Next week could see a cricket-mad aristocrat related to Princes William and Harry take a step closer to canonisation, when Vatican officials meet to decide if Fr Ignatius Spencer lived a life of “heroic virtue”.
Theologians and historians of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will assemble on Thursday (January 16) to give their opinion on his positio, a document detailing the example and writings of the 19th-century convert and Passionist priest.
If their conclusions are positive, the cardinals and bishops of the congregation are likely to ask Pope Francis to declare him Venerable. Then the search for two miracles will begin – one to declare him Blessed and the other a saint.
The Royal Princes are related to Fr Spencer through their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. The priest was Diana’s great-great-great uncle and he was also a great uncle of Winston Churchill.
Christened George, he was born into one of the five wealthiest English families of the time, in Admiralty House in 1799, the youngest son of the 2nd Earl Spencer, the First Lord of the Admiralty.
He grew up at Althorp, Northamptonshire, the Spencer family home where Diana was buried following her death in August 1997. As a boy he would have met such luminaries as Lord Nelson, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
He was educated at Eton and Cambridge but turned his back on a life of wealth and comfort by converting to the Catholic faith, partly as a result of shock after seeing a troop of devils convey the licentious Don Giovanni to hell in Mozart’s opera, in Paris in 1820. He saw it as a “holy warning” which left him “terrified”.
Spencer trained for the priesthood at the English College in Rome and was ordained at the Church of St Gregory on the Caelian Hill, the spot from where Pope St Gregory the Great despatched St Augustine of Canterbury to convert England.
Certainly, Spencer played a pivotal role in the re-evangelisation of England which became known as the “Second Spring”, partly as a result of his friendship with Blessed Dominic Barberi, the Passionist whom he would help to bring to this country and who received St John Henry Newman into the Catholic faith.
Spencer had also met Newman. But this encounter left him “terribly battered and mauled”. Newman, who was then still an Anglican, would later regret how he had been “very rude to that most zealous and charitable man”.
Spencer eventually became a Passionist, taking the name Fr Ignatius of St Paul, and worked among some of poorest people, including migrants from the Irish potato famine who lived in caves dug out of West Midlands slag heaps.
Spencer suffered from tuberculosis contracted while ministering to Catholics in a workhouse, but he died from a heart attack in 1864 near Monteith House in Carstairs, South Lanarkshire, on his way to visit a cousin.
Fr John Kearns, the Passionist Provincial for England and Wales (pictured praying at Spencer’s tomb), said he believed Spencer is a saint because his dedication to the poor was exemplary, taking him from the grandeur of Althorp “to almost giving his life in the workhouses of Staffordshire”.
He added that Spencer was more than 150 years ahead in his thinking on Christian unity, and would preach “unity in truth” to Anglicans and Catholics alike, calling them to mutual prayer and interior conversion.
Spencer started the Movement for Christian Unity, constantly preaching at missions he gave in England, Ireland, Scotland and on the Continent, and has been credited as a founding father of the ecumenical movement of northern Europe of the late 20th century.
In spite of his absolute commitment to his faith Fr Spencer retained a love for cricket, which he described as “my mania”, organising matches among the servants of his household as a young man and later, while serving as dean of St Mary’s Seminary in Oscott, Birmingham, teaching seminarians how to play.
Fr Spencer’s body is entombed in the Church of St Anne and Blessed Dominic in St Helens, Lancashire, beside Blessed Dominic and Elizabeth Prout, the “Mother Teresa of Manchester”, with whom he helped to found the Passionist Sisters.
Until her death at 43 from tuberculosis, Mother Elizabeth, whose birth bicentenary will be celebrated this year, opened schools and homes for the poor across the most deprived areas of the industrialised region.
Last year Vatican theologians agreed that Mother Elizabeth, who, like Newman, was received into the Catholic faith by Blessed Dominic, lived a life of heroic virtue.
If Fr Spencer receives the same judgment, there is a chance that he and Mother Elizabeth will be declared Venerable together.
Given that the church in which they lie is already known as “the shrine of the three saints”, such a development would bring a prophecy closer to its fulfilment, and help to continue the work that the three began nearly two centuries ago.