John Paul II creates saints as fast as Tony Blair creates peers, says Brian Brindley. So a new edition of Butler's Lives of the Saints can only be welcome.
Butler's Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition, Burns & Oates, 12 volumes, £16.95 each
This publication is Butler's in the sense that their respective Almanacs are Old Moore's, Whitaker's, or Wisden's: the name is attached as a guarantee of reliability rather than as a description of actual authorship. The compilers (under the general editorial direction of David Hugh Farmer) have set out to do for the 21st century what Alban Butler did for the 18th.
Butler was a pious English Catholic priest of the daysbefore Emancipation. He approached his task seriously and conscientiously, using the best materials available to him, including the work of the Bollandists so far as it went, and adding devotional reflections in a style acceptable to his age.
His great work was published between 1756 and 1759. It was constantly reprinted throughout the 19th century: I possess an edition in two fat and ugly stereotyped volumes, which I refer to from time to time; if you come across one in a secondhand bookshop, it is worthbuying.
In 1926 it fell under the notoriously critical eye of Fr Herbert Thurston, Si, who directed a new edition from which a great deal of nonsense was excised. In this he was assisted by Donald Attwater, who in his turn produced a greatly revised edition in four volumes between 1954 and 1958.
This was reprinted,with a minimum of necessary alteration in 1981, with a preface by Cardinal Hume. But in the meantime a new Calendarium Romanunt Generale had been produced (1970) and a new breviary Liturgia Horarutn, (1972) from which much doubtful material had been removed. A completely new edition was obviously called for.
The task of the modern hagiographer is not an easy one. In the first place, the reader looks for a true and accurate presentation of the historical facts so far as they can be ascertained. He also expects to find an account of admittedly legendary or dubious stories that explain why individual saints have a hold on the popular imagination — St Christopher is an obvious example -or are assigned a particular patronage.
He is also entitled to have an explanation of the emblems associated with each saint, so that he can identify them in great works of art in galleries, or in the humbler decorations in our churches. The commemoration of saints, and the assignment of dates for their feasts, has been an important part of Christianity from the martyrdom of St Stephen onwards.There are many saints who unquestionably existed, but of whom little more is certainly known. There are others whose true history is so overlaid by legend that it is impossible to disentangle. There are others (included in the old breviaries) whose stories are now recognised as frankly fictitious, pious tales invented to point edifying morals, in the days when the line between fact and fiction was not clearly drawn.
From the end of the Middle Ages we look for cast-iron eyewitness accounts of genuine lives. And as we move into the 19th and 20th centuries we can expect biographies in the modem sense — though all too often of saints of very little interest except to the members of religious orders which they founded, or the inhabitants of districts in which they lived.
No set of Lives of the Saints can ever be complete: besides those of the Universal Calendar, each country will expect to find particular space given to its own saints: a book published in England must perforce include many saints who will be of little interest in France, and vice versa.
And no set can ever be final; historical research continues, and the quantity of saints and beau increases: John Paul 11 has been to the Company of Heaven very much what Tony Blair has been to the House of Lords: he has greatly increased their number, at the cost, some may think, of a slight diminution in their cachet. It would be foolish for any reviewer to undertake to have read every word of a work on this scale, so I cannot assert that it is free from error.
But the contributors (one person to each monthly volume) are authoritative, and the advisory board formidable in the extreme. It is a work that can be relied upon to represent the latest state of the science of hagiography.
This is a required work of reference. If you have any influence on your local public library, make sure that it is available on the open shelves. In a large parish, with an office or library, it ought certainly to be acquired. In a smaller parish, why could not 12 parishioners club together to present their parish priest with a volume each? It would almost certainly reinvigorate his preaching.