A retired New York actor now living in Georgia has taken on a project few Catholics would ever consider: Gregory Nassif St. John has begun the process that he hopes will lead to the canonization of Catherine of Aragon (or Katharine of Aragon, as Nassif St. John uses the traditional English spelling of her name).
He first discovered Catherine in 1970, when he became captivated by the award-winning BBC series, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.” The first episode followed the story of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, whom he pushed aside in order to marry Anne Boleyn.
“Her story touched me very deeply,” Nassif St. John told Our Sunday Visitor. “I knew she was being treated unfairly and cruelly. Her story stuck with me my whole life.” Recently, Nassif St. John’s sympathy blossomed into something unexpected — his conviction that Catherine should be canonized by the Catholic Church.
With the encouragement of his parish priests, Nassif St. John wrote to Bishop Michael Evans of East Anglia (the diocese where Catherine died and is buried) and Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, seeking their advice. Archbishop Nichols and Bishop Evans both expressed their support but emphasized that there must be clear evidence of devotion to Catherine among the Catholic faithful.
And, in fact, there is evidence of popular devotion, at least in England. According to Anglican Father Charles Taylor, dean of Peterborough, every January Peterborough Cathedral, the site of Catherine’s grave, hosts a three-day commemoration of the life of this holy queen. There is a memorial service, usually attended by about 1,000 people, including members of the city government of Peterborough and representatives from Spain. Since the English Reformation, Peterborough has been an Anglican cathedral, yet during the festival the cathedral clergy welcome Catholic priests to say Mass at the cathedral’s High Altar (the altar closest to Catherine’s tomb).
In 2011, 600 people attended the Mass. It has become a tradition the night before the Mass for the people to join a candlelight procession around the cathedral to the tomb — a re-enactment of Catherine’s funeral in 1536, when 200 mourners left 1,000 candles burning at her grave.
“Quite a number of our visitors come to see Catherine’s grave,” Dean Taylor wrote in a recent email. “A few lay flowers or a pomegranate symbol of Aragon] and even if most do not audibly or even consciously utter words of prayer, the visit to see and remember is to some extent an act of prayer in itself.”
To increase awareness of Catherine and her cause, in 2011 Nassif St. John launched a website, Katharine of Aragon: The Official Website for Her Cause (katharineofaragon.com/wordpress).
According Msgr. Richard Soseman, a Vatican official and former episcopal delegate for the cause of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “One of the primary indicators of the possible candidacy for sainthood of an individual is that there is popular devotion to the person. So, before a possible cause gets to the bishop, laypeople should form themselves into groups, guilds, associations, foundations, etc., to promote the life, holiness, teachings and example of the candidate.
“The laity should be wildly enthusiastic about their candidate and share the good news, which they have as a result of their devotion, with others. It is possible to have prayer cards printed as well as biographical brochures or books and to reproduce the writings of the candidate.”
Promoter of the cause
The request that Catherine of Aragon’s cause be initiated would be made to the bishop of the diocese in which she died — in this case, the Catholic diocese of East Anglia in England — by one of the associations or guilds. This association becomes the Promoter of the Cause, which is an honor but also comes with great responsibility because the Promoter must finance the cause. Should the diocese begin to investigate Catherine’s life, writings and merits, the Promoter of the Cause will be billed for all expenses, such as collecting and copying documents from archival sources in England, Spain and probably the Vatican.
If Catherine’s case reaches this stage, it shifts from a grass-roots movement to what is known as the Diocesan Phase of a Cause for Beatification and Canonization. The bishop will appoint a variety of officers, everyone from notaries to typists, but the most important official at the diocesan level is the episcopal delegate who represents the bishop in every facet of the local investigation.
The episcopal delegate interviews all of the expert witnesses individually. He oversees the theologians who must review and approve the orthodoxy of the chief writings of the candidate, and he oversees all of the relevant historical data, which can be collected from the various archives that might have information regarding the candidate.
Since Catherine of Aragon has been dead for nearly 500 years, her case is handled as a historic cause: obviously, no one who knew Catherine can be interviewed, so researchers will collect her writings and the writings of others who knew the queen well.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics”(Image, $16) and “Saints Behaving Badly” (Doubleday, $15.95).