Permission for the first step in a possible canonization process has been granted for the cause of G.K. Chesterton, a British Catholic writer and literary giant of the 20th century.
The announcement was made during the 32nd annual Chesterton Conference by president of the American Chesterton Society, Dale Ahlquist, who said that Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, England, had given the go-ahead for investigations into opening a cause for Chesterton’s canonization.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English writer and Catholic convert. Some of his classic works include Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, his books on the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the Father Brown detective stories. These and others have had a profound impact on other important figures of the 20th century, such as Archbishop Fulton Sheen, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Dorothy Day, and Jorge Luis Borges.
In an interview with ZENIT, Ahlquist, who has been involved in promoting Chesterton’s cause, shared his thoughts on this step.
ZENIT: Could you speak about the process which has led to this step in G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization?
Ahlquist: For many years, I have petitioned the bishop of Northampton, England, to take the official steps that would lead to the opening of Chesterton’s cause. It is ironic because long ago, when I was still a Baptist, I once said that if Chesterton were canonized, I’d become Catholic. Well, that didn’t work. Instead, I had to become Catholic through the normal process, and then somehow I became the one leading the charge for his canonization. While nothing happened on the official level for a long time, we certainly stoked the fires on a popular level. I did a show about it on EWTN, as part of the series “G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense.” And we’ve distributed over 4,000 prayer cards. These have been translated into Spanish and Italian.
But the reason that things have heated up more recently has something to do with recent events in Rome. I have a counterpart in England named Martin Thompson, who runs a very active Chesterton Society right in the diocese of Northampton. He has had two important meetings with the bishop in the last two years, most recently a few weeks ago. At that time, he told the bishop that both local and worldwide interest in Chesterton’s cause is not going to go away. On the contrary, it is intensifying. There is a growing devotion to this life-changing writer. And then he presented the bishop with a letter from Ambassador Miguel Ee speche Gil, who is the president of the Argentine Chesterton Society. He, too, was making the case for Chesterton’s cause. He even mentioned that the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires had approved a prayer (for private devotion) asking for Chesterton’s intercession. The date of the letter was March 10. Three days later, that Cardinal — Jorge Bergoglio — was elected Pope Francis. I think we can say that this was what the bishop needed to move forward.
At our national Chesterton Conference at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, on August 1, I made the announcement that the Rt. Rev. Peter Doyle has given “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.” That is the first step. It is small, but it also gigantic. It generated great excitement, not just in the room where 200 people jumped to their feet and started cheering, but all around the world.
ZENIT: Chesterton is well known as a prolific writer. Could you speak about his role in shaping the faith of Christians and Catholics in the 20th century?
Ahlquist: He is a maker of converts. And “reverts.” Many people discover and re-discover the Catholic faith through the fresh and unexpected perspective that Chesterton provides. CS Lewis, of course, was an atheist until he read Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man. It was the first defense of Christianity, he said, that ever made sense.
There are two important Americans who are up for sainthood right now and could be beatified within the next few years: Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Dorothy Day. It is hard to conceive two more different kind of saints. And yet both were heavily influenced by GK Chesterton. Archbishop Sheen openly acknowledged that Chesterton was his greatest influence. Dorothy Day found the fulfillment of her quest for social justice in Chesterton’s articulate explanation of Catholic social justice. And she also found the Catholic Church. The list goes on. I’m on the list, too, one of hundreds, maybe thousands, whose path to Rome was paved by GK Chesterton.
ZENIT: His writings are well known and respected. Could you shed some light on those aspects of his life which contribute to his cause for canonization?
Ahlquist: Chesterton was known as a man with no enemies. This is in spite of the fact that he disagreed with all the leading thinkers and writers and politicians of his day. He knew how to attack ideas without attacking the person holding the idea. He knew how to combine truth and charity without compromising either one. He knew how to disarm people by using laughter. And love. He showed what it means to love your enemies, but he did something even more incredible: he got his enemies to love him. HG Wells said that Chesterton was one of the only men he knew that he never quarreled with — and yet they didn’t agree about anything! Wells, a great unbeliever, said that if there were any chance of him getting into heaven, it would be because he was a friend of GK Chesterton.
There are also the little things in his life that contribute to the case for his holiness: his kindness to everyone, his special respect for women, his adoration of children. He emptied his pockets to beggars, he made the sign of the cross over every room when he entered it. He made the sign of the cross with his match before he lit his cigar!
The thing about his life that seeps through his writing is his goodness. His wife and friends said he talked just the way he wrote. The good words came out of a good life, out of goodness itself. Goodness, says Chesterton, only comes from God.
ZENIT: How do the life and works of Chesterton contribute to the New Evangelization, especially at a time when society is shifting toward the ideologies of the New Atheists?
Ahlquist: Chesterton would be amused by the term “New Atheism”. There is no new atheism. The arguments against God are the same they have always been. What has changed, and Chesterton pointed this out even as it was happening, is that atheism has taken over the language. We all talk like we don’t believe in anything, that everything just happens by itself, and there are no wills at work. Thus, people blame all their behavior on what they cannot control because they cannot control themselves. No one takes responsibility. Everyone has become very passive. Chesterton is a defender of the most neglected of Catholic doctrine: free will. The New Evangelization is the same evangelization but it is always new. Chesterton says the Church is the only thing with good news because it is the only thing with news. In a world of materialism and fads, there is only old news because the fads fade the moment the light hits them. Chesterton offers a fresh voice even though he has been dead for almost 80 years. And we can still hear the laughter in his voice.