Examinations of conscience: Robert Parsons' "Christian Directory" and Catholic spirituality in post-Reformation England

Date of Completion

January 1999


Religion, History of|History, Church|Literature, English




As the Reformation progressed in England, the visibility of Catholic devotional writing was by necessity kept to a minimum; Catholics who hoped their work would find English readers were keenly aware of the censor's eye. The explosion in Catholic spiritual publishing on the Continent could not be duplicated in England. Recusant writers appear to have been even more scarce than recusant readers. An exception is Robert Parsons' Christian Directory, first published in 1582. As a Jesuit, Parsons had to include among his vows a stress on the mission, and it was Parsons who, along with Edmund Campion, made perhaps the most important Catholic mission to England in the Renaissance. When that mission failed and Campion was killed, Parsons escaped to the Continent and began to publish, at secret presses, a succession of devotional and doctrinal works, including the Rheims New Testament. ^ Because he was a Jesuit, it is not surprising that Parsons writes in an Ignatian mode. The Christian Directory focuses on three central topics: consideration, examination, and imitation as the way to progress in a Christian life of virtue. Parsons' devotion to the primitive Christian Church, evident in his use of Eusebius for a pseudonym, also connects him to Ignatius Loyola who, in his own writings, often looked to the practices of the primitive Church including daily examination of conscience, devotion to the humanity of Jesus Christ, and a missionary spirit that one finds most striking in the Book of Acts. ^ Because Parsons' missionary voice had been silenced, he was unable to minister to English recusants in person; he was forced to minister in abstentia. In the Ignatian mode, Parsons would have been the spiritual director to the exercitant. When he could no longer fill that role, Parsons turned to print, and The Christian Directory may be looked at as a “spiritual directory,” a type of guide written by Jesuits and for Jesuits to help guide exercitants through Spiritual Exercises. ^