Is Chesterton’s life of wit and burgundy worthy of a halo?

The possibility that the Catholic Church could declare the author a saint has revived accusations that he was anti-Semitic

This article was first published in The Times on 22 February 2014.

Father Udris

The news that the Catholic Church is investigating whether the writer G. K. Chesterton might be declared a saint has had a mixed reaction. Devotees across the world who see him as a spiritual guide are delighted. His critics, who regard him as an anti-Semite, are horrified. Most people are merely surprised. Why should this quixotic Englishman, known for his Father Brown stories, his walrus moustache and his wit, be a saint?

One reason, his supporters would suggest, is that he has a global religious following. In Argentina, he is popular as a result of translations of his work by Jorge Luis Borges (the present Pope was a member of the country’s Chesterton society). In the Soviet Union, his book Orthodoxy, a defence of Christianity, was read in secret by dissidents, who passed it around page by page.

Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, discovered Chesterton on his honeymoon. He first read The Everlasting Man, an attempt to rebut H. G. Wells’s atheist view of history. Chesterton is not, he argues, just a great literary figure. “There’s something that goes much deeper, [is] more profound in his writing. He really gets to the soul and affects people in a life-changing way.”

The American Chesterton Society started out as a literary club, he explains, and “accidentally sort of became a Catholic apostolate”. Ahlquist, originally a Baptist, says Chesterton inspired his conversion to Catholicism. When he told a conference that Chesterton’s canonisation was being looked into, he says, people “jumped to their feet and cheered”. Some started crying. “It was a powerful, emotional moment,” he says.

Ahlquist explains that he had always been keen on the idea of Chesterton as a saint. As a Baptist, he thought of Catholic saints as “all barefoot 14-year-old girls”. “The idea of a 300-pound, cigar-smoking journalist wearing a halo was just marvellous,” he says.

Canon John Udris (pictured) is the man charged with determining whether Chesterton might be a saint. He has to work out if Chesterton seemed to live a life of “heroic virtue”. After a year or so of research he will submit a dossier to the Bishop of Northampton, the Right Rev Peter Doyle, who will decide whether to begin the formal sainthood process. Father Udris lives in a Pugin gatehouse on the edge of St Mary’s College, Oscott, Birmingham, which he calls his “hobby hole”. A guitar is propped up against the kitchen table. Father Udris, who is spiritual director at St Mary’s, suggests that the heroism of Chesterton lies in his humility. “This man, who’s such an intellect — how did that not all go to his head?” He talks about Chesterton’s gratitude for life, for the world — for instance, saying grace not just before meals but before going to the theatre or opening a book. “His whole way of approaching life was to say thank you.”

His humility, he says, was evident in the charitable way he argued with his opponents. “People he would have fierce public debates with felt respected by him, loved by him, even if they didn’t agree with him,” he says. Chesterton, he argues, shows Catholics how to defend their faith with humility and courtesy. “He would always try to find something good in someone else’s idea.”

Father Udris is excited, too, that Chesterton “breaks the mould” of a stereotypical saint. As a married lay person who did not go to Mass every day and who “liked his beer and burgundy”, he would show people “you don’t have to say your rosary every five minutes to be holy”.

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