IN RECENT WEEKS came news of the approval of another miracle attributed to the intercession of Bl. John Henry Newman. This means that there is now a high probability he will soon be canonized. October seems the propitious time for all things Newman, and if it comes on my birthday—13 October—I shall be chuffed indeed!
Also in recent weeks came news that the courts have finally directed New York to surrender the body of Archbishop Fulton Sheen to Peoria, the diocese of his birth and upbringing. This unseemly squabble between two dioceses has not been edifying to Catholics, and a cause of mirth, or worse, to non-Catholics. Hopefully this means the cause for canonization of Fulton Sheen can now advance. The first prelate to engage with modern media, he was new-evangelising before the term New Evangelisation was coined. First on radio broadcasts and then on the new-fangled television, he cut no Catholic corners, but spoke in terms both dignified and comprehensible that made his message attractive. Chalk in hand and standing before a clean blackboard, garbed in full episcopal fig—including ferraiolo—he would be seen as quaint today if he did the same, and probably clericalist, given that the mob simplistically equates clericalism with clerical dress. For his time, however, he was an adept and engaging preacher of the faith and even Protestants were impressed. Of course, since he cut such a fine figure and moved in elevated and even fashionable circles, he was accused of vanity and self-promotion. Self-conscious and self-confident he was; utterly faithful and, when it really mattered, selfless he was in equal measure, if not more.
Both these men are worthy of canonization, not least because they were men of their day, aware of contemporary spiritual needs and adept at serving them. Both were of towering intellects, though Newman spoke more directly to the upper and more educated classes, whereas Sheen had a gift of distilling complex teaching into digestible servings for the ordinary man and woman.
Just as importantly, they remind us that there is more to holiness than being merely nice, or generous, or kind. Much more. We should beware of adopting unawares the secular travesty of sanctity: the smiling, non-threatening do-gooder. Sanctity has always embraced far more important qualities: a commitment to truth even in the face of persecution; a single-minded pursuit of one’s particular vocation or mission in life; a life marked by prayer and divine worship; and above all, a selflessness and self-sacrifice in service of God and Church. These qualities fulfil the biblical paradigm of sanctity, and they endure whatever the place or time in which we live. They are perpetual marks of holiness.
With this in mind, I commend to you the cause of Archbishop Bede Polding OSB (1794-1877), first bishop, later archbishop, of Sydney. A true missionary monk, he was a member of the community of St Gregory at Downside, and was sent to build up the Church and its faith in the raw and remote colony of New South Wales. Arriving first as Vicar Apostolic of New Holland (a vast territory) in 1835, he laboured tirelessly and zealously for his flock, which was until when into his ministry principally the marginalised Irish minority. As an Englishman of impeccable standing, he had entrée to the establishment; as a Catholic he had common cause and creed with the largely Catholic Irish. He built churches and schools; he journeyed through the outback on horseback, making pastoral visitations, administering confirmation as he went . He stood firm for his flock in a sectarian society, and built up its self-sufficiency not least in schools and hospitals. He attended vice-regal levées in full episcopal regalia (to the horror of the evangelical Anglican establishment) and met convicts as they arrived in Sydney in transport ships that today would be deemed criminally unfit for animals.
He was a man of vision, but also of unrealistic dreams. He dreamt of an abbey-diocese in the medieval English mould, and for more than four decades it endured in unfertile soil. The Catholic clergy coming to Australia in dribs and drabs were almost always Irish and secular—rather than religious—clergy. They were not about to be made into English monks! The dream died hard in Polding, and he built a school and a university college in pursuit the more modern aspects of the English Benedictine dream. The school was good but died; St John’s College within the University of Sydney (my alma mater) endures to this day as evidence that Polding’s dream was not totally unrealistic. So too do the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, a congregation Polding founded and the reach of which extends as far as Japan. So, too, Sydney’s Catholic cathedral of St Mary—the third he raised, the first two burning down to Polding’s utter heartbreak—stands as much as a memorial to him as anything else could be. Built on the pennies of the poor, it gave the poor Catholic population something worthy of their sacrifice, and something of which to be justly proud as a legacy to their descendants.
Polding was no born administrator, and he was not the most decisive of men. For all his pastoral skill and zeal for souls, he was nevertheless a tad unworldly, though most certainly learned and scholarly. Yet undoubtedly he was the right man at the right time in the right place. His legacy is not merely the Church in Sydney but no less the Church throughout Australia. As a mentor to Bernard Ullathorne, his legacy can be found also in England, in the Church in Birmingham, of which Ullathorne was first bishop after the restoration of the hierarchy.
Percival Serle summed him up thus:
Polding’s overflowing kindness, sympathy and humility, helped him to do wonderful work among the neglected convicts during his early days in Australia. But these very qualities led at times to indecision and weakness in administrative work. A dignified, scholarly and eloquent preacher, he was loved by all his flock and respected by all outside it.The Dictionary of Australian Biography (1949)
There is a cultus (ie, an ecclesial following) for Bede Polding, seeking his canonization. Any honest assessment of his life will find evidence of his sanctity. Raised to the altars, he would again be the right man at the right time in the right place as a saint of the Church. You can follow the activity of the Guild of Archbishop Polding at its Facebook page or at its blog, In Those Days. More importantly, you can join in praying for his canonization using the prayer below.