January 5: Why are there so few Irish saints?

St Charles of Mount Argus

When January 5 does not fall on a Sunday like this year, it is the feast of St Charles of Mount Argus, a Dutch Passionist priest who spent about 30 years of his life in Dublin, dying here in 1893 at the age of 71. He greatly loved by the people of Dublin, primarily because of his humility and simplicity. He was not a great preacher, but he was extremely gentle in the confessional. Like many of those who excel in the virtue of humility, he received many graces from God, including many graces within his own spiritual life as well as the grace of healing. Each day hundreds of people would flock to the monastery at Mount Argus to receive his blessing and those with means from far away would often send carriages to collect him and bring him to someone who was sick or dying. There were many reports of wonderful healings and these reports continue to this day, now that his power of intercession is even greater in Heaven. For an eye witness account of the life and virtues of St Charles click here.

There is no mention that I can find of St Charles in the writings of Fr Doyle, but it is certain that Fr Doyle would have been aware of him. Fr Doyle was 20 when St Charles died, and his reputation for holiness was alive and well, so Fr Doyle must have been aware of St Charles and his holy life.

Today is one of those rare days when we will not have a quote from Fr Doyle or remember an anniversary from his life. The feast of St Charles gives us a good excuse to consider the following important question which is relevant to Fr Doyle: Why are there so few recent Irish saints? St Charles is the only canonised saint of modern times (within the last 500 years at least) to have died in Ireland. And he wasn’t even Irish; he was Dutch! This points to an interesting thing about this so-called land of saints and scholars – we are pretty poor at having worthy candidates beatified and canonised. When one compares Ireland to other countries with strong Catholic heritage – Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, France, even parts of Germany, we perform very poorly when it comes to canonisations. Of course, it’s not a contest and the numbers themselves don’t really matter. Yet, at another level, the numbers are a kind of barometer that tell us something about the spiritual climate of a country. After all, a vibrant Catholic culture will foster holiness. This holiness will be recognised by others, who will then be motivated to promote these examples of holiness in an effective and professional manner. Other people will join in this process by praying for miracles. All of this needs institutional support from the religious orders, dioceses and parishes. Thus, a healthy, properly functioning Catholic culture will steadily produce canonised saints. The dearth of Irish saints since the Council of Trent points to something amiss about Irish Catholicism, especially when we consider the increased frequencies of beatifications and canonisations within the Church over the past 3 decades.

Let us look at the Irish situation. St Charles of course stands out, but while we have adopted him as our own, he was Dutch, and interestingly both of the miracles for his beatification and canonisation were worked in the Netherlands. St Oliver Plunkett is of course Irish through and through, but his situation was slightly different as he was a martyr which makes his canonisation a little easier. He died in London and his canonisation miracle occurred in Italy by the way. Blessed Edmund Rice also lived and died in Ireland, and his beatification miracle was worked for a man in Newry in Northern Ireland. Then of course there is Blessed Columba Marmion who was a Dubliner but who became renowned as the abbot of a Belgian monastery. He is not widely known in Ireland. His beatification miracle was worked in the United States. Then there are the 17 Irish martyrs who were beatified in 1992. Most unfortunately they are even less well known in Ireland than Columba Marmion.

And that’s it. That’s the sum total of Ireland’s effectiveness in promoting Irish models of sanctity since the Council of Trent. And much of this success – the canonisation of St Oliver and the beatification of the 17 martyrs – are down to one priest who was postulator for both sets of causes. Of course, it’s not for the lack of good candidates. There were dozens of other martyrs from the penal times that deserve recognition, in addition to candidates like Venerable Matt Talbot, Mary Aitkenhead, Catherine McCauley, Nano Nagle, the three Legion of Mary candidates Edel Quinn, Alfie Lambe and Frank Duff; Fr John Sullivan SJ and of course Fr Doyle himself. There are of course, many other worthy causes besides these that have yet to be considered. One thinks immediately of Fr James Cullen SJ, founder of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association (Fr Doyle was a friend of his who served on the Council of the Pioneers) and Archdeacon Cavanagh, the parish priest of Knock at the time of the apparitions there, as well as Fr Henry Young, a holy priest who served the poor in Dublin and Fr Matthew Theobald who did so much to encourage temperance in the 19th Century. There are other worthy causes for holy lay people that deserve consideration also. As an Irish poem says:

Why are saints so difficult to recognise,

In these days, not like in olden times,

When we had a resident saint in each oak-grove,

A holy well in each townland, miracles galore?

