18th century priest who is a distant uncle of Prince William and Harry is a step closer to sainthood after Pope issues decree praising life of ‘heroic virtue’
- Pope Francis’s decree said Father Ignatius Spencer lived life of ‘heroic virtue’
- He now needs two miracles attributed to him if he is to be made a saint
- Was the great, great, great uncle of William and Harry’s mother, Princess Diana
A priest related to Princes William and Harry has been moved a step closer to sainthood by the Pope.
A decree issued by Pope Francis said Father Ignatius Spencer lived a life of ‘heroic virtue’.
Englishman Father Spencer, who was born George Spencer in 1799, now needs two miracles attributed to him if he is to be made a saint.
Father Spencer, who is buried in the church of St Anne and Blessed Dominic in St Helens, Warrington, was the great, great, great uncle of William and Harry’s late mother, Princess Diana.
The most recent English person to reach the status of sainthood was Cardinal Sir John Henry Newman, who was canonised in 2019.
A priest related to Princes William and Harry has been moved a step closer to sainthood by the Pope
Pope France’s intervention means Father Spencer is now honoured as ‘venerable’ in the Catholic Church.
Father Ignatius was also the great uncle of wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.
The move by the Pope follows decades of historical and theological study of the personal example and the extensive writings of Fr Spencer.
Father Ben Lodge, a priest who has worked on the sainthood cause of Spencer, said: ‘Needless to say we are all delighted.’
The Right Reverand Mark Davies, the Catholic Bishop of Shrewsbury, also welcomed the progress in Spencer’s sainthood cause.
‘I was delighted to hear that the heroic virtue of the now Venerable Ignatius Spencer has been recognised by the Church.
A decree issued by Pope Francis said Father Ignatius Spencer lived a life of ‘heroic virtue’
‘Ignatius Spencer has connections with almost every corner of England where his tireless mission activity brought him, including this Shrewsbury diocese.
‘Venerable Ignatius Spencer offers a striking example as we emerge from the pandemic – never to be daunted by difficulties, rather to calmly continue our mission confident we each have a contribution to make to rebuilding the life of the Church and society.’
The priest distinguished himself by shunning a life of extreme wealth and luxury to work with the poor of Victorian England, and advocating Christian unity more than a century ahead of his time.
The priest, who is buried in the church of St Anne and Blessed Dominic in St Helens, Warrington, was the great, great, great uncle of William and Harry’s late mother, Princess Diana (pictured above in 1997)
The process to become a saint is long and arduous.
Usually someone must wait at least five years after their death before they are considered for sainthood, although this can be waived by the Pope.
The rationale is the ‘five year rule’ acts as cooling off period allowing a person’s case to be evaluated objectively.
This has been waived in the process of some, Mother Teresa died in 1997 and the process to her Sainthood began in 1999, and Pope Benedict XVI set aside the waiting period for his predecessor, John Paul II.
However others, such as Saint Bede, had to wait 1,164 years after his death before he became a saint.
The second step is to ‘become a servant of God’.
Once the five years have passed, the bishop of the diocese where the person died can open up an investigation into the individual’s life and decides if they are sufficiently holy to be put forward for sainthood.
Evidence is then gathered on the person, including witness accounts of how the person acted during their life.
The priest grew up at the Spencer family home at Althorp, Northamptonshire, where Diana was buried after she was killed in a car crash in Paris in August 1997
If enough evidence if gathered, the bishop then asks the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to make a recommendation to the Pope for permission to open the case.
As soon as the case is accepted for consideration, the individual is called a ‘servant of God.’
Once this happens, proof of a life of ‘heroic virtue’ needs to be shown.
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints will look over evidence of the deceased.
If this is approved, the case is then passed to the Pope.
It is then up to the Pope to decide if that the person lived a life of ‘heroic virtue’ and become ‘venerable’.
The next stage is beatification.
For an individual to achieve beatification they need to have a miracle attributed to prayers made to them after their death.
If the prayers have been granted, they are used to prove that the deceased is in prison and therefore able to interceded with God on the behalf of those on earth.
However, the miracle requirement is waived in the case of a martyr – someone who died for their faith.
Once they’ve been beatified, the candidate is then given the title ‘blessed’.
The final step to sainthood is Canonisation.
To reach this stage, they need a second miracle attributed to prayers made to them after they’ve been beatified.
Martyrs, however, only need one verified miracle, post-beatification, to become a saint.
The life of Father Ignatius Spencer
Spencer was given the name George when he was born into one of the top five wealthiest English families of the time, in Admiralty House in 1799.
He was the youngest son of the 2nd Earl Spencer, the First Lord of the Admiralty.
He grew up at the Spencer family home at Althorp, Northamptonshire, where Diana was buried after she was killed in a car crash in Paris in August 1997.
When Spencer was a child, Althorp was visited by people including Battle of Trafalgar hero Horatio Nelson, painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and eminent engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
He was educated at Eton and Cambridge but turned his back on a life of immense wealth by converting to the Catholic faith a decade after he was shocked by a scene in the Mozart opera Don Giovanni which sees the eponymous anti-hero taken to hell by a troop of devils.
Spencer interpreted his experience as a ‘holy warning’ and he went to Rome to train as a priest, eventually joining the Passionist order.
On his return to England, the priest worked among some of the poorest people in the country, including migrants from the Irish Potato Famine who were living in caves dug out of West Midlands slag heaps.
He started the Movement for Christian Unity and has been credited as a founding father of the ecumenical movement of northern Europe of the late 20th century.
He also helped Elizabeth Prout – the ‘Mother Teresa of Manchester’ who was declared Venerable last month by Pope Francis – to found her religious order the Passionist Sisters.
The pair are buried alongside each other in St Helens.
Fr Spencer preached missions across in Britain, Ireland and Europe, and was attacked in Liverpool and London for his Catholic faith.
Throughout his life, Fr 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, as Dean of St Mary’s Seminary in Oscott, Birmingham, he taught student priests how to play the sport.
He contracted tuberculosis from a workhouse of Staffordshire but he died from a heart attack in 1864 near Monteith House, Carstairs, Scotland, while travelling to visit his godson.
If he is canonised, he will, like Elizabeth Prout, inevitably be seen as one of the saints of the ‘Second Spring’, the post-Reformation confessors of the Victorian Catholic revival.
The most prominent of these, St John Henry Newman, was canonised by Pope Francis in October 2019.
There are more than 200 beatified martyrs of the Reformation era who are yet to be recognised as saints.
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