Unless Pope Francis decides to canonise one or more of the 158 English and Welsh martyrs beatified by his predecessors, but never raised to the altars, there is a strong chance that the next English saint will be a woman.
The likelihood of this will increase when the Holy Father, any time soon, declares Mother Elizabeth Prout, the so-called “Mother Teresa of Manchester”, Venerable.
This imminent development follows the conclusions of Vatican theologians earlier this year that Mother Elizabeth, who died in 1864, lived a life of heroic virtue.
The papal decree will mean that two miracles are required to beatify and then canonise the co-foundress of the Passionist Sisters.
It will put Mother Elizabeth at the same level of progress as five other British women who have been declared Venerable since 1978.
Together they create a broad picture which offers the hope of the renewal of the Church, and the continuation of the “great work” that St John Henry Newman thought was under way in the Second Spring of British Catholicism.
They suggest an exciting time ahead for the Catholic Church in Britain because, if the Causes proceed apace, they will give the country its first female saints since Pope St Paul VI in 1970 included Ss Margaret Clitheroe, Anne Line and Margaret Ward among 40 canonised martyrs of England and Wales.
All of the Venerabili are confessors and the canonisation of any one of them in the decades ahead would represent the recognition of the first non-martyr British female saint in about 800 years.
The last canonised female British confessor was St Margaret, the 11th-century Anglo-Saxon princess crowned the Queen of Scotland after the Norman Conquest, and who was canonised in 1250 by Pope Innocent IV.
Besides Mother Elizabeth, the candidates include Mary Ward, the 17th-century foundress of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Loreto Sisters, and also the Congregation of Jesus, who was declared Venerable by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
Victorian England produced Mary Potter, foundress of the Little Company of Mary, who was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
It also produced Frances Taylor, the “Saint of Soho” and the foundress of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God who was declared Venerable by Pope Francis in 2014.
It was Taylor who persuaded St John Henry Newman to write the Dream of Gerontius because she was keen to include a contribution from him for The Month, a magazine she founded and edited. She published the poem over two editions in 1865.
In imperial India during the same period Sophie Leeves, daughter of a colonel in the British Army, founded the Sisters of the Apostolic Carmel, a congregation of Carmelite nuns. She was also declared Venerable in 2014.
From the 20th century the candidates include Margaret Sinclair, a Franciscan nun who died aged 25 from tuberculosis which she contracted while serving desperately poor people in the slums of Edinburgh, and who has been Venerable since 1978.
In addition to the Venerabili, the Causes of other women are being investigated at more preliminary levels.
The Congregation for the Causes of Sainthood is studying the causes of two London-born Bridgettine nuns, for example.
During the Second World War, Mother Riccarda Beauchamp Hambrough sheltered 60 Jews from the Nazis in the Bridgettine mother house in Rome, while Mother Katherine Flanagan, her contemporary, travelled throughout Europe opening new religious houses.
Most recently, the cause of Mother Marie Adèle Garnier, founder of the Tyburn Nuns, was opened in 2016 in the Diocese of Langres, France.
Although French, Mother Adèle has been adopted by British Catholics as one of their own because of her close connections to the country, and the site of her tomb at Tyburn Convent in London.
Hers is a status is comparable to that of Italian Blessed Dominic Barberi, the Passionist who received both Newman and Elizabeth Prout into the Catholic faith, and who is the leading male confessor candidate for sainthood.
Indeed, it is Blessed Dominic who offers perhaps the greatest hope of becoming the next saint of the Second Spring because just one more miracle is required for his canonisation.
Searching for miracles can take a long time, however, a fact demonstrated by the inability to find a second miracle since Dominic’s beatification in 1963 by Pope St Paul VI in spite of the efforts of an active cult dedicated to him which includes the English bishops, Oratorians and Passionists.
Melissa Villalobos, the Chicago mother whose miraculous healing from a potentially deadly haemorrhage led directly to Newman’s canonisation, lent them a hand when she encouraged prayers for a miracle at the intercession of Blessed Dominic at the London Oratory School in October. From her own experience, she recommends the distribution and use of prayer cards bearing the image of any candidate for canonisation as a means of nurturing the cult and finding the elusive miracles.
She also believes that faith is crucial, an element central to the healing miracles performed by Jesus in the Gospels. “I had faith in asking Newman to save me because I knew he was in heaven and would bring my request directly to God,” Melissa told the Shrewsbury Catholic Voice.
She also predicted that the saints would blossom in England if the Church shows similar faith, and urged English Catholics also to pray for the Cause of Elizabeth Prout during the 2020 bicentenary year of her birth in Shrewsbury. “If you are ill, please pray to Mother Elizabeth Prout who like Newman was a convert, a teacher and a lover of souls,” she said. “If you are well, pray for her canonisation.”
Those dedicated to any of the Venerabili will, in the years to come, be doing their utmost to bring the canonisation processes to their conclusions.
Expect to hear more about Frances Taylor, for instance, now that Sister Mary Whelan, an energetic, capable and imaginative former superior general of the Poor Servants, has been appointed the Rome-based postulator of the Cause.
Sister Dominic Savio Hamer, the biographer of Elizabeth Prout, is meanwhile planning events for Mother Elizabeth’s bicentenary, with the support of Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury who ranks Prout among “the great figures of the Second Spring of the Catholic Church in this land”.
“Her witness has special significance in a time of New Evangelisation,” Bishop Davies said. “Elizabeth saw the great human and spiritual crisis of her time and responded by dedicating her life with courageous faith and perseverance.
“In her home town of Shrewsbury we look forward to celebrating the bicentenary of her birth as we continue to pray that Mother Elizabeth Prout will one day be recognised among the great saints.”
Mother Elizabeth is buried alongside Blessed Dominic and Fr Ignatius Spencer, whose Cause is likely to progress in 2020, in a church in St Helens, Lancashire, and it is absurd to think either would begrudge the other of prior recognition of sainthood. Given how their vocations and destinies were entangled, it is wonderful to instead entertain the idea that they might be canonised together.
The way things are going, by the time Blessed Dominic is declared a saint, he, like St John Henry, might find his tapestry in St Peter’s Square flanked by numerous women, possibly all British.
Simon Caldwell is a freelance journalist
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