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Thursday 10 October 2019


How much is that halo?

For the first time in more than 40 years, the Catholic Church is about to declare a Briton a saint. But a whole industry exists to get candidates over the line…

By Catherine Pepinster

Two men. Two deeply spiritual individuals, both British, both converts to Roman Catholicism, both vilified by their enemies. One was a Victorian intellectual, famed for his writings, his composition of hymns and his advocacy of university education. The other was a prolific poet who dedicated his life to caring for the residents of a leper colony until he was murdered in the then Rhodesia in 1979 by thugs working for Robert Mugabe. To their supporters, both these men are among the holiest that ever lived.

But there the similarities end. This Sunday, thousands of people from the UK, including the Prince of Wales, will crowd into St Peter’s Square in Rome to hear Pope Francis announce that John Henry Newman, Victorian Englishman, author, intellectual and former Anglican, is a saint. There will be no such ceremony for John Bradburne, even though the Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe have acclaimed this man who dedicated himself to the destitute of the Mutemwa leper colony as a person of courage, virtue and prayer. And the reasons why one man is now being canonised with all the pomp and ceremony the Catholic Church can muster and the other is yet to be honoured? Miracles, and money.

John Bradburne with patients at Mutemwa leper colony in Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe

Canonisation is the means by which the Roman Catholic Church recognises individuals as holy people that it believes are in heaven. To do so is not to give a person an ecclesiastical version of a gong like an OBE, but to offer them as models whose example should be followed by other Catholics. They are not perceived as perfect but as unfailingly devoted to God and to humanity, to the point sometimes of self-sacrifice.

For someone like Newman and all the thousands of other people who have been canonised over the centuries, there are other criteria which must be met before being declared a saint. One is to have been a Catholic; another is to have been dead for at least five years under current church guidelines. But however much the Church lauds the individual’s holy life and virtues, it is not enough. To be a saint, it still insists – as it has done from the middle ages – that miracles conducted in the would-be saint’s name are the crucial evidence of sanctity.

A portrait of John Henry Newman (1801-1890),the English theologian and cardinal, painted by Emmeline Deane

Once, being made a saint merely required public acclamation but today it is a complicated and therefore costly business. First come two stages of basic recognition of a person’s holiness. It is when you reach consideration for the third stage – to be beatified and called Blessed – that the inquiries become more complicated and costs escalate. There is detailed research into the candidate’s life, testimony from witnesses as to holiness, and scrutiny of the person’s writings. The body of the individual is often exhumed and examined for signs of incorruption. Theologians are consulted.

It is at this stage that the hunt for miracles gets underway, with the Vatican requiring evidence of the dead person’s intervention in the world. It wants it to be demonstrated that a sick person prayed to the candidate, asking him or her to intercede to God for a miraculous cure. According to the Church it therefore reveals that the would-be saint is someone close to God in a way that their life, however well-lived on earth, cannot wholly demonstrate.

Doctors are hired to examine and judge these claims and are asked to judge whether they consider the cure of the person inexplicable. If they do, the Pope then declares whether or not he considers a miracle to have occurred. One such miraculous cure is required for the stage of beatification and another for canonisation.

But not everyone is convinced of the importance of miracles. John Cornwell, the leading Catholic Church commentator and author of the biography, Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint, is highly critical of the hunt for miracles to prove Newman’s worthiness.

“The Church sees the miracle as proving that the person is in a situation to intercede for the person who is sick. But I feel this is a reductionist, clumsy approach to emphasising a saint,” he said.

While Cornwell was researching his Newman biography, he examined closely the miracle that was attributed to Newman and led to his beatification in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the UK. Catholic deacon Jack Sullivan, who was bedridden after complicated spinal surgery, said he became pain-free and able to walk after praying for Newman’s intercession. “Suddenly I felt an intense heat, like an oven blast, and a strong tingling sensation throughout my whole body,” he said. “I felt an indescribable sense of joy and peace, and was totally transfixed by what I believed to be God’s presence.”

American Deacon Jack Suliivan gestures while explaining his illness at The Archbishop’s House at Westminster Cathedral in London in 2009

He continued: “When I became aware of what was happening around me I was standing upright and I exclaimed to the nurse that I felt no more pain.”

