Five controversial saints in the making

Clockwise from top left: Dorothy Day, Fr Thomas Byles, Fulton Sheen, Antoni Gaudí and GK Chesterton

The controversy stirred up by the canonisation of St Junípero Serra is still raging in America. It’s a reminder that with social media and modern communications there is ever greater accessibility to the “human” side of contemporary saints. In some cases the hostility is between those responsible for a particular Cause. Here are five of the more controversial saints in the making.

Dorothy Day

The profile of Dorothy Day has been raised considerably since the Pope spoke warmly of her during his visit to America a few weeks ago. This has given hope to those who for the last 25 years have campaigned for her beatification.

Dorothy Day is a controversial figure and many claim that she should not be beatified because she had an illegitimate child and an abortion. But for those who find her an inspiration, she is an example and encouragement. It is precisely because her story is one of transformation in the love of God that people find her so appealing. Day provides a role model and gives hope to women who have had abortions. Her own post-abortion grief led her to have a great compassion for woman in similar situations who experienced the guilt and pain of loss.

In 1930 Dorothy Day met Peter Maurin and shortly afterwards they founded the Catholic Worker Movement, which became a lifeline to thousands during the worst period of the Great Depression. This involved the running of Houses of Hospitality, soup kitchens and caring for those made homeless.

Day’s life story has been the subject of many films and books. In 1996 the film Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story was released to critical acclaim.

Dorothy Day has been given the title of Servant of God and her supporters hope that the forthcoming Year of Mercy may be a catalyst for the process to move forward towards canonisation.

Fr Thomas Byles

Fr Thomas Byles perished with 1,500 other passengers on the Titanic during that dreadful night on April 12, 1912. This was despite reportedly being given two opportunities to enter a lifeboat. He chose to give his place to others and remain on the ship to pray, hear confessions and support the other victims.

Agnes McCoy, a passenger in Third Class who survived, went on to tell of the heroic nature of Fr Byles’s care for the other passengers at the expense of his own life. Another survivor, Helen Mary Mocklare, recalled many years later that a member of the ship’s crew had “warned the priest of his danger and begged him to get on the boat”.

Fr Byles had boarded the Titanic in order to attend his brother’s wedding in New York. He was educated in Lancashire and Oxford and before he died he was the parish priest of St Helen’s, Chipping Ongar, in Essex for eight years.

Now more than a century on, the present parish priest of St Helen’s, Fr Graham Smith has been asked by the Bishop of Brentwood s to promote the opening of the Cause for Fr Byles’s beatification. Fr Smith says he considers his predecessor to be “an extraordinary man who gave his life for others”. He now hopes that people in need will invoke Fr Byles and if a miracle occurs the case can go forward to the next stage.

The possibility of Fr Byles’s Cause being opened has attracted criticism as some feel that his story is merely caught up in the permanent dramatic interest in the unsinkable ship. Despite this, Fr Byles is someone who largely inspires. Parallels have been drawn with St Maximilian Kolbe, the martyr of Auschwitz, who also sacrificed his life to save another.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Fulton Sheen was a man who possessed amazing skills of communication and he never lost his ability to speak to the ordinary person. He taught philosophy and theology for 24 years at the Catholic University in Washington DC. Later he seized the opportunity to access the airwaves with his Catholic Hour radio programme which had an estimated four to five million listeners and ran for 20 years. He moved into television with his show called Life is Worth Living which ran for six years and gained between 20 milliom and 30 million viewers. Many of his 65 books became spiritual classics. It is estimated that he influenced the conversion of 52,000 people, many of whom were committed communists, such as Bella Dodd.

Fulton Sheen’s journey to sainthood seemed to be moving at an encouraging pace. Fr Andrew Apostoli, co-founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and EWTN presenter was appointed as Vice Postulator for the cause. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints scrutinised the evidence of Fulton Sheen’s holiness and then passed their findings on to the Pope. This led to him being identified as someone who lived a life of “heroic virtue” resulting in him being given the title Venerable.

The next stage was the verification of miracles linked to situations where people had invoked Fulton Sheen. Several miracles were identified and the primary case was submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to be examined. The conclusion was that a natural cause could not be determined to explain the miracle.

