Priest of the Lusitania
It was a great victory of the human mind which annihilated space and time, and circled the globe with telegraph wires. But greater still is the victory which gives a man strength and courage to receive with equanimity over those wires a message telling him that all he valued in life has been taken from him.
Father Basil W. Maturin
Torpedoed by German U-Boat U-20 on May 7, 1915, the sinking of RMS Lusitania moved the United States closer to eventual war with Germany, 128 Americans being among the 1,195 passengers and crew lost. Shrouded in controversy as to the amount of war munitions that the Lusitania was carrying, the sinking outraged American public opinion against Germany.
In our time of the Anglican Ordinariate, one of the passengers lost at sea commands our attention: Father Basil W. Maturin.
Born in Ireland on February 15, 1847, he was a second cousin of Oscar Wilde. His father was William Basil Maturin, an Anglican priest who was associated with the Oxford Movement. Educated at Trinity College in Dublin, he followed in his father’s footsteps and was ordained an Anglican priest. In 1876 he was sent across the Atlantic to be the rector of Saint Clement’s in Philadelphia. A popular preacher at Saint Clement’s he was nonetheless sent back to England in 1888 when it became clear that he was beginning to lean towards Catholicism. In England he was treated quite civilly by the Society of Saint John, Anglican mission priests to which he belonged, and was sent by that Society on various missionary activities including one to Rome, where it was hoped he could determine if he wished to remain Anglican or swim the Tiber. After years of reflection and study, he converted in 1897 and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1898.
Along with his priestly duties, Father Maturin wrote several books including Laws of the Spiritual Life (1908), Self-Knowledge and Self-Discipline (1909), Christian Self-Mastery (1912) and The Price of Unity (1912). He was appointed the Catholic chaplain of Oxford University in 1913. In 1914, very few students being left at the University after the outbreak of World War I, Father Maturin went to America to preach a series of Lenten sermons, something he had also done in 1913. He returned to England on the Lusitania, and ate lunch with another Catholic priest shortly before the ship was torpedoed on May 7, 1915.
As the Lusitania sank, Father Maturin reacted with courage. Described as pale but calm he was seen giving absolution to all who requested it. He did not seek to board the life boats himself, instead handing a child into the last lifeboat with the request that the child’s mother be found. When his body was washed ashore it was found to be without a life jacket, Father Maturin doubtless having given his to some other passenger. England and Ireland were united in mourning his loss.
Amidst the corrupt polytheism of Athens, St. Paul saw one ray of truth. Standing on the Areopagus he said, ‘Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For passing by and seeing your idols, I found an altar also on which was written. To the unknown God. What therefore you worship without knowing it, that I preach to you’; and beginning from this, he led them on to Christ and the Resurrection. The light in which the great Apostle’s soul was bathed seized upon the faint glimmer of truth, embedded and scarcely visible, in the murky fog of their superstitions, and claimed it as Christian and Catholic. If the light of that truth could be kindled so as to shine with all its fullness in their souls, it would emancipate them from their degrading polytheism. Their idols and superstitions would creep away into the darkness, and all that could not stand the light would perish.
It was a bold act. But it was the act of one who had a strong faith in the power of Truth to destroy error. Some people nowadays would, perhaps, characterise it as a little too broad and tolerant, to find any truth in such a cesspool of corruption. He knew better, his faith was clearer, stronger, more wide and large in its view. For he knew from his own deep experience that evil could only be conquered by good, and that in the fullest sense of the word he could trust the Truth to take care of itself.