Convinced of Newman’s role in his recovery, Sullivan contacted the Oratorians, the order of priests to which Newman had belonged and who have been campaigning for years to get him recognised as a saint. At that point the order hired Dr Andrea Ambriosi, a Rome-based lawyer and experienced advocate or postulator to act for Newman’s cause. Huge amounts of documentation were produced, including doctors declaring the Sullivan miracle scientifically inexplicable.

But John Cornwell remains unconvinced. “I was able to see the documentation about Sullivan and I showed it to three top specialists in spinal problems and they were highly sceptical. They said there were many other cases where people had enjoyed pain relief. But in the Catholic system, at the end of the day, whatever anybody else says, it’s the Pope who declares that someone is a saint or not”.

To get to this stage of a papal declaration is often a protracted process. In Newman’s case, the Oratorian order had been focusing on Newman’s sanctity since the 1950s, long after he died in 1890 at the age of 89. Newman had been a prominent Anglican and Oxford academic until he converted to Roman Catholicism. He founded a university in Dublin, cared for the poor in Birmingham and was made a cardinal in 1879. According to Jack Valero, spokesman for the Oratorian Fathers, the order of priests that Newman founded: “The Oratorians have been promoting Newman constantly since the founding of the Friends of Cardinal Newman in 1972. The difficulty was that English people regarded Newman as an intellectual but they weren’t so enthusiastic about praying to saints.”

Pilgrims reach out to touch the casket containing relics of Cardinal Newman at Birmingham Oratory in 2010

That’s where Deacon John Sullivan came in, and then after him came another American. Melissa Villalobos, came forward to her local bishop to say that she had prayed to Newman – to whom she had a special devotion – to help her because she was suffering from a torn placenta during pregnancy which had caused a major haemorrhage. The bleeding stopped, doctors confirmed the placenta was no longer torn, and her daughter was later born normally.

The Oratorians again asked Dr Ambriosi to collect all the evidence regarding Villalobos to submit to the Vatican. The latest ‘positio’ of 400 pages of A4, including doctors’ reports, was submitted to Rome for examination and was finally approved by the Pope in February, paving the way for canonisation of Newman.

The amount of paperwork adds to the costs of the drive for canonisation – costs which deeply concerned Pope Francis. Since 2015, the Vatican has ruled that costs should be limited to €100,000 for canonisation, after investigative journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi found that some postulators were charging exorbitant prices. He revealed that in 2007, the fees charged for inquiries into the beatification for Antonio Rosmini, the 19th founder of the Rosminian order, reached €750,000. Nuzzi also discovered that around 450 postulators work the sainthood system. It cost €50,000 just to nominate a candidate, and one postulator even ran a printing press which had a virtual monopoly over printing documents. Pope Francis ordered an inquiry and a new system with close recording of donations and expenditure on investigation for sainthood. Yet even now, the system is costly.

“The Oratorians are not that rich an order and they had no idea if they could fund this final stage before canonisation,” explained Valero. The order’s Provost in the UK, Fr Ignatius Harrison, was deeply worried that Newman would miss out. Then, one day, he met a rich American for lunch in London who was devoted to Newman. “He explained about costs and the benefactor agreed to pay €100,000 in full. It means canonisation was possible”, said Valero.

Yet for all the talk of miracles, one senses that the Oratorians themselves are far more concerned with Newman’s life. Fr Ignatius Harrison, the provost or head of Birmingham Oratory who has played a leading role in the drive for canonisation, said: “We all feel that Newman has so much to say to the modern world, especially in his teachings on the supernatural nature of conscience as God’s law written on our hearts. Once Newman has been canonised he belongs to the whole Church and his voice can be heard by many more people.”

Yet it is the claimed miracles and the benefactor that have made the canonisation possible. There has been no such largesse for the case of John Bradburne, murdered by Robert Mugabe’s guerrillas in 1979 when he refused to leave the leper colony he ran in then Rhodesia, for his supporters have little by way of influence or cash. Instead they have relied on commitment, perseverance and prayer.