By the law of averages, if, as philosophers maintain,

And common sense agrees, human nature doesn’t change,

And we are the mixture as before, there must be

Saints somewhere, if only we had eyes to see

We should celebrate those who have already been raised to the altars, and today is a great day of celebration for our own adopted St Charles of Mount Argus. But we should also celebrate those who have yet to be recognised formally, and the best way to do this is by actually promoting their cause and making them well known, and in particular by asking their help in prayer. If we do not ask for miracles, they will not be granted! And in fairness, we should also celebrate two recent positive moves in terms of Irish saints – in 2013 Nano Nagle was declared Venerable and the cause for canonisation of 7 Columban priests from Ireland or of Irish heritage was also opened. These priests were martyred in Korea in the middle of the last century. More on them here http://fatherdirector.blogspot.ie/2013/08/new-irish-martyrs-cause-just-opened.html

Of course, neither Fr Doyle nor Matt Talbot nor any of the others are in the least bit insulted or upset that they have not yet been beatified or canonised! But it is we, and our country, that lose out. Some people may mistakenly believe that having local saints is an irrelevancy or of low priority. With respect, I think they are gravely mistaken. If we truly believe in the Communion of Saints, then we want people to know about Irish saints and as a consequence to have recourse to their help in prayer. Local saints also give us a closer and more contemporary model to follow. The saints all reflect some particular aspect of God. While we should always strive to imitate Christ above all, it can be easier for some people to imitate a saint who was closer to them in time and culture and state of life. Pope Benedict wisely recognises this reality. Speaking on this very theme at the Chrism Mass for Holy Thursday in 2012, Pope Benedict said:

Dear friends, it is clear that configuration to Christ is the precondition and the basis for all renewal. But perhaps at times the figure of Jesus Christ seems too lofty and too great for us to dare to measure ourselves by him. The Lord knows this. So he has provided “translations” on a scale that is more accessible and closer to us. For this same reason, Saint Paul did not hesitate to say to his communities: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. For his disciples, he was a “translation” of Christ’s manner of life that they could see and identify with. Ever since Paul’s time, history has furnished a constant flow of other such “translations” of Jesus’ way into historical figures.

This is also clearly a cause close to the heart of Pope Francis. In fact, in the first few months of his pontificate, he has personally pushed three canonisation causes without miracles, and proceeded to canonise two of these without public ceremonies. The last three popes – Blessed John Paul II, Benedict and Francis, all recognise that local saints are a powerful witness to what Christianity is meant to be.

So many people have rejected the Church out of disgust at what they perceive to be the sins of priests and religious. Well, let us then promote models of love and selflessness who encapsulate the beauty of our Faith! Surely we should show people what Catholics are meant to be – we are all called to be saints, so let us show people real men and women who lived in a time and place like our own and whose lives reflect the love of Christ for humanity. Finally, the recognition of local sanctity gives a morale boost to a local Church, and we all know how badly that is needed today!  

In conclusion, let us thus remember the beautiful words of Pope Benedict in his letter to the Church in Ireland two years ago in which he also calls on us to remember our local saints:

As you take up the challenges of this hour, I ask you to remember “the rock from which you were hewn” (Is 51:1). Reflect upon the generous, often heroic, contributions made by past generations of Irish men and women to the Church and to humanity as a whole, and let this provide the impetus for honest self-examination and a committed programme of ecclesial and individual renewal. It is my prayer that, assisted by the intercession of her many saints and purified through penance, the Church in Ireland will overcome the present crisis and become once more a convincing witness to the truth and the goodness of Almighty God, made manifest in his Son Jesus Christ.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “January 5: Why are there so few Irish saints?

  1. This is something I have pondered also. I think the reason that we know so little about the many martyrs of Ireland during the post Reformation period ( in contrast to England and Wales) is due to a lack of reliable documentation . Indeed I think there were over 300 Irish martyrs but because of a lack of historical documentation the Church presented a sample number in the Beatification of 1992. The lack of Irish non martyr Saints in this period is a different story. Would it be due to the Penal Laws? Besides England, Wales and Ireland are there other former Catholic countries that endured in a similar way such legal penalties?

  2. An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a
    colleague who had been doing a little research on this. And he actually ordered me dinner due to the fact that I
    stumbled upon it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this….
    Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending the time to discuss this issue here on your web site.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s