The current effort to canonise Chesterton has a background which is both curious and multi-national.
On Sunday morning November 28, 1986, Cardinal Emmet Carter, the Archbishop of Toronto, preached a sermon in the chapel of St Basil’s College at the conclusion of a Chesterton Institute conference marking the fiftieth anniversary of Chesterton’s death. In the sermon, the Cardinal expressed his regret that there were not more canonised lay people. Although he drew attention to Chesterton’s prophetic role within the Church, he said that he had no intention of promoting the cause for his canonisation. And yet the effect of his sermon was an important factor in doing exactly that.
Here is how it happened. When Professor J.J. Scarisbrick, the well-known Tudor historian, read the sermon, which was published in The Chesterton Review, he wrote a letter to the Review, challenging the Cardinal’s view:
“Candidate for Canonisation?”
Despite what Cardinal Carter said in his address, I wonder whether there are not good grounds for considering Gilbert Keith Chesterton for canonisation?
We all know that he was an enormously good man as well as an enormous one. My point is that he was more than that. There was a special integrity and blamelessness about him, a special devotion to the good and to justice, a special capacity for friendship and for winning the awed respect of an astonishingly diverse range of people and a special memorableness (as so many have testified). Above all, there was that breathtaking, intuitive (almost angelic) possession of the Truth and awareness of the supernatural, which only a truly holy person can enjoy. This was the gift of heroic intelligence and understanding—and of heroic prophecy. He was a giant, spiritually as well as physically. Has there ever been anyone quite like him in Catholic history?
And to those who say that there is no cult of the man, I would reply: you are wrong. Chesterton enjoys a special place of honour throughout the English-speaking world. And I suggest that those who contribute and read The Chesterton Review are animated by something deeper than the pietas which informs the ordinary literary journal.
There is a cause here to be considered.
The Professor’s answer to the Cardinal’s sermon prompted a group of prominent Argentineans to write directly to him, enquiring whether they could do anything to support the canonisation. The Cardinal answered that if they were to appeal to Rome, he would second their appeal. This was done, and when the Roman authorities turned down their request on the grounds that there was no evidence of Chesterton’s heroic sanctity, Cardinal Carter replied that Chesterton’s voluminous writings were themselves convincing evidence of such sanctity.
Nothing further happened until 2013 when the bishop of Chesterton’s home diocese of Northampton appointed Father John Udris, a priest of the diocese, to introduce the Cause. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps his efforts were not endorsed by the Chesterton Review, which made the point that canonisation would have the unintended effect of limiting Chesterton’s appeal. After all, Protestant Christians who might be willing to accept Catholic truths presented by a Gilbert Chesterton would be less likely to do so if they were presented by a St Gilbert Chesterton.
Here is a final thought. Many years have passed since Cardinal Carter preached his sermon and Professor Scarisbrick challenged it. Now that the matter has been entrusted officially to Rome, it will be decided by Rome. Until that decision is made, perhaps the wisest advice for those who support the canonisation and for those who oppose is the advice Gamaliel once gave to the Sanhedrin: “If this enterprise, this movement of theirs, is of human origin, it will break up of its own accord; but if it does in fact come from God you will not only be unable to destroy them, but you might find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts: 5:38). And yet how one would like to see Chesterton recognised as the patron saint of journalists without anyone having to go to the tedious trouble of first making him a saint.
Father Ian Boyd, C. S. B., is the President and Founder of the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture at Seton Hall University and is Editor of the Institute’s journal “The Chesterton Review.” For more information please visit: www.shu.edu/go/chesterton or email: firstname.lastname@example.org