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Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2494

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Sainthood Cause of Father Ignatius Spencer makes progress

Fr John Kearns

 

The Vatican has taken a key step along the road to declaring a priest related to Princes William and Harry to be a saint.

A 20-year investigation into the life and works of Father Ignatius Spencer has been approved by Vatican historians.

The document, known as a positio, has now been passed over to theologians of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

If they decide there is no theological error in the writings of Father Spencer, they will then declare the Victorian Passionist priest to be “Venerable”.

The Catholic Church will then continue the search for two miracles needed first for his beatification – when he will be given the title of Blessed – and then his canonisation, when he will be declared to be a saint.

Fr John Kearns, the British Passionist Provincial, described the development as a “step down the road” to sainthood.

“The positio has been finished and finalised and has been submitted to Rome and has got through the historical commission and is now going to the theologians,” said Fr Kearns, pictured above praying at the tomb of Fr Spencer.

“We would invite people to pray that the sanctity of Father Ignatius Spencer can eventually be recognised by the Church.”

Princes William and Harry are related to Eton-educated Father Spencer through their mother Diana, Princess of Wales.

Members of the aristocratic Spencer family, he was her great great great uncle and also a great uncle of Winston Churchill.

Ignatius SpencerHe was given the name George when he was born in Admiralty House in 1799, the youngest son of the 2nd Earl Spencer, the First Lord of the Admiralty.

He grew up at the Spencer ancestral 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 would have met such people as Lord Nelson, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Isambard Kingdom Brunel who were regular visitors to the family home.

But he turned his back on a life of immense wealth and comfort by converting to the Catholic faith – a move which horrified his contemporaries.

He later joined the newly formed Passionist order, and was ordained priest under the name Father Ignatius of St Paul.

He ministered among Irish migrants in the West Midlands and people so poor that they lived in caves dug out of slag heaps.

The priest also took advantage of the rail network that was being laid out by the Victorians to travel widely throughout Britain to preach missions.

He died from a heart attack in 1864 while he was walking through Scottish countryside to visit a godson.

Church scholars say Father Spencer was about 150 years ahead of his time in his quest for Christian unity.

He has been credited with “preparing the ground” for the ecumenical movement of the northern Europe in the late 20th century.

Father Kearns said: “He was always asking people to pray for Christian unity. The expression he used was ‘unity in the truth’.

“The mainstream thing (among Catholics) would have been ‘everybody convert to Catholicism’.

“He wasn’t against that and had done that himself but he could see that something else was needed and that was his objective.”

In spite of his absolute commitment to his faith Father Spencer retained a great love for cricket, which he described as “my mania”.

He often organised matches among the servants of his household as a young man and later, while serving as spiritual director of St Mary’s Seminary in Oscott, Birmingham, he taught students for the priesthood also how to play.

His body is entombed in the Church of St Anne and Blessed Dominic in Sutton in St Helens, Merseyside.

He lies beside Blessed Dominic Barberi – the Passionist priest who received Blessed John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church in 1845 – and Shrewsbury-born Mother Elizabeth Prout, the founder of the Passionist Sisters whose cause for sainthood has also been opened.

The Rt Rev. Mark Davies, the Bishop of Shrewsbury, said: “I am sure Catholics welcome the progress of the cause of Father Ignatius Spencer, recalling a heroic and often neglected chapter of the story of the Church in this land.

“In facing the challenge of secularism Father Ignatius and his fellow Passionists, Blessed Dominic Barbari and Mother Elizabeth Prout remind us of the missionary energy and purpose which marked ‘the second spring’ of the Catholic Church in England.”

 

(Photos by Simon Caldwell)