Up to this point things were progressing well. The next requirement in the process was for the bodily remains of Fulton Sheen to be examined. This is when the unseemly arguments over the body of the great archbishop developed. Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria had requested to have the body exhumed and transferred to his Illinois diocese but this was refused by Cardinal Dolan of New York. The Diocese of Peoria has always claimed that it had been assured that this request would be granted and strong words were issued from both sides at the time.

Following discussion between the New York archdiocese and Rome it was decided that the Sheen Cause would now be placed in the archives of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. This effectively means that the Cause is suspended indefinitely.

Many of Fulton Sheen’s supporters said they were heartbroken. They have not given in and the Archbishop Fulton J Sheen Foundation continues to possess a large membership who are campaigning and praying for things to move forward.

GK Chesterton

One of GK Chesterton’s most influential admirers is Pope Francis, who supported a Chesterton Conference in Buenos Aires and was an honorary member of the committee of the Chesterton Society.

In 2014 the Bishop of Northampton appointed Canon John Udris, currently on the staff at St Mary’s College Oscott, to investigate whether Chesterton’s cause should be opened.

Controversy surrounds whether Chesterton should actually be canonised because of his alleged anti-Semitic views. He was also not devout in the conventional sense, yet was a strong apologist for the Catholic faith.

Many people, influenced by his writings, have been led into full communion with the Catholic Church and this has created strong support for his Cause. His works range from the well-known Father Brown stories to hagiographies of famous saints. His best known Christian writing, Orthodoxy, is one of the most influential of the 20th century.

Some supporters of Chesterton worry that opening the cause will reduce the power and accessibility of the important message that he still communicates. For instance, would the Father Brown stories remain as popular if they were by St Gilbert Keith Chesterton? It could certainly create a barrier to a more secular readership.

As Pope Francis’s interest indicates, Chesterton has a global following. The largest Chesterton Society exists in the United States of America but there are groups in Poland, Mexico and Italy. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens following the submission of the report by Canon Udris. There are reports of miracles but these have yet to be verified.

Antoni Gaudí

Looming over Barcelona is the iconic Basilica of the Sagrada Familia. Under construction for more than 130 years it is the greatest legacy of Antoni Gaudí. The building today delights and entertains the senses. Many pilgrims and tourists have claimed to have experienced the living God through their architectural encounter.

Fellow architect José Manuel Almuzara has been campaigning for over 20 years for the Cause of Gaudí. In 1992 he formed the Association for the Beatification of Antoni Gaudí, which has a significant membership.

Gaudí was a controversial choice of architect at the time of construction as he was not a practicing Catholic. However, his biographer Josep Maria Tarragona claims that it was during the construction of the Joyful Nativity Façade that Gaudí “saw the person of Jesus”. He constructed schools for workers and always had a concern for welfare. Turning down many lucrative contracts, he ensured his continued presence at Sagrada Familia and eventually lived a very aesthetic and frugal life. This was despite his wealthy upbringing.

Many Catalan religious leaders are sceptical about the possibility of Gaudí’s Cause progressing. In addition, a number of secular Catalans are opposed to the idea of his canonisation as he is seen as such an important national figure. Hopes were raised when Sagrada Familia was consecrated in 2010, during which the Pope Benedict XVI praised Gaudí’s creativity and courage.

While no miracles have been recorded in the usual sense, the Archbishop of Barcelona, Cardinal Lluis Martinez Sistach, says that the fact that no one has ever been seriously injured during the construction work at Sagrada Familia, is itself a form of miracle. He also speaks of the power of the building in aiding some miraculous conversions.

Gaudí’s supporters continue to pray and campaign and await those eusive miracles.

All five of these individuals either inspire or repel. It seems that with every canonisation and opening of a Cause there will now always be detractors and critics. If (or when) any of these men and woman will be canonised what ultimately will be gained is not the celebration of a spotless life but a focus upon the transformative power of God’s grace and submission to His will. It would be highly appropriate if, during the Year of Mercy, any of these figures were to progress towards the path of canonisation, as they all have been recipients of the grace and mercy of God.