Friday, October 30, 2015

Controversial Causes: Byles, Chesterton, and Sheen

Father Matthew Pittam writes about some of the more controversial causes of saints in The Catholic Herald. Of Father Thomas Byles, who gave up his place on a lifeboat to another, he comments:

Now more than a century on, the present parish priest of St Helen’s, Fr Graham Smith has been asked by the Bishop of Brentwood s to promote the opening of the Cause for Fr Byles’s beatification. Fr Smith says he considers his predecessor to be “an extraordinary man who gave his life for others”. He now hopes that people in need will invoke Fr Byles and if a miracle occurs the case can go forward to the next stage.

The possibility of Fr Byles Cause being opened has attracted criticism as some feel that his story is merely caught up in the permanent dramatic interest in the unsinkable ship. Despite this, Fr Byles is someone who largely inspires. Parallels have been drawn with St Maximilian Kolbe, the martyr of Auschwitz, who also sacrificed his life to save another.

Of Archbishop Sheen, he notices that the controversy is not about Sheen himself but about the rivalry between two Catholic dioceses:

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints scrutinised the evidence of Fulton Sheen’s holiness and then passed their findings on to the Pope. This led to him being identified as someone who lived a life of “heroic virtue” resulting in him being given the title Venerable.

The next stage was the verification of miracles linked to situations where people had invoked Fulton Sheen. Several miracles were identified and the primary case was submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to be examined. The conclusion was that a natural cause could not be determined to explain the miracle.

Up to this point things were progressing well. The next requirement in the process was for the bodily remains of Fulton Sheen to be examined. This is when the unseemly arguments over the body of the great archbishop developed. Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria had requested to have the body exhumed and transferred to his Illinois diocese but this was refused by Cardinal Dolan of New York. The Diocese of Peoria has always claimed that it had been assured that this request would be granted and strong words were issued from both sides at the time.

Following discussion between the New York archdiocese and Rome it was decided that the Sheen Cause would now be placed in the archives of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. This effectively means that the Cause is suspended indefinitely.
And the comments about Chesterton:

Many people, influenced by his writings, have been led into full communion with the Catholic Church and this has created strong support for his Cause. His works range from the well-known Father Brown stories to hagiographies of famous saints. His best known Christian writing, Orthodoxy, is one of the most influential of the 20th century.

Some supporters of Chesterton worry that opening the cause will reduce the power and accessibility of the important message that he still communicates. For instance, would the Father Brown stories remain as popular if they were by St Gilbert Keith Chesterton? It could certainly create a barrier to a more secular readership.

As Pope Francis’s interest indicates, Chesterton has a global following. The largest Chesterton Society exists in the United States of America but there are groups in Poland, Mexico and Italy. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens following the submission of the report by Canon Udris. There are reports of miracles but these have yet to be verified.

For several months, our local chapter of the American Chesterton Society has been reading through The Well and the Shallows, a 1935 collection of essays Chesterton wrote for Catholic periodicals. Next month we will discuss "Mary and the Convert", and the concluding paragraph might contradict Father Pittam's comment that Chesterton "was also not devout in the conventional sense":

It may still be noted that the unconverted world, Puritan or Pagan, but perhaps especially when it is Puritan, has a very strange notion of the collective unity of Catholic things or thoughts. Its exponents, even when not in any rabid sense enemies, give the most curious lists of things which they think make up the Catholic life; an odd assortment of objects, such as candles, rosaries, incense (they are always intensely impressed with the enormous importance and necessity of incense), vestments, pointed windows, and then all sorts of essentials or unessentials thrown in in any sort of order; fasts, relics, penances or the Pope. But even in their bewilderment, they do bear witness to a need which is not so nonsensical as their attempts to fulfil it; the need of somehow summing up "all that sort of thing," which does really describe Catholicism and nothing else except Catholicism. It should of course be described from within, by the definition and development of its theological first principles; but that is not the sort of need I am talking about. I mean that men need an image, single, coloured and clear in outline, an image to be called up instantly in the imagination, when what is Catholic is to be distinguished from what claims to be Christian or even what in one sense is Christian. Now I can scarcely remember a time when the image of Our Lady did not stand up in my mind quite definitely, at the mention or the thought of all these things. I was quite distant from these things, and then doubtful about these things; and then disputing with the world for them, and with myself against them; for that is the condition before conversion. But whether the figure was distant, or was dark and mysterious, or was a scandal to my contemporaries, or was a challenge to myself--I never doubted that this figure was the figure of the Faith; that she embodied, as a complete human being still only human, all that this Thing had to say to humanity. The instant I remembered the Catholic Church, I remembered her; when I tried to forget the Catholic Church, I tried to forget her; when I finally saw what was nobler than my fate, the freest and the hardest of all my acts of freedom, it was in front of a gilded and very gaudy little image of her in the port of Brindisi, that I promised the thing that I would do, if I returned to my own land.

Read the rest of the article in The Catholic Herald here, as Father Pittam discusses other causes (Dorothy Day and Antoni Gaudi).


  1. Some supporters of Chesterton worry that opening the cause will reduce the power and accessibility of the important message that he still communicates. For instance, would the Father Brown stories remain as popular if they were by St Gilbert Keith Chesterton? It could certainly create a barrier to a more secular readership.

    Have you read some epigrams by St Thomas More, lately?

    1. Some of his "Merry Stories" are in the Dialogue on Heresy I'm reading now.

  2. Replies
    1. I had in Latin read a few of his epigrams, one of which features a woman being raped and resisting - until the rapist threatened to leave her alone if she continued. Now, THAT is not the kind of writing one expects from saints. Yet, St Thomas More is canonised.

      And some people who have very little in common with his Faith and who would hardly understand his comment about the sun "I'll be above that fellow", even so read some of his works again and again, notably Utopia (which I have not read).

    2. But More was canonized as a martyr; I don't think his works received the kind of reading and review that the works of a confessor receives. Besides, the comment from "The Catholic Herald" was more that Chesterton's works could be misread if read as the works of a saint.

    3. True enough, such things can in such a case be put down to "before he was a saint".

      I don't think saints really encourage misreadings of their works.

      If my own works are misread as the inconsiderately divulged meditations of a saint, that is perhaps because I am NOT a saint. But that is one of the excuses given for not reading them.

  3. I remember an Oratorian commenting that St. Philip Neri burned all his letters and notes before he died. The Oratorian noted that now Blessed John Henry Newman had written so much that it took a long time to read through it all. His recommendation: if you think you're going to be canonized, burn all your letters and journals! Ha!