He was nothing like our traditional idea of what a saint is like: but his time has come
On Saturday October 9, a week this Saturday, we will all be celebrating, for the first time, the feast of the Blessed John Henry Newman of the Oratory. It is a very momentous time, this; it was all brought home to me by a very simple thing last Sunday at Mass at the Oxford Oratory: as I came from the altar after receiving Holy Communion, there at the back of Church I saw for the first time the Oratory’s new Newman shrine, with votive candles burning and people kneeling before it; it all seemed so established, so natural, and yet before the beatification this month it would have been almost unthinkable.
And on October 9, we will keep his feast. On the same day, I shall be speaking at a conference organised by a group called Chesterton in the Chilterns on Chesterton and Newman. The date was chosen for this conference (for details go to the Chesterton Society website) before the announcement of the date of Newman’s feast day: but the happy coincidence leads me to suggest that it might now be time seriously to start thinking about an unavoidable question: after John Henry Newman, who next? My answer is that it can only be Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
The obvious objection to this is that Chesterton was nothing like our idea of how a saint should look or behave. He was greatly given to the pleasures of the table; he was enormously, sometimes riotously funny; he was the opposite of Newman in so many respects (though Newman also had a brilliant sense of humour). The late Cardinal Emmet Carter described him on the 50th anniversary of his death as one of those “holy lay persons” who “have exercised a truly prophetic role within the Church and the world”, but he did not then believe that it would be possible to introduce a Cause for his ultimate canonisation, since he did “not think that we are sufficiently emancipated from certain concepts of sanctity” – though later he change his mind.
The distinguished historian J J Scarisbrick, however, thought that his sanctity was so clear that the opening of his Cause should indeed be seriously contemplated. “We all know,” he responded, “that he was an enormously good man as well as an enormous one. My point is that he was more than that. There was a special integrity and blamelessness about him, a special devotion to the good and to justice … Above all, there was that breathtaking, intuitive (almost angelic) possession of the Truth and awareness of the supernatural which only a truly holy person can enjoy. This was the gift of heroic intelligence and understanding – and of heroic prophecy. He was a giant, spiritually as well as physically. Has there ever been anyone quite like him in Catholic history?”
I agree; and this is what I and a distinguished group of theologians will be arguing in a book entitled The Holiness of G K Chesterton, to be published before the end of the year. Meanwhile, why not go to the Beaconsfield conference on October 9? Maybe I’ll see you there.