had been members of the same community for more than twenty years. Who, then, would have known Charles better than he did? Who, in his own opinion, could be more suited to act as Charles’ advisor? For reasons such as these, but also for reasons of temperament, Salvian took it upon himself to keep Charles on the right path. He began to play a dominant role in Charles’ life, not only giving him unsolicited advice but also correcting him publicly for any unbecoming conduct as he saw it. Fr Benedict Donegan, who as a young priest was stationed at Mount Argus in 1891, remembered an incident which occurred at a ‘Gaudeamus’ or recreation day: ‘Fr Charles was singing and Fr Salvian ordered him under obedience to stop, a thing he had no authority to do. Fr Charles obeyed instantly and showed no sign of resentment.’ below: Choir at Mount Argus
So good was Fr Salvian at his work that it came to be believed in the community that he had been officially appointed to act in this way by no less a person than the Superior General, Blessed Bernard Mary Silvestrelli. Fr Eugene, in his recollections, reflects on the common opinion which was held by the community when he says that the General ‘commissioned Fr Salvian to closely watch Fr Charles, take note of anything extraordinary in his life, and as occasion served, to put his virtue to the proof’. In fact Salvian makes no mention of his having received such a commission in any of his writings. Usually in the diary he makes a particular point of noting any responsibilities given to him by his superiors; we can scarcely believe that he would have been given this task by the Superior General and yet have failed to refer to it in his diary.
Fr Eugene recalls that there were times when Fr Salvian pushed Charles almost to the limits of his endurance:
He would correct him, scold him and humiliate him before the whole community, thus adding immensely, I am sure, to his merit, for of course Fr Charles knew nothing of Fr General’s secret instructions. He never showed the least sign of resentment; nor did he seek to explain himself but remained silent and penitent, looking as if he had been guilty of some great crime. If he did speak at all he confined himself to the three words ‘poor old Charlie’.
Usually Charles was able to see the funny side of things when Salvian tried to put him right. Fr Eugene remembered one occasion when Salvian ‘rounded him in right royal fashion before us students about some imaginary fault’. At the height of his outburst Salvian turned round and stormed away. With a smile on his face, Charles ‘pointed after his well-meaning tormentor, then tapped his own forehead with his forefinger’, indicating to the students that they should not take the incident too seriously. ‘Small wonder indeed’, adds Fr Eugene, ‘if he had begun to think Fr Salvian’s mental balance was getting a bit disturbed.’
Undoubtedly Fr Salvian acted in this way believing that he was doing what was best for Charles. Although a man of strong opinions, there was never any hint of malice or cruelty in his character. On the contrary, he was noted for being kind and considerate. However when things were not going his way, he was inclined to explode and at such times he was capable of trying the patience of a saint, as Fr Bernard Mangan tells us: ‘I remember once that Fr Charles cut him rather short on an occasion when Fr Salvian corrected him, but you could not say he was angry or in a temper: it was like a gesture of impatience.’ According to Fr Bernard, Charles was ‘quite urbane and could take a joke’, but obviously this time the joke had gone too far. Usually, however, he was able to take Fr Salvian’s ‘help’ in his stride, using the scolding he received as an opportunity to imitate Jesus who remained silent before his accusers; from Charles’ own writings we can see the pattern he tried to follow on these occasion:
Only those who wish to be trampled upon, ridiculed, humbled, who bear their cross daily after Jesus, who walk in his footsteps after his example, who imitate him will be saved.
The picture Fr Salvian paints of Charles during the last years of his life would bring joy to the heart of any devil’s advocate: religiously mad, shouting like an energumen -- demoniac, causing great inconvenience to the people (who, in spite of this, continued to come in their hundreds!), more obstinate than a mule. To what extent were Fr Salvian’s statement accurate? Was Charles a man of God or a religious maniac? Was he a saint or just a pious fraud? At the Ordinary Processes a number of his fellow-Passionists were questioned about this; here are some of the replied:
The could be no question of want of mental balance: he was quiet and calm. He was undoubtedly emphatic in his public prayers, but this I feel sure was due to his great fervour. (Fr Francis Kelly)
I always regarded him as a sensible, sane man. There was something of extravagance in his actions, but you would say they fitted in to his character and were not laughable in him as they might be in others: there were the natural expression of his genuine religious fervour. He was out of the ordinary but only as a saint could be. (Fr Benedict Donegan)
I would certainly affirm that there was no such thing as ostentation in the man He was so openly genuine that it would be impossible to suspect him of any deception. I believe that his only foolishness was the foolishness of sanctity. He was self-sacrificing in his attention to the poor. I never saw anything that was really laughable in him; rather he was always edifying. (Fr Cyprian Meagher)
No member of the community regarded him as being a fraud. There was no suspicion of ostentation in Fr Charles’ sanctity. All the time he was rapt in God. There was no suspicion of his being unbalanced. His actions might have been regarded as abnormal in another, but in him they seemed to be the natural expression of his great sanctity. (Fr Malachy Gavin)
These testimonies are all from Passionists who were members of the Mount Argus community during the last years of Charles’ life. These men, coming into close contact with him every day, were perhaps in a better position to say what kind of man he really was than were the people, who generally speaking only saw him in church. What was it like to live in the same house as ‘Fr Charles of Mount Argus’? How did the members of the community see him?
