On July 29, the 13th annual G.K. Chesterton Pilgrimage will take place in England between London and Beaconsfield, from the church where the British writer was baptized to the town west of the English capital where he died in 1936.
The 27-mile walk, organized by the Catholic G.K. Chesterton Society, is an initiative in support of the writer’s cause for beatification, which is not opened yet.
The pilgrimage started with a conference organized in London 14 years ago by the U.S.-based Chesterton Society to reflect on the validity of a hypothetical cause of beatification for Chesterton.
After underlining the possible “holiness” of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the speakers came to the conclusion that the society, not being Catholic, could not promote the cause. But among the participants was Stuart McCullough, who himself converted to Catholicism years before precisely by reading Chesterton. Back home, McCullough opened a website and printed a prayer card. Doing so, he became the founder of what is today the Catholic G.K. Chesterton Society.
The first pilgrimage took place in 2011 with four people and grew to what is now more than 100 people who participate in the event. The number of pilgrims is always a surprise.
“Nobody ever books to come; it’s very Chestertonian,” McCullough told CNA, alluding to the whimsical, free-spirited character of the famous apologist and author of “The Napoleon of Notting Hill.”
The walk begins in front of St. George Anglican Church, located on Campden Hill in London, where Chesterton was baptized in 1874 at 1 month old. The pilgrims will then walk along the canal, into the countryside, and will attend a Mass at a convent, where the bishop of Northampton, David Oakley, will preach. The pilgrimage will end at Beaconsfield, where Chesterton lived later in life and was buried.
The spirituality of gratitude
The participants, who come from various backgrounds, will unite in prayer, asking for the intercession of Chesterton, whom McCullough believes is a saint. The core of Chesterton’s spirituality could be described as “gratitude to God for everything,” according to McCullough.
“He really had a sense of being thankful to God for everything, for all the things we just take for granted, all day. He had absolute thanks to God,” McCullough said.
Chesterton himself confided this: “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
A pro-life approach
McCullough along with his wife runs the Good Counsel Network, a Catholic pro-life organization that helps pregnant women and organizes prayer vigils outside of abortion clinics. He chose to give a touch resolutely pro-life to this pilgrimage. Year after year, the organizers have raised more than £20,000 (more than $25,000) for projects supporting mothers and babies.
Chesterton “was totally pro-life,” McCullough asserted. “If Chesterton was alive today, he would be at the forefront of the pro-life movement. He was living in England before abortion was legal, but he wrote against abortion. His poem ‘By the babe unborn’ is incredible,” McCullough said, adding that “Chesterton wrote against eugenics, and it wasn’t popular to be against eugenics then. Most mainstream politicians in England were quite in favor of eugenics. He was ahead of his time.”
Almost 90 years after his death, Chesterton’s beatification cause remains controversial. In 2012, the then bishop of Northampton, Peter John Haworth Doyle, opened an investigation into the matter before choosing not to open the cause.
McCullough said the new bishop, Oakley, may be amenable to opening the cause and believes the bishop’s decision to preach for the pilgrims is “a good step in the right direction.”
The pilgrimage has received support from a few groups around the world, including Italy and the U.S. In addition to the prayer published by the Catholic G.K. Chesterton Society — and translated in various languages including Igbo, Hungarian, Croatian, Urdu, and Lithuanian — those who want to join the initiative can send their intentions to the organizers.
The eventual cause of beatification requires a miracle through Chesterton’s intercession. For the moment, McCullough admitted, the promoters of the cause are confronted with a problem.
“The main thing that Chesterton does,” he explained, “is convert people to the faith. It’s a good thing, but when it comes to beatifying somebody, it doesn’t count.”
Even if “the whole of England converts tomorrow because of Chesterton, even if its 66 million people become Catholics,” McCullough argued, the Church needs a “very clear physical healing” to proceed to beatification.
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Nevertheless, every year the pilgrims testify that their prayers have been answered, according to McCullough.
“A woman asked for her husband to become Catholic, and the next year he came on the pilgrimage as a Catholic. Another woman shared that she’s going to be late to the pilgrimage because last year she was praying for her grandson to become Catholic, and this year he’s starting his baptism course and she’s going with him,” McCullough shared. “We see all the time constant conversions.”
Brought up as a Unitarian, Chesterton gradually moved closer to the Catholic Church until coming into full communion in 1922. He wrote numerous books in defense of the Catholic faith.
Whether officially a saint or not, Chesterton continues to inspire pilgrims from the age of 12 up until their 70s and beyond. And in his spirit, after the final prayer at his grave, the pilgrims will be popping into Chesterton’s pub, where he used to spend most of his time writing.