Eleven years ago I visited England for the first time. I was completely excited, of course, to see the place, but especially to see the sites connected to my hero, G.K. Chesterton. My very first stop, however, was the rather unlikely town of Northampton. I had scheduled a meeting with Bishop Kevin McDonald. My hosts and chauffeurs were Aidan Mackey, who, though he does not wish to be known as the grand old man of all things Chesterton, nonetheless is precisely that, and Martin Thompson, who has been my counterpart in England, running a very active Chesterton Society.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the status of Chesterton’s cause. I found out just before the meeting, however, that there was no status. Absolutely nothing had been done. This came as a surprise to me because I knew of interest from all around the world in Chesterton’s cause. The irony was that this meeting would be “first contact,” formally requesting that the bishop appoint a cleric to begin the investigation. We sat down with Bishop McDonald in his book-lined office, and he said, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
I was fresh off the plane, my first time in England, and I had a bishop serving me tea. I exclaimed, “This is great!”
It is no wonder that the Brits have a hard time enduring Americans.
But the gracious Bishop of Northampton took a genuine interest in what I had to say. I told him how not only had Chesterton been the reason that I found my way to the Catholic Church, he also made me understand what I, as a former Baptist, had never understood: the Communion of the Saints. Not only was I convinced of Chesterton’s holiness and heroic virtue, he had brought me closer to Christ and was a model Christian that I and others followed with great joy. Chesterton had changed our lives not only because of his wisdom, but because of his goodness. Bishop McDonald asked some basic questions, and the meeting was very positive. Afterwards, he put out the word to the priests in his diocese to start “talking up” Chesterton. Things looked promising, and then, he was promoted to being the archbishop of Southwark, and we had to start over. The new bishop of Northampton was the Rt. Rev. Peter Doyle. As of this writing, we still have not met, but we have exchanged correspondence for eight years. In the early going, he expressed great appreciation for my work, but politely informed me that there was no local cult around Chesterton to merit opening an investigation. The prophet is without honor in his own country. But I knew that there were English Chestertonians very devoted to the laughing prophet of Beaconsfield. I kept up the gentle pressure on the bishop, and I had Martin Thompson rally the local troops to make their presence known.
Then, in 2010, Pope Benedict came to England to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman. The Pope not only won over a hostile media, but his visit, along with the beatification itself, stirred up some real excitement in the English Catholic Church, or at least as much excitement as the Brits will allow themselves to demonstrate. I pounced on the opportunity and wrote to Bishop Doyle that perhaps now it was Chesterton’s turn. He wrote back, and his tone had clearly changed. He, too, was feeling the excitement of the beatification. He indicated that he really wanted to do something … but still nothing happened.
Over a year later, Martin Thompson met with the bishop. Accompanying Martin was his father, John Thompson, who happened to be the senior deacon in the diocese. John is a Catholic convert, another one of many converts whose path to Rome was paved directly by G.K. Chesterton. An old man, whose frailty in mind and body was setting in, John said to the bishop very simply: “We need Chesterton’s holiness.”
Martin said the bishop was very moved. But in spite of being moved, he still did not move. Nothing happened. More than another year went by, and, a few months ago, they met again. This time, Martin explained that this interest in Chesterton’s sainthood is not going to go away. He told him about the many letters that I receive from people here in America wanting to know the status of the cause. He told him about the letters that he receives in England. “Including this one,” he said, handing the bishop a letter. It was from Ambassador Miguel Angel Espeche Gil, who is the chairman of the Argentine Chesterton Society. The ambassador also wanted to know what could be done to move the cause forward. He described the great devotion to Chesterton in Argentina, that there, too, Chesterton is a maker of converts. He closed by saying that the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires had approved a prayer (for private devotional use) asking for Chesterton’s intercession. The letter was dated March 10, 2013. Three days later, that Cardinal, Jorge Bergoglio, became Pope Francis.
Bishop Peter Doyle read the word “Bergoglio” and looked up at Martin. The bishop is a good and humble man, a parish priest who a few years earlier suddenly found himself thrust into a bishop’s chair. His responsibilities are already enormous in a country that has been at war with the Catholic Church for 500 years. He was obviously not looking for another gigantic task to be laid on his shoulders. I’m sure it was with something of a heavy sigh and then a deep breath that he uttered his next very cautious but very important words. Martin told me what the bishop told him. Neither of us told anyone else for a few weeks.
Then, on August 1, at the national Chesterton Conference at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, in my opening talk, I said how we need a certain kind of saint to lead us today, someone with the mystical soul of St. Francis, with the mind of St. Thomas, with the social vision of Pope Leo XIII, someone from the ranks of the laity, who is devoted to the Holy Family because he knows his craft like St. Joseph, exalts the dignity of woman like the Blessed Virgin Mary, and understands that every baby is a divine gift like the Christ Child; someone who epitomizes Catholic joy in the face of the new Dark Ages. And I said that I believe we have such a saint. Then I made the announcement: that Martin Thompson had met with Bishop Peter Doyle and said that the bishop “has given me permission to report that the Bishop of Northampton is sympathetic to our wishes and is seeking a suitable cleric to begin an investigation into the potential for opening a cause for Chesterton.”
Over two hundred people jumped to their feet and starting cheering. Many were weeping with joy. I admit that I had a hard time controlling my own emotions. We have waited for this for a long time. It is only the first step. But it is the first step.