Does G.K. Chesterton Have the Makings of a Saint?

“It is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.”

G.K. Chesterton at work in his study
G.K. Chesterton at work in his study (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It is a mystery that could have come straight out of a G.K. Chesterton detective story. 

We have a suspect. 

We have a priest investigating that suspect.

We have a mystery to solve. 

The suspect is none other than G.K. Chesterton: famed author, bon vivant and Catholic convert. 

The priest on this occasion called to investigate is not Father Brown, the renowned literary detective created by Chesterton, but Canon John Udris. Canon Udris some years back was tasked to investigate whether there were grounds for Chesterton’s cause for canonization to be opened. 

So the “mystery” is a simple, if profound, one: Does G.K. Chesterton have the makings of a saint?  

It is a paradox that Chesterton, who lived and loved life as much as any of his pagan friends, is now being considered for honors that pertain to an altogether different realm, something that would not have been lost on the Englishman. 

The fact that a latter day “Father Brown” is investigating the man who created the best clerical detective in print would also, no doubt, cause much mirth to Chesterton. 

As in all the best detective stories, however, in recent days, the plot has thickened.

Press reports have proclaimed that the cause had been “opened.” Chesterton has cleared the first hurdle — if such a mental image can be maintained — and is now being swept forward to the altars of Holy Mother Church without constraint or hindrance. 

Not so fast. 

Chesterton was a journalist. He may have been a first-rate novelist, short-story writer, playwright and composer of poetry and hymns, to say nothing of philosopher and theologian, but he started out as a journalist and remained so until his death. Therefore, for those who are supposed to deal in facts, it is ironic, if perhaps understandable, that it is journalists who have sought to have Chesterton canonized first, without due process. 

And yet, according to the only man in England who knows, Canon Udris, no cause has been opened. Not yet, anyway. And, furthermore, it will not be opened until the same canon finishes compiling the record of his findings and then makes his report to the bishop of Northampton. 

The Diocese of Northampton has the honor of investigating Chesterton’s sanctity. This was the location within which Chesterton was last seen alive — he died in Beaconsfield. So it is to one of the smallest and least-known of English Catholic dioceses that many eyes will turn at the end of this July, when the “mystery” of G.K. Chesterton will move some measure towards a resolution. 

It is, however, by no means a foregone conclusion as to what will happen next. As in the best detective stories, we shall be kept guessing until the moment of the denouement. It is a shame that Canon Udris and his bishop are not to make their findings public in the library of an English country manor with the suspect present as the mystery is finally explained.

No matter. However the announcement is made, it will be of great interest on both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed far beyond. 

Chesterton has this to say about holiness: “It is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” 

One only has to run one’s eyes over the titles of some of his non-fiction works to see that Chesterton saw much of our present woes when they were but “children,” and his writings contradict each and every one of their supposed “wisdoms”: 

  • Divorce vs. Democracy (1916)
  • Eugenics and other Evils (1922)
  • The Superstitions of the Sceptic (1925)
  • The Outline of Sanity (1926)
  • The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926)
  • Social Reform vs. Birth Control (1927)

It is true that Chesterton will be as much of a contradiction to this our age as to the times given to him. But for us he will be more than that. Take this, for example, which he also wrote on the subject of saints and sanctity: 

The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote.

An “antidote” to our ills, yes, Chesterton’s laugh alone shall be that, but also a reminder that a saint is the sanest of us all, and that sanctity is our only sanity in every sense: 

The one thing which separates a saint from ordinary men is his readiness to be one with ordinary men. In this sense the word ordinary must be understood in its native and noble meaning, which is connected with the word order.

That someone so chaotic as Chesterton, renowned for forgetting his way from one side of Fleet Street to the other, should, in this age of moral chaos, be our guide and our hope in pointing us to a world better ordered is paradox indeed. But, then, the science of sanctity that Chesterton lived was one where: 

Laughter has something in common with the ancient winds of faith and inspiration; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes men forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves.

Like so many others, next month I shall await the much-anticipated news from Northampton with a smile upon my lips.