Recent media coverage of GK Chesterton’s possible canonisation morphed into speculation as to when he would be made a saint. Misunderstanding the canonical process, many secular media sources saw a possible beginning as a confirmed ending.
Far from declaring anything, the Church is merely exploring the possibility of the writer’s holiness. GK Chesterton was a public figure, which, in part, explains the curiosity from secular sources at the prospect of his canonisation. One suspects that driving that curiosity is an interest in novelty rather than the science of sanctity.
But if not Chesterton, who is to become England’s next saint?
The last canonisation for England and Wales was in 1970 when Pope Paul VI canonised 40 English and Welsh martyrs executed between 1535 and 1679. John Ogilvie, the only post-Reformation Scottish saint, was canonised in 1976.
In 2010, John Henry Newman was the last Englishman to be named Blessed. Newman would appear best placed to become Britain’s next official saint – not least given the backing and resources of a religious congregation, the Oratorians, to facilitate this.
Since his beatification in 2010, there has been a notable increase in the display of images of Blessed John Henry in English churches. It’s less clear whether there has been an increase in large-scale popular devotion to the man. Perhaps this is because much of Newman’s public life and witness is about the intellect. There were no stigmata, no public miracles, no levitations; instead there were builders’ bills, court writs and endless misunderstandings. As a result Newman’s holiness is understated, a quiet but steadfast devotion to God’s will.
There are three stages in the Vatican’s recogition of a saint. First, the Pope declares them Venerable, meaning that they have lived a life of “heroic virtue”. To be beatified, a miracle is usually needed; canonisation requires two. It was thanks to Newman’s prayers that an American deacon, Jack Sullivan, was healed of a crippling spinal condition. In 2016, the Vatican began investigating a possible second miracle: a mother, also in the United States, who was healed during a life-threatening pregnancy.
Popular devotion remains crucial to any potential Cause for canonisation. Canon John Udris, the priest tasked by the Bishop of Northampton with investigating Chesterton’s sanctity, noted that for any Cause to be initiated there must, of course, be evidence of holiness, but also, and just as importantly, there must be signs of a local cult to the prospective saint. If GK Chesterton has a local cult, it is dwarfed by his international following. Canon Udris recalls how, when he was parish priest at Beaconsfield, the great majority of visitors to his presbytery asking for information on Chesterton hailed from North America, in lands where many view the writer as a Catholic apologist par excellence. In today’s Britain, Chesterton is chiefly remembered as the creator of the Father Brown detective stories.
Tellingly, Newman’s miraculous cure was reported not in his homeland but in the United States. Modern secular Britain seems decidedly uninterested in Catholic saints, or potential ones. Although there has always been popular devotion to saints among British Catholics, such devotion appears less prominent in regard to indigenous men and women who are on their way to being canonised.
In recent years, if one thinks of popular devotion to those who subsequently became saints, Padre Pio, Mother Teresa and John Paul II come to mind. Long before he was declared a saint, Padre Pio had a London bookshop named in his honour. On entering, one saw a larger than life statue of the Italian friar with the shop stuffed full of books and pamphlets about Padre Pio’s life. In addition, there were, and doubtless still are, countless self-styed “Padre Pio prayer groups”.
Likewise, after her death, Mother Teresa soon inspired intercessory prayers and devotion throughout Britain. In her case, it was not so much a call for her canonisation as a desire to know when it would happen. Similarly, upon Pope John Paul II’s death, British popular opinion quickly proclaimed him a saint, again with any canonisation not a matter of “if” but “when”.
At that time, the British media appeared to play a part in this. I remember a non- Catholic complaining to me that his television set had been “hijacked by the Vatican”, such was the steady stream of updates on the late pontiff’s death and subsequent funeral.
If you were to enter Southwark Catholic Cathedral and look to your left you would see a picture of a nun. It is the Venerable Mary Potter. A Londoner, she made her First Holy Communion and was Confirmed in that cathedral. Later, she founded a religious congregation. The adjective “Venerable” gives a clue to the fact that, unlike Chesterton, her Cause for canonisation is ongoing, and officially has been since 1940s. This Sunday, I would wager, few attending Holy Mass at Southwark Cathedral have heard of Mary Potter, let alone have any devotion to her.
As with Mary Potter, there are a number of other British Causes for canonisation that increasingly are known only to the religious congregations founded by those individuals. And yet, these Causes stand a better chance than most. Merely to complete the preliminary inquiry into a person’s alleged sanctity can take years of effort. Canon Udris began his investigation of Chesterton some five years ago.
The process also takes money. Many English Causes, especially those involving lay people, just do not have the funds available to move matters forward. In recent months, a crowd-funding campaign began to raise the necessary monies in the hope of funding such an investigation into the life of Englishman John Bradburne, a wandering poet and Third Order Franciscan. Despite books and films that, in recent years, have helped spread devotion to Bradburne, it will be an uphill struggle.
Not many attending Sunday Mass at Westminster Cathedral will be aware that before his adventures in Zimbabwe, Bradburne worked as a sacristan at that cathedral; and fewer still will know of his holy death, or ask for his intercession.
Nevertheless, Bradburne’s fans are an impressively determined group. At the leper colony where he cared for the sick with extraordinary devotion, before his murder by guerrillas in 1980, thousands attend the annual memorial Mass.
Once the preliminary investigation is completed and the process opened, patience is needed by all concerned. Margaret Sinclair was declared Venerable in 1978. Her Cause has attracted a popular following in her native Scotland – it helps that there are vivid contemporary photographs – but the progress feels painfully slow.
A noteworthy English Venerable (declared in 2012) is Frances Taylor, a nineteenth-century nun who briefly worked alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War before converting to Catholicism. She founded the Congregation of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God to care for the homeless, the sick and the poor. Though suffering from debilitating illness, she found time to write books and run a magazine while working tirelessly for the vulnerable.
Another colourful nineteenth-century convert is Fr Ignatius Spencer, a distant relative of Princes William and Harry. He launched a prayer “crusade” for the conversion of England, and tried to interest Newman, who was still an Anglican at the tine; Newman later regretted “being very rude to that zealous and most charitable man, Mr Spencer”.
His order, the Passionists, hope that Spencer will soon be acknowledged as Venerable. By contrast, many of the 19th-century Causes, those from Reformation times and even earlier, without image or popular memory, are now lost in the mists of time.
Whoever the next English, or indeed British saint is, he or she will be announced after a slow and expensive process of canonisation, having had a great deal of natural and supernatural help.
Recently, Pope Francis has reminded the Church of the call to sanctity for each Christian. The Pope also pointed to where many of these saints are to be found: “Think of the many elderly people who are alone, who pray and give. Think of the many mothers and fathers who work hard for their families, for their children’s education, in their job, tackling problems, never losing hope in Jesus and never showing off but getting on with life as best they can.”
It could be said, then, the next British saint is here already: in a London hospital’s cancer ward, at a night shelter for Glasgow’s homeless, or kneeling as the Consecration takes place in a sparsely attended, out-of-the-way Welsh church – in truth, there are saints all around us.
KV Turley is a writer and filmmaker
This article first appeared in the August 3 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here