He was quite affable and liked by all. I never knew anything against his obedience: I would be surprised to hear anything such. (Fr Bernard Mangan)
It could certainly be said of him that his every conscious thought or act was directed to God. He was certainly holier than the holiest person I have every known. (Fr Benedict Donegan)
He was always affable to all who came to see him, especially the poor. The very sight of the man did good. He sought no recognition or precedence. I never saw him give any sign of annoyance. He was always kind. (Fr Francis Kelly)
If he had any predominant fault, I would say it would be a little temper or impatience. This was my impression deduced, for example from the way in which he pulled away from those people who sometimes tried to pluck his cloak. This seemed to me to be an indication of his strong mind. He was not a man to be trifled with. He was not morose. He used to take part in the recreations of the community. One would feel quite at home in his company (Fr Malachy Gavin)
Fr Malachy Gavin, who at that time was a student, says that he ‘held the common view of Fr Charles’ sanctity’. However, that did not stop him, and other students, making fun of Charles from time to time. On one occasion, when one of the priests in the community was sick, some of the ‘lighter spirits’ sent Charles to his room to bless him: ‘The Father was surprised and told Fr Charles to go away. This humiliation Fr Charles bore humbly.’ (Fr Cyprian Meagher) Fr Malachy tells us how, one morning, he happened to be alone in the coffee-room with Charles: ‘I began twitting Charles on the common talk concerning his miraculous powers. I asked him if he worked miracles.’ Fr Malachy goes on to say that Charles replied by turning the conversation: staring intently at the coffee-pot, he simply said, ‘He who made you made me.’ ‘From this,’ say Fr Malachy, ‘I understood that he did not wish to be questioned in the matter.’
In his testimony at the Ordinary Processes, Fr Francis Kelly gives the following general impression of Charles:
My recollection of Fr Charles is as of one never out of the Presence of God. He was a man of simple faith. If his exterior appearances represented his soul, then he was entirely on fire with the love of God. He possessed the prudence of pure simplicity; he was a man entirely without guile. I think in general he was a very mortified man; the poor creature never seemed to seek for anything. He was most uncomplaining, even when unreasonable demands were made on his services, as they constantly were. I am inclined to say that fortitude was preeminently one of his virtues, even heroically. He bore opposition and trials for the love of God. There may have been criticism of his ways. Fr Salvian was severe on him. I heard that he was instructed to try Fr Charles in this way. Fr Charles bore this with his usual patience. He was remarkably obedient, even in hard things. He observed poverty fully. He was a man of great delicacy in everything pertaining to chastity. He was the essence of humility and kindliness. I do think that these virtues were practised in him in a heroic degree, especially his mortification and zeal. Her fervour was unbroken. All my knowledge is purely personal.
Fr Francis’ description gives us a picture of Charles as he remembers him during the years 1890-1892, when Fr Francis was stationed at Mount Argus, just after his ordination. During these years, as was remarked earlier, Charles was becoming more and more absorbed in God so that to those around him his life seemed almost to be a continuous prayer. After the night Office of Matins, when the rest of the community went back to their rooms to sleep, he would often remain in the Choir, continuing his prayer until the morning Office at six o’clock. When the Office and morning meditation were over he would celebrate Mass usually, towards the end of his life, in the Choir.
There is in Mount Argus a stone stairway leading from the Choir sacristy to the organ gallery in the Church; here, kneeling on the steps, where there was less chance of his being disturbed, Charles would make his thanksgiving after Mass, normally remaining there for about an hour. According to Fr Francis, he never lost an opportunity of visiting the Blessed Sacrament. It used to be said that he always went to the Church when not detained by another duty; in the afternoon ‘during the “siesta” allowed to the Fathers he would go to the Church to pray’. (Thomas McGrath) Fr Eugene recalled that at night and in the winter evenings his spare time was spent chiefly in the Choir. above: Choir bridge
Fr Eugene also remembered what he called Charles’ ‘devout demeanour’ as he entered the Choir:
With the left hand far into one corner of his biretta, which he held closely up to his face, he would dip rather deeply the fingers of his right in the holy water stoup and fairly drench his forehead over. Then with measured step while in the act of crossing himself he proceeded to the centre, his leaning figure bending profoundly low. By reason of the accident, to which allusion has been made elsewhere, he was unable to genuflect without support. He therefore walked straight to the altar, laid his hand on its lowest step, went down on one knee, at the same time generally saying aloud, ‘Jesus! Jesus!’ Rising by aid of his right hand support, and making a graceful bow towards the Tabernacle he passed on to his accustomed place in the stalls.
