Writers, Teachers, and Athletes – Part XXXI

Consider the possible holiness of Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, G.K. Chesterton, Léon Bloy



Would you say that any of the following Catholics, and their spouses, were holy?


The married couple Frank Sheed (1897-1982) and Maisie Ward (1889-1975) were writers and founders of a great Catholic publishing house, Sheed & Ward, in 1926. They had a son and a daughter. Other prominent lay writers include: Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), Paul Claudel (1868-1955) (his day job was diplomat), Robert Novak (1931-2009), Michael Novak (1933-2017), Alfred Noyes (1880-1958; see the account of his conversion in The Unknown God, 1934), Walker Percy (1916-1990), Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) and his wife Raïssa (1883-1960; both included in Gerard Castillo, Sixteen Marriages That Made History, 2015), Sigrid Undset (1882-1949; Nobel Prize in Literature), Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), and Léon Bloy (1846-1917). In his first homily as Pope, Pope Francis quoted Bloy (March 14, 2013).

In an earlier blog I mentioned Myles Connolly (1897-1964). He was married with five children, wrote fiction and, working with directors like Frank Capra, screenplays for films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). (See my “Have a Blue Christmas, a Mr. Blue Christmas, That Is,” Spero Forum, Dec. 19, 2018.)

The case of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) has been the subject of a collection of essays edited by William Oddie, The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton (2010). The essays are by Rev. John Saward, Ian Ker, Rev. Aidan Nichols, O.P., Rev. Robert Wild, Rev. Nicholas Madden, O.C.D., and Sheridan Gilley. The essays were first presented in a 2009 conference at Oxford. Professor J.J. Scarisbrick wrote this, which is highly pertinent to this blog series’ goal of examining lay holiness:

[T]he late Cardinal Emmett Carter [Archbishop of Toronto]…on the 50th anniversary of Chesterton’s death (in 1986) described him as one of those “holy lay persons” who “have exercised a truly prophetic role within the Church and the world”, though he did not then believe that it would be possible to introduce a Cause for his ultimate canonization, since he did “not think that we are sufficiently emancipated from certain concepts of sanctity.” (William Oddie, Catholic Herald UK, Aug. 7, 2013)

In a 2019 interview, Dale Ahlquist — president of the American Chesterton Society and the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and author of Knight of the Holy Ghost (2018) — said this on Chesterton’s holiness:

When people think of Chesterton, they often ask themselves, “How is it that a 300-pound cigar-smoking London journalist could be a saint? He doesn’t fit the image of a saint, because of his amazing size and that halo of smoke around his head.” (Elise Harris, “Booze, Cigars and a Halo? Chesterton Sainthood Cause Awaits Approval,” Crux, Feb. 7, 2019)

In August 2019, Bishop Peter Doyle terminated Chesterton’s cause, but the bishop’s decision is not binding on his successors and there has been pushback (see Charles Coulombe, “G.K. Chesterton May Be a Saint Yet,” Crisis, Aug. 5, 2019).

Note that Chesterton’s marriage to Frances Blogg is included in Gerard Castillo’s Sixteen Marriages That Made History.

As with Chesterton, the holiness of Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) has been the subject of a book: Lorraine V. Murray’s The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey (2009).


In 2006, a friend told me of a friend who had died. He had been a teacher. He said the deceased was the best man he had known or would ever hope to know: Greg Gannon, of Washington, D.C., who died at age 55. He had been married 27 years and had four children. The lines at his two-day wake were over three hours long. According to the Washington Post’s obituary, he was the founder of Washington’s Higher Achievement Program (HAP), a rigorous, 30-year-old academic enrichment course for disadvantaged youngsters. The program, which he started and ran for its first 12 years, has prepared more than 10,000 D.C. students for admission to competitive high schools and colleges by immersing them in 650 hours a year of after-school and summer school study.

Mr. Gannon founded the program in 1975 when he became a teacher at Gonzaga College High School… Mr. Gannon recruited bright fifth- through eighth-graders from the nearby Sursum Corda housing development and enrolled them in a course of study he designed… (Patricia Sullivan, “Gregory Gannon, 55; Founded Academic Enrichment Program,” Washington Post, March 26, 2006)

I add coaches to this group because of their teaching function. Would you regard Knute Rockne (1888-1931) as holy?


Would you say any of the following Catholics, and their spouses, were holy: Babe Ruth (1895-1948), Rocky Marciano (1923-1969), or Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999). In thinking of their holiness, or not, consider Giving the Best of Yourself, the Vatican’s first document on sports (Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, June 1, 2018), and a subsequent interview of Rev. Patrick Kelly, S.J., associate professor of theology and religious studies at Seattle University (Deborah Castellano Lubov, “Sports Are Not Only Play, But Are a Way to Sainthood,” Zenit.org, July 23, 2018). Father Kelly played college football, contributed to the Vatican document, and authored Catholic Perspectives on Sports: From Medieval to Modern Times (2012).

Here I’ll mention two non-Catholics who gave up athletic glory: Eric Liddell (1902-1945), whose Olympic races were depicted in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. He became a missionary to China where he died in a Japanese internment camp of a brain tumor. And: Sir Roger Bannister (1929-2018), the first person to break the four-minute mile, became a medical doctor.


***Editor’s Note: For Part XXXII in this series, click here


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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