January 5: On the need for more Irish canonisations

St Charles of Mount Argus
St Charles of Mount Argus

Today 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. Recently a miracle through the intercession of Venerable John Sullivan was approved; this happy news clears the way for his imminent beatification in the not too distant future.

And that’s it. That’s the sum total of Ireland’s effectiveness to date 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; Venerable 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 four recent positive moves in terms of Irish saints – Mary Aitkenhead was declared Venerable in 2015 as was Nano Nagle in 2013; 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 This is all very positive news. And most significantly of all the beatification of Venerable John Sullivan has been approved and will hopefully happen in 2017 – this is a very positive development and is to be welcomed very warmly and with joy. Yet, one has to ask – how many of those who practice their faith in Ireland know this news? How many even know of the heroic virtue of any of these people I have mentioned? The promotion of local heroes has always been a core part of the evangelising efforts of the Church. Why are such local heroes not mentioned more often in our churches? 

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.

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 a number of 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.

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2 thoughts on “January 5: On the need for more Irish canonisations

  1. Thank you for mentioning the seven Columbans who died in Korea during the Korean War and whose cause for beatification has now been raised by the Church in Korea, among a group of martyrs in modern times in that country. I did not hear about this initially from any Columban source but on a website of the Church of Ireland (Anglican). Shortly after the story appeared Pope Francis went to Korea to beatify another group of Korean martyrs. These were all martyred during the persecutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. St John Paul II had already canonized some martyrs form that period.

    The visit of Pope Francis to Korea led to a felix culpa, a ‘happy fault’, by Patsy McGarry in The Irish Times. He thought that the seven Columbans were among those to be beatified. However, it led to many Irish people learning about them for the first time.

    There is growing devotion to another Columban, whose mother was Irish, Fr Francis Vernon Douglas, a New Zealander, who was killed by the Japanese here in the Philippines in July 1943. Last September there was a pilgrimage to the parish where he was serving at the time and to the parish where he was scourged at a pillar in the church where nobody knew who he was. I don’t know of any martyr whose sufferings were so similar to those of Jesus himself during his Passion. There are a number of articles about Fr Douglas and about the pilgrimage here: http://www.misyononline.com/nov-dec2016/columban-pilgrimage-2016 Relatives of Fr Douglas were among the pilgrims, including a niece named Verne who was born the day the Douglas family received news of the priest’s death.

    But the growing devotion, though still very small, to Fr Douglas is not coming from Ireland, where he is not known at all, but form New Zealand and from the Philippines.

    Growing up in Dublin – I was born there in 1943 – I don’t remember hearing anything about St Charles of Mount Argus, though I’m sure he was still well known by people with connections to Mount Argus and the Passionists. I did hear a lot about Fr Willie Doyle from Sr Margaret Stanislaus, the principal in the Boys; Kindergarten in Stanhope St. And Matt Talbot was somebody I knew about, largely from my mother. Sometimes in going into the city centre, ‘downtown’ to my mother, we walked in by Dominick Street church and Granby Lane, where we always stopped for a prayer to Matt.

    Some years ago I took a Filipino friend to Granby Lane. She had already been in Dublin a number of years and had gone to Ireland originally as a Columban lay missionary. She had never heard of Matt. I wonder if he is known at all among young Dubliners. I have a friend, now 80, who worked with men who had worked with Matt. With his struggle with his addiction he is surely relevant in a city where drug addiction is now so widespread and linked with organized violent crime, something never associated with addiction to alcohol in Dublin.

    A TV life of Matt written by Fr Desmond Forrestal in 1985 with Seamus Forde as Matt is well worth watching: Part 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IT1Yw8J07Rc and Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vJ76HEUr3s , the whole less than 30 minutes. The script is pure Dublin and Seamus Forde really captures Mass as he walks through the streets of Dublin in 1985, 60 years after his death, a dramatic device that is very effective.

    Yes, we do need some canonised Irish saints! And we Columbans need to promote our own martyrs a little more.

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