The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once spoke of a “Catholic moment,” a period of time in which he believed that Catholicism in the United States was uniquely positioned to take a prominent role.
All times and seasons produce a Catholic moment, and some might argue that Fr. Neuhaus was a little too optimistic about late 20th-century America. There is, however, another moment in the history of the church that has arrived in the hearts and aspirations of many: the Chesterton moment.
After many years of asking, and after much prayer, the formal process for the cause of the canonization of the great English novelist, journalist, poet and beer drinker, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, G. K. Chesterton, began a few years ago. Apparently, so the story goes, a number of Chesterton devotees, mostly Americans — GKC seems particularly popular in the U.S. — had been petitioning the bishop of Northampton in England, Chesterton’s home diocese, where a cause must begin, for the formal process to be inaugurated.
Over the years, those enthusiastic visitors to Northampton had been greeted with that remarkable gift of the English to polite conversation: feigned interest, something truly impressive to behold.
What changed a couple of years ago when, once again, GKC’s disciples were taking tea with the good bishop, as he expressed profound interest, was when the Americans showed the bishop a new prayer card for GKC’s cause. It had been approved by the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, now known as Pope Francis.
The tea was consumed quickly, and the cause began to move.
I have good reason to believe this is the moment to promote the sanctity of Chesterton.
Five years ago, my mother was suffering from sepsis and was within days of death. I asked my friend Joseph Pearce, the biographer of Chesterton, to join me in praying a novena to GKC, asking for his intercession.
By day two of the prayer, her infection rate had lowered dramatically — it was nothing short of a miracle.
Some people might ask, “How can a fat man who liked beer and smoked be made a saint?” I would respond: What better man to be a saint in this world of the new Puritanism?
We are now in the most hedonistic period in human history since the fall of ancient Rome, yet, in a paradox that Chesterton would certainly illustrate, it is the moment when the forces of disapproval, the new secular inquisition, ban sugary drinks, cigars, and talk of fining fat people, yet describe the killing of unborn children as a “right.”
Chesterton was indeed fat; he drank beer and burgundy, and smoked a cigar — he was a thoroughly Catholic man long before he became a Catholic. The point about saints is not that they are perfect, but that they are holy. St. Jerome had a terrible temper, and St. Louis de Montfort once went into a tavern that was disrupting one of his parish missions and beat up a few of the troublemakers.
Chesterton combined two characteristics almost impossible to find together — wisdom and innocence. He went through life with a smile on his face and laughter on his lips, because he was convinced of the marvelous beauty of existence, and that the world was the product of a Creator, and was very good. As Fr. Robert Wild says in his remarkable book, “The Tumbler of God, Chesterton as Mystic,” Chesterton was convinced that existence is a gift from God, and that the only response is a spirituality of gratitude and praise.
In an increasingly cynical, unforgiving and ungrateful age, Chesterton’s theology of gratitude would be cause enough to canonize him. He also incarnated, in his large person, one of the central virtues of the Gospel: humility. He once wrote that the “secret of life lies in laughter and humility” — not laughing at someone with the cruel humor that passes as comedy today, but laughing because God is good.
In his poem about an ugly fish at the bottom of the sea, GKC wrote that if God could create something like that, which no one would ever see, “I knew that there can be laughter on the secret face of God.”
Chesterton was a very big man, but, as Joseph Pearce has written, “Pride is the sin of small men who think they are big, whereas Chesterton was a big man who knew he was small.”
Laughter is, he said, “characteristic of Catholics” — because they are not Puritans. Benedict XVI wrote that “humility and trust are what make a person truly human,” and a truly human person is most like Christ — and a saint is someone who shows the world the face of Christ in a unique way.
Chesterton was a very big man, but, as Joseph Pearce has written, “Pride is the sin of small men who think they are big, whereas Chesterton was a big man who knew he was small.” As a prophet, GKC correctly predicted, more than 80 years ago, that the greatest heresy of the coming age, now upon us, would be what he called “vulgarity,” which he described as “bringing everything down to the lowest standard.” Long before abortion and euthanasia were ever called “rights,” Chesterton could predict that, as “reverence for the Creator diminished, so, too, would reverence for His creatures.”
Is all this enough, though, to be a saint — holiness, gratitude, humility, joy, friendship? Is that enough for a “Chesterton moment”? There is one other reason, I think, why Gilbert Chesterton should be a saint, and that is because journalists need a real patron.
St. Francis de Sales was a very holy man, and great bishop and spiritual guide, but it’s a real stretch to make him the patron saint of journalists. GKC was a proper journalist — he wrote for a living, and he wrote very well. He never made enemies through his writing; even those he criticized loved him. It is certainly true that the combination of wisdom and innocence might seem, along with his abundant humility, to rule him out as a role model for journalists; but, in a dark and doom-laden age, how appropriate to have as a heavenly patron, a happy, holy, humorous, beer- and burgundy-drinking saint!
Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.