Miracle would clear way for beatification of Passionist priest
BY SIMON CALDWELL
THE CAUSE to canonise a priest who is related to the Royal Princes William and Harry has taken a dramatic step forward with the conclusion of the first phase of investigations.
The results of an exhaustive 12-year inquiry into the possible sainthood of Fr Ignatius Spencer were handed to the Vatican last week by Catholic officials in Britain.
A tribunal in the Archdiocese of Liverpool concluded that there was nothing in the work or 22 volumes of writings by Fr Spencer to suggest he did not live a life of "heroic virtue".
If the Vatican agrees with the findings it could mean that Fr Spencer could be beatified if a miracle is attributed to his intercession. A second miracle will then be needed for him to be declared a saint.
Fr Ben Lodge, a Passionist priest in Herne Bay, Kent, and the postulator of Fr Spencer's cause, said that the relevant documents were now with the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints after arriving in Rome on Thursday last week.
He said that investigations into the life of Fr Spencer had found "nothing that would militate against the cause progressing".
"The next stage is to hope and pray for a miracle that can be attributed to the intercession of Ignatius," said Fr Lodge.
He added that so far no one was claiming to be cured of an illness as a favour obtained through the intercession of Fr Spencer, who has the title "Servant of God".
Fr Spencer was a member of one of the five top aristocratic families in England and the Royal Princes are related to him through their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. Born in Admiralty House in 1799, he was the great-great-great uncle of Lady Diana, whose family name was Spencer, and was also the great-uncle of Winston Churchill.
The youngest son of the 2nd Earl Spencer, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Fr Spencer grew up at the family home at Althorp, Northamptonshire, where Lady Diana was buried after she was killed in a Paris car crash in August 1997.
As a child he was accustomed to spending time in the company of such people as Lord Nelson. who was a frequent dinner guest at the family's London home on the fringe of Green Park.
But after an education at Eton and Cambridge University he turned his back on a life of immense wealth and comfort by converting to the Catholic faith — a move which shocked his contemporaries — and became a Catholic priest.
He later joined the recently formed Passionist order. changed his name from George to Ignatius and tirelessly worked for the conversion of England to the Catholic faith until his death in 1864.
Along with other early Passionists, he was initially convinced that the conversion of the country might be brought about in his own lifetime through prayer, holiness and honest dialogue with non-Catholics.
Church scholars say he was also about 150 years ahead of his time in his commitment to establishing the "unity in truth" of all Christians, a theme later embraced by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. He was later dubbed the "apostle of Christian unity".
Fr Spencer, who became the Passionist provincial on the death of Blessed Dominic Barberi, was at the forefront of the Catholic revival and debated the Catholic faith with John Henry Newman at a time when the future cardinal was a convinced Anglican.
Fr Lodge spent more than a decade transcribing three long diaries written in minute handwriting by Fr Spencer.
He said that he soon became aware that among Fr Spencer's greatest achievements was "preparing the ground" for the ecumenical movement of northern Europe in the late 20th century.
"He was also heroic in following his vow of poverty." said Fr Lodge. "He gave up being a member of one of the wealthiest families in the country in which he had a massive income and ended up going out to Ireland to work with the victims of the potato famine?'
Fr Spencer's conversion to the Catholic faith was gradual but one of the key moments came while he was watching Mozart's opera Don Giovanni in Paris in 1870.
He later said the hauling off to hell of the eponymous anti-hero caused him to reflect on his own state.
His final conversion to Catholicism, however, was largely a result of becoming convinced that Scripture alone was insufficient in determining doctrine.
In keeping with the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council. he saw sacred tradition as a vital second pillar of authority and came to believe in the primacy of the pope.
As a priest, Fr Spencer preached vigorously on the subject of holiness. When in Ireland he encouraged the Irish to become missionaries to their English enemies and to work and pray for their conversion. He encouraged the bishops of European countries to ask for prayers for the conversion of England.
He was also willing to approach Protestant ministers in England to discuss unity with them.
But his efforts were not always welcomed. In Liverpool, for instance, he was punched in the head twice while wearing clerical dress. He was also almost lynched by a mob in Charterhouse Square, London.
Besides God, Fr Spencer's other great love was cricket, a sport he described as "my mania". He often organised matches among students to the priesthood while he was the Dean of St Mary's Seminary in Oscott, Birmingham.
Fr Lodge has suggested that Fr Spencer might make the ideal "patron saint of cricketers" if canonised.
The transfer of Fr Spencer's Cause to Rome comes a week after Pope Benedict XVI announced the canonisation this June of one of his contemporaries, Blessed Charles of. St Andrew, a Dutch Passionist priest who worked with the sick and poor of Dublin.
Fr Spencer's body is entombed in St Anne's Church in St Helens, Lancashire, alongside Blessed Dominic Barberi, an Italian Passionist priest beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1963.
The Passionist order was founded by St Paul of the Cross in the 18th century to preach the message of a God of love, revealed in the Passion and death of Jesus Christ.
The rule of the order is strict and severe, with a great emphasis on poverty. Its members are expected to spend half of each year in prayer "at the foot of the Cross".