By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — An investigation of an ancestor of Princess Diana for possible sainthood by the Catholic Church is nearing completion, according to the Irish priest who has been overseeing the exhaustive research for seven years.
The case for the canonization of Fr. Ignatius Spencer, a 19th century member of the Passionist order, is expected to go to the Vatican’s Congregation of Saints later this year.
Fr. Spencer, a great-great-great uncle of Princess Diana, converted to Catholicism in 1830 and did much of his missionary work in Ireland.
Dublin-born Fr. Hubert Condron of St. Joseph’s Church, Highgate in London, where Spencer served for many years, is centrally involved in the lengthy investigation as vice postulator of the cause.
An historical commission was established in 1992 by the archbishop of Liverpool, where Fr. Spencer was buried in 1864.
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Condron said that as vice-postulator his role was to investigate all aspects of Spencer’s life to establish if he was a man who practiced "heroic virtue."
"Heroic virtue means excelling holiness sustained over a long period until his death," Condron said. "It is a very demanding thing. It is the key decision. Without it there is no further progress."
If his cause is successful, Condron said Spencer will become the first English saint since the Reformation.
The investigation has involved collecting and studying thousands documents relating to Spencer, including sermons, letters and diaries.
"It’s a long and painstaking business getting everything together," Condron said. "All the manuscripts have to be typed up and that can be very time consuming. We have just finished 900 letters.
"Ignatius Spencer was a great letter writer. He once wrote 70 letters in two days when he was in Ireland. He devised what he called his small missions and he did 246 of these in 20 years, most of them in Ireland.
"These were three days of intense work starting at 6 in the morning and ending at midnight," Condron said. "On one of these missions, despite hardly having time to breathe, he still wrote this huge number of letters."
Condron said such a large amount of documentation were not unusual. "When the cause of Cardinal Newman, who was received into the church by Ignatius Spencer, came up for consideration I understand there were about 50,000 items," Condron said.
Because of his aristocratic background as the youngest son of the second Earl Spencer, the priest had access to leading political figures of his time like Prime Ministers Gladstone and Palmerston, Napoleon III and the Emperor Franz-Joseph. He was also a great-great uncle of Winston Churchill.
The local stage of the historical investigation of his cause is nearing completion. Condron hopes all the documentation will be ready for presentation to the Liverpool tribunal later this year.
"It is a sort of ecclesiastical court, which will then present a judgment that will be sent to Rome," Condron said.
If Spencer is judged by a commission of cardinals and theologians in Rome to have practiced "heroic virtue" he will be made "venerable" by the pope.
If there is then a miracle associated with him approved by the church, he will be declared "blessed." A "new" miracle — worked after he is declared blessed — must be established before he is canonized and thus become a saint.
"In a certain sense the miracles are irrelevant at the moment," Condron said. "After the decree on heroic virtue is issued, the miracles will be secondary and confirmatory."