John Bradburne with patients at Mutemwa leper colony in Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe

John Bradburne, born in Cumbria in 1921, was an Anglican who converted to Catholicism in 1947, and after an army career, spent 16 years as a nomad, eventually writing to a priest friend to ask if there was a cave in Africa where he could pray. In 1969 he became warden of a leprosy settlement in Rhodesia and also joined an order of Franciscans. Ten year later he was shot dead after refusing to leave his patients.

Earlier this year the Congregation for the Causes of Saints gave the go-ahead for the cause of Bradburne’s beatification which is now being supported by the Zimbabwean Catholic bishops. The cause was officially launched at the site of the leper colony earlier this month, with 15,000 pilgrims and 400 priests. Here in Britain, those working for his beatification and eventual canonisation include his great-niece Kate Macpherson, who took over the cause from her late mother, Celia Brigstocke.

Both Macpherson and Brigstocke were raised and remain Anglicans. They struggled to understand the Catholic system but, said Macpherson: “Things changed when my mother found a lawyer, Dr Enrico Solanas, to take over the case as postulator”. Although the Zimbabwean bishops, once sceptical about Bradburne, are now supporting the cause, there is very little money. Macpherson estimates they have raised just £20,000 for the campaign. And there is also the issue of a miracle, which has yet to be discovered and investigated.

According to Macpherson, though, Bradburne is having an impact on people’s lives – and it’s all tied up in prayer. She says that she is praying a special prayer written to ask Bradburne to intercede for people. “It’s making a difference. It’s changing things for my family. I’m very moved,” she said. “And I’m very hopeful that we’ll get there”.

For others keen to see the people they most admire made saints, it’s clear that it is not just what you know about the would-be saint but who you know. In the case of Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop murdered while celebrating Mass in 1980 at a time when he was highly critical of the harsh government regime, the key was his campaigners’ decision to hire Fr Vincenzo Paglia as postulator. At the time Paglia was a parish priest in Rome – he later rose to become bishop and take a role in the Vatican – but he already understood the ways of Rome.

Nuns attend to Archbishop Oscar A. Romero minutes after he was assassinated by four gunmen as he said mass at the Divine Providence Hospital’s Chapel, El Salvador

Julian Filochowski, chair of the Romero Trust, who was a friend of his and campaigned hard for his canonisation, recalls that the late Cardinal Lupez Trujillo of Colombia was determined that Romero not be canonised and lobbied hard to convince the Vatican that Romero was politically left-wing and theologically unorthodox. Lopez Trujillo’s complaints, although not upheld, got Romero’s cause stuck in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the Inquisition’s successor – for years, going nowhere.

“It was all looking bleak”, recalls Filochowski. “Then Paglia organised a new biography of Romero. He knew that it should play down what the right did not like and play up others, and it helped. Soon after Benedict XVI said that Romero should be beatified. But although Lopez Trujillo died in 2009, Benedict XVI did little else. Lopez Trujillo had intimidated him”.

Pope Francis greet the faithfuls at the end of the canonisation ceremony of seven new saints, including Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero, at Vatican Basilica in 2018

In 2013, another Latin American, Cardinal Jorge Bergolio of Buenos Aires was elected as Pope Francis and told the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that they should press ahead with Romero’s canonisation. Romero eventually became a saint in October last year in a ceremony where Pope Francis praised him for sacrificing his own safety “to be close to the poor and his people.”

As Filochowski put it about canonisation: “If a Pope wants it to happen, you’re in the express lane”.

Photographs courtesy The John Bradburne Memorial Society www.johnbradburne.com & Getty Images

Further reading

– The Idea of a University is Newman’s most celebrated work, an argument for a broad, liberal education amongst a community of scholars.

– John Henry Newman by Ian Ker is the first comprehensive biography of Newman the man and the thinker.

Merchants in the Temple by Gianluigi Nuzzi is an account of the challenge of corruption facing Pope Francis

– In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins takes aim at the Catholic Church’s requirement for miracles to qualify for sainthood


Catherine Pepinster

Commentator on religion and author of The Keys and the Kingdom: the British & the papacy