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G.K. Chesterton: Is there a case for his canonisation?
This article is drawn from Karl Schmude's address at the launch of The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton during the G.K. Chesterton Conference at Campion College, on 10 September 2011. The book, introduced and edited by William Oddie, is available from Freedom Publishing.
At first glance, "holiness" is not a quality readily associated with G.K. Chesterton. He would seem rather far removed from the conventional pathways to canonisation. In fact, the first time I heard mention of Chesterton's cause being promoted was not in England or America or Australia, but in Argentina, when I was at a Chesterton conference in Buenos Aires in 2006.
Chesterton himself, I suspect, would have greeted the idea with a hoot of laughter, if not derision. We only have to consider the obvious deterrents to his canonisation: Chesterton was an Englishman, a layman, married and not martyred. Relatively few married people have been canonised, and even fewer who were not martyred.
He was a knockabout journalist, immersed in the controversies of his day, with all the preoccupations with worldly life which that usually entails.
He was not conspicuously devout, nor was he fortified by the sacramental graces of the Church for most of his life only formally becoming a Catholic in 1922, 14 years before his death.
He was not a notable ascetic. He enjoyed the delights of wine and cigars, and was a model of obesity - though it's worth bearing in mind that this was a quality he shared with St Thomas Aquinas. (You might remember Aquinas's response to someone who criticised him for being so overweight. He said: "One swallow does not make a Summa!")
We are, of course, conscious of Chesterton's intellectual legacy. But did Chesterton leave a spiritual legacy?
There is significant evidence that he did - and this book makes a strong case for it, and for Chesterton's sainthood. When he died, the future Pope Pius XII sent a cable on behalf of the then Pontiff, Pius XI, calling Chesterton "a gifted defender of the Catholic faith".
The various chapters of this book (which derive from a conference in Oxford in 2009) go beyond that papal tribute to explore aspects of Chesterton's claim to sanctity. In the book's introduction, William Oddie (a biographer of Chesterton) notes how his intellect "was entirely suffused by his faith".
Fr John Saward looks at the connection between his childlike simplicity and his metaphysical sense of wonder and two other priests explore whether Chesterton was a mystic.
Fr Ian Ker (also a biographer of Chesterton and a great Newman scholar who spoke at Campion College earlier this year) examines the link between humour and holiness in Chesterton, and the light this sheds on Chesterton's humility.
Sheridan Gilley (who spoke at the 2008 Chesterton conference at Campion) examines how Chesterton as a journalist raised the usual preoccupations of the press to a higher level of vision. "No profession is in greater need of sanctity," suggests Dr Gilley, and Chesterton is a much needed model for a morally confused age.
I revere Chesterton, and cannot imagine how impoverished my own intellectual life and Catholic faith - poor though it is - would be if my father had not introduced me to Chesterton as a teenager. But I have to say that I harbour some reservations about his being canonised - along the lines of whether he exhibited the degree of holiness and heroic virtue in his life to be so honoured.
And yet, this book has challenged my preconceptions about sainthood, and made me wonder whether they are limiting my understanding of God's grace at work in the lives of each of us.
The late Canadian Cardinal, Emmett Carter, described Chesterton as one of those "holy lay persons" who "have exercised a truly prophetic role within the Church and the world" but he wondered whether his cause would ever be introduced because "we are not sufficiently emancipated from certain concepts of sanctity". Cardinal Carter later changed his mind, and thought Chesterton's cause should be put forward.
So, was Chesterton a saint? I would encourage you to read this book and form your own conclusions. Without question, he was a singularly good man, and a Christian model and inspiration for our time.
He himself said of St Francis of Assisi that every age is converted by the saint who contradicts it most. And every saint, I think, brings to the age in which he lives - and from which he is elevated to recognised sanctity - a fresh insight, a new surge of God's grace in the vast ocean of human need. It's not that this insight was not there before, but new circumstances can bring out a deeper understanding and a particular quality which the saint embodies. In Chesterton's case, the key insight, I think, is a deeper recognition of the miracle of ordinary existence - the wonder of human life in its most ordinary condition.
So, on closer examination, there are reasons for considering Chesterton's claims to sainthood - in particular, his love of the poor and championing of their cause, and his love of truth and devotion to its defence.
We might recall Ronald Knox's poetic tribute shortly after Chesterton's death, where he expresses a plea to God, on behalf of Chesterton, by two of the greatest saints of Christendom, Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas. Knox highlights the particular qualities we most readily associate with these saints - and with Chesterton: "Take him, said Thomas, for he has served the truth." "Take him, said Francis, for he has loved the poor."
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 24 No 10 (November 2011), p. 12
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