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A special grace from overlooked beatification


When I learned in the summer of 2000 that Benedictine Abbot Columba Marmion (1858-1923) was to be beatified I rejoiced. Finally I related personally and strongly to one of the 996 persons that have been beatified by Pope John Paul II.

When I was 22 and a Jesuit novice I discovered the three books of Marmion. They informed and inspired me. I copied paragraphs from them in a notebook. I prayed over many of the sentences. I remember vividly today the sense of discovery and elation I experienced as I tried to assimilate Marmion’s synthesis of the gospels, the 13 epistles of St. Paul and the church fathers.

The three books Christ: The Life of a Soul, Christ in His Mysteries and Christ the Ideal of the Monk were put together by the Benedictine monks who listened to the conferences Marmion presented at his monastery in Belgium.

One of the many striking things emphasized in Marmion’s books was the directive of Christ at the Last Supper: “Love one another as I have loved you.” I have tried to adapt that in speaking to countless audiences. I was pleased to learn that these beautiful words are on the tombstone of Mother Teresa.

After I read of his beatification Sept. 3, I borrowed one of Marmion’s books from the Georgetown University library. The same rich material was there, but the magic I experienced years ago did not return. I knew this material well. It constitutes the basic ingredients of Christian spirituality.

But I am still very happy that a priest whose works and writings had meant so much to me is now beatified. I was also pleased to learn that it was the Irish Jesuits, whose school in Dublin Marmion attended, that initiated the move in 1936 for his canonization.

Joseph Marmion was born in Ireland in 1858 of a prosperous merchant and a French mother. His father met his future wife when she was an official in the French embassy in Ireland. The couple had nine children, three of whom became nuns. Joseph became a diocesan priest and a professor at a seminary but at the age of 30 joined the Benedictines in Belgium. There was no Benedictine abbey at that time in Ireland. He took the name Columba after the famous Irish saint.

Marmion’s books, which came towards the end of his career, were translated into 15 languages and went into many editions; they had a preface made up of the enthusiastic approval of Pope Benedict XV, Cardinal Bourne of Westminster and Cardinal Mercier of Belgium.

John Paul II put it well at the beatification when he said that Marmion left “an authentic treasury of spiritual truth.”

The Benedictines understood the exceptional quality of Marmion. Ten years after his death, a Benedictine monastery named Marmion was established in Aurora, Ill. The miracle cited for the beatification came in 1966 when a woman from St. Cloud, Minn., visited Marmion’s tomb in Belgium and was cured of terminal cancer.

The beatification of Marmion was for me a special grace. I am not sure what to think of the fact that John Paul II has beatified and canonized more people than all his predecessors combined. One observer has said that the present pope has lessened the dignity and majesty of creating saints.

The beatification of Marmion was almost obliterated by the attention to Pope John XXIII and the uproar over Pius IX. The other two men beatified that day -- Italian bishop Tomasso Reggio and Guillaume-Joseph Chaminade -- were also overshadowed. Beatifications should be for one person. Bringing together five widely different individuals obscures the whole ceremony and sends out clashing and even contradictory signals.

The beatification of an intellectual and a theologian like Abbot Marmion raises the hope that the Holy See will soon act on the cause of Cardinal John Henry Newman. The Vatican did not act on the occasion of the centennial of his death. Can we hope that soon we will be able to pray to Newman as to we can now pray to Blessed Columba Marmion?

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000