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Chesterton’s Cause has not yet been officially opened: but this is surely the beginning of the end of many years of prayer for that day to come

It was inevitable that sooner or later the devotion of so many to the conviction of Chesterton’s holiness should be recognised

By on Wednesday, 7 August 2013

GK Chesterton in Brighton in 1935  (AP) Below: Statue of St Therese Lisieux at The National Shrine of St Therese in Darien, USA (CNS)

GK Chesterton in Brighton in 1935 (AP) Below: Statue of St Therese Lisieux at The National Shrine of St Therese in Darien, USA (CNS)

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?

  • ostrava

    What I have dug out of memory is the verse from “The Secret People” which runs:

    They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
    Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
    They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
    They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
    And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
    Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.

    He does not say so but it is obvious whom he means.

    It is not the worst; that was to follow soon after GKC died, and in a manner which would have horrified him. But it’s that sort of thinking – the Jew as outsider, hostile to those among whom he lives – which opens the way to hatred and then to murder, and it is a pity that he gave way to it. Whether that should exclude him from consideration it is not for me to say.

  • PaulF

    Sorry to be blunt about It Todpuddle, but you are talking rubbish.
    You are saying that the Jews are subject to only one half of the word of God. This is an insult that no people deserve, least of all the people that gave us so much.

  • tolpuddle1

    I’m certainly not trying to insult the Jews. One of the reasons why they were persecuted in former times, was that misguided Christians thought that the Jews had either to be forcibly converted or go to Hell.

    As I understand the Catholic Church’s interpretation of St Paul on the subject (which seems to be Romans 11 not Ephesians – apologies), in God’s mysterious dispensation of Salvation, it is necessary for the Jewish people (other than individual converts) to remain outside the Church until the full number of Gentiles has entered; perhaps this is because the Gentiles have only the Natural Law to guide them, whereas the Jews are already equipped with the Covenant, the Law and the Prophets.

    Only when this has happened, will the Jewish people in general understand the Gospel and that it is the fulfilment of their ancient Faith; thus the “Conversion of the Jews” can happen only when all other nations have heard the Gospel and this Conversion is a sign of Our Lord’s Second Coming.

  • PaulF

    A group of English Protestants of my acquaintance make a practice of welcoming Jews to their services and encouraging them to celebrate their Jewishness and those of their feasts that are compatible with the knowledge of God in Christ. They are very surprised at the numbers of Jews who come to them and who find huge relief in the open celebration of their Jewishness, and the realization that faith in Yeshua the Messiah, far from smothering their Jewishness, is its crowning fulfilment.
    You can tell them that what they are doing is forbidden by your fatalistic reading of Romans 11 if you like. I hope they will have the good sense to ignore you. I hope also that similar ministry to Jews will soon be common practice in our Catholic Church.

  • tolpuddle1

    As I have TRIED to make clear, the Catholic Church welcomes individual converts (the more the merrier) but regards the conversion of the Jewish people in general not yet possible.

  • PaulF

    The Catholic Church has never taught that Jews in general are incapable of salvation. That is a misreading of Scripture for which you will have to take responsibility yourself.

  • tolpuddle1

    I’ve never said that Jews in general are incapable of salvation; only, until some stage of the Last Days, incapable of conversion to the (visible) Church. This isn’t culpable on their part – they’re in a state of “invincible ignorance.”

  • PaulF

    Where do you learn of their invincible ignorance?
    Or, put another way, where do you learn that the Jesus’ warning in John 8:24 is for one generation of Jews only?

  • william oddie

    I agree with all of this. Tolpuddle’s wearisome and politicised arguments (see below) simply miss the point. Boring and pointless.

  • tolpuddle1

    I would refer you to Article 674 of the Catechism (which seems to refer to Romans 11) and Articles 839 to 848 which are related.

    Most Jews haven’t accepted Jesus as Messiah; if they weren’t in as state of invincible ignorance, they would be in a state of mortal sin (and centuries of their predecessors as well). I’m sure that the Church’s opinion is that they’re in invincible ignorance.