In October 2010, as we were all preparing to celebrate, for the first time, the feast day of John Henry Newman, I wrote here that “it might now be time seriously to start thinking about an unavoidable question: after John Henry Newman, who next?” My answer was “that it can only be Gilbert Keith Chesterton.”
Many, many people have prayed, for many years, for the opening of this Cause, without any official response. Now we seem to have one. The Bishop of Northampton (the relevant authority, since Chesterton’s home town, Beaconsfield, is in his diocese), has given Martin Thompson, of the Chesterton Society (with whom he has had a prolonged conversation on the matter), permission to say that he “is sympathetic to our wishes and is seeking a suitable cleric to begin an investigation into the potential for opening a cause for [G K] Chesterton”. So he has not yet opened an official Cause: but he has begun the necessary preliminaries without which no Cause could be opened. This isn’t yet the end of the long years of prayer for a Cause to be officially estabished: but to adapt and slightly reverse Churchill’s famous phrase, it is the beginning of the end, and not simply the end of the beginning (the beginning was ended years ago).
I have written about this subject so often that it’s hard to avoid repeating myself; so why try to? I have written at some length in my introduction to The Holiness of G K Chesterton (Gracewing, 2010), a collection of papers by distinguished theologians which came out of the Chesterton Society’s 2009 conference in Oxford, also called “The Holiness of G K Chesterton”; but I have written many shorter pieces, in which I usually at some point quote the late Cardinal Emmett Carter, who on the 50th anniversary of Chesterton’s death (in 1986) described him as one of those “holy lay persons” who “have exercised a truly prophetic role within the Church and the world”, though 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”.
He later changed his mind; but it is always worth quoting his earlier hesitations, as a means of quoting, too, the noble response of the great (Catholic) historian J J Scarisbrick. “We all know,” he replied, “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?”
A rhetorical question to which there is only one answer. A few weeks after the 2009 Chesterton Society conference a layman who had attended it, with the help of a priest, wrote a prayer which, when posted on the Society’s blog, rapidly went viral – versions in Spanish (significantly from Argentina) and Italian soon appeared – for Chesterton’s intercession. Not long before he was elected Pope, the Argentine version of the prayer was approved for general use by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The American version is available from the American Chesterton society as a downloadable prayer card.
The prayer sums up the Chestertonian qualities which made up his holiness as well as they can be encapsulated in so short a space:
God our Father,
You filled the life of your servant Gilbert Keith Chesterton with a sense of wonder and joy, and gave him a faith which was the foundation of his ceaseless work; a hope which sprang from his enduring gratitude for the gift of human life; and a charity towards all men, particularly his opponents.
May his innocence and his laughter, his constancy in fighting for the Christian faith in a world losing belief, his lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and his love for all men, especially for the poor, bring cheerfulness to those in despair, conviction and warmth to lukewarm believers and the knowledge of God to those without faith.
We beg you to grant the favours we ask through his intercession [and especially for….] so that his holiness may be recognised by all and the Church may proclaim him Blessed.
We ask this through Christ our Lord
Chesterton, like many great saints (Newman springs irresistibly to mind) was a controversialist in his bones. But no matter how combatively he argued, as Belloc wrote after his death, “he seemed always to be in a mood not only of comprehension for his opponent but of admiration for some quality in him… it was this in him which made him, with other qualities, so universally beloved.” This combination of combativeness with charity was a quality that Chesterton shared with other holy men; it is, indeed, one of the reasons he understood them so well, a clear example of what is termed “connaturality”, the faculty by which one holy man has a special insight into the mind and heart of another; St Thomas Aquinas’s huge productivity, he wrote, could not have been achieved “if he had not been thinking even when he was not writing; but above all thinking combatively. This, in his case, certainly did not mean bitterly or spitefully or uncharitably; but it did mean combatively. As a matter of fact, it is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer. That is why, in recent literature, there has been so little argument and so much sneering.”
Like St Thomas, Chesterton was both combative and charitable; like him, too, he was constantly “thinking even when he was not writing”. Belloc’s verdict, that he was “universally beloved” was borne out touchingly at his funeral. His friend William Titterton followed the coffin on foot: “It is a roundabout way we go. For the police of the place will have it that Gilbert Chesterton shall make his last earthly journey past the homes of the people who knew him and loved him best. And there they were, crowding the pavements, and all, like us, bereaved. Yet it was almost a gala day. There was no moping, no gush of tears. Nay, there was laughter as one of us recalled him and his heroic jollity to another’s ready remembrance. A policeman at the gate of the cemetery said to Edward Macdonald, ‘most of the lads are on duty, else they would all have been here’.”
To this day, Chesterton is beloved, even though there is nobody left who actually knew him. And with his human warmth, there is always, to repeat Professor Scarisbrick’s words: “Above all … that breathtaking, intuitive (almost angelic) possession of the Truth and awareness of the supernatural which only a truly holy person can enjoy.” What more is there to be said?