In the years before his death, Charles’ state of being ‘constantly wrought up in God’, as Fr Salvian put it, was most noticeable during his celebration of Mass, which usually lasted an hour.
His devotion at Mass was remarkable, so much so that, at time, after the Consecration, I think, he seemed to get lost in contemplation and the server would have to pluck the vestments to recall him. (Fr Bernard Mangan)
So often did Charles become lost in prayer while celebrating Mass that the altar servers were not surprised when it happened and knew exactly what to do:
I thought he was in an ecstasy often and had to pull his vestment. His Mass one morning took an hour and ten minutes. I did not think that he was continuing the Mass while in an ecstasy: he seemed at certain times to discontinue the Mass. These interruptions would last sometimes five minutes, sometimes ten sometimes fifteen or twenty minutes or more. These interruptions occurred in all his Masses. This I heard from the other boys. His Mass was never less than three-quarters of an hour. It was one interruption in each Mass, generally before the Consecration. Fr Charles remained perfectly still. He did not seem to me as if he was praying: he appeared to remain quite still. There was no sign of his being raised from the ground. He did not speak or seem to read or make any exclamation during these silences. I was about fifteen when I used to serve his Mass. I often plucked his vestment and often without effect. He never resented this plucking of the vestment. The plucking seemed to rouse him to his duty. His not responding, as sometimes occurred, to these intimations seemed to me as a boy to be due to an ecstasy; it was due to his not having noticed, or to the fact that he was not conscious of his surroundings. The pluck we were accustomed to give was not very gentle by any means. (Thomas McGrath)
Because of the length of time he took for Mass, Charles normally said Mass privately in the Choir or sometimes at the altar of St Mary Magdalene. On one occasion shortly before his death, most of the priests of the community were away on missions and Charles had to celebrate one of the public Masses on Sunday; however, not all present counted it a privilege to be there:
I only saw him say Mass once. He was so devout that he had to have two priests to keep him from being lost in ecstasy. It took him more than an hour to finish the Mass. In fact, after Mass, I heard some people say they would not come to Mass here any more because he was so long. But, such people would never be satisfied, no matter how quick the priest was. (James Joseph Whelan)
‘When more than usually fervent by reason of the feast or from some other cause,’ recalls Fr Eugene, ‘the pauses became more frequent and progress in consequence more slow.’ When this would happen in the Choir, the students serving the Mass would begin to get anxious because if the Mass lasted too long they would be late for classes and also would possibly have to miss breakfast. If the plucking of his vestments failed to have the desired effect on Charles, as a last resort one of the students would go for Fr Salvian. Fr Eugene describes what would follow:
Word is brought to Fr Salvian, who on entering takes a small stole from his breast pocket, throws it on and stands beside Fr Charles on the praedella. The effect is always electrical. Not a word for the present is spoken; but Fr Charles well knows the meaning of the manoeuvre; and he needs not to be told to hurry up, for hurry he does in no unmistakable fashion under the reproachful eyes of his mentor. Soon however a stronger influence governs him, and under its sway the figure standing close to him becomes shadowy and gradually fads away, when he is again along with God giving way to demonstrations as before. But Fr Salvian is never slow to remind him of his presence by a gentle tap on the shoulder and a mild if not a trifle profane command, ‘Go on, Charlie, go on.’
Charles’ state during his celebration of Mass was an expression of his basic attitude of attentiveness to the presence of God, which he had sought to cultivate from the beginnings of his religious life and, indeed, even before that. Throughout his life his aim was to keep God before his eyes in all his activities. What we hear described towards the end of his life as ecstasies were moments when the sense of God’s presence became so overpowering for him that the awareness of anything else was for the moment pushed aside. Yet these moments, privileged though they were, must be seen within the context of Charles’ whole life of prayer and apostolic service. In his desire to live a life like that of the apostles Charles kept Jesus Crucified always before his eyes; even in the refectory he would place his little crucifix on the table before him. In recognising the presence of Jesus living within his own heart and in the hearts of those to whom he ministered he succeeded in finding God in all things, echoing in his own life the teaching of the first great Apostle of Ireland, St Patrick:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
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© Paul Francis Spencer, C.P. 2007 - all rights reserved
This biography, paper-published in 1988 at the time of Father Charles’ beatification, was how I became acquainted with the life of Father Charles. Although you will find the entire text at this site, I encourage you to look for the new paper edition of the book, which will be available in bookshops in mid-2007.