Within a year of Matt Talbot’s death, the first biography of his life appeared. Written so soon after death, the author, Sir Joseph Glynn, had access to people who knew him. Publication of that first brief version triggered immediate and wide-spread devotion. Matt’s pauper’s grave–since moved–became an urgent pilgrimage site. As early as 1931 the Archbishop of Dublin initiated formal inquiries into his sanctity and asked that any “favors” received through his intercession be reported to him.
But how are such favors recognized? How are the rhythms of cure measured when the pathology is alcoholism or drug addiction? How do the Church’s saint-makers determine that any former alcoholic or addict owes sobriety to a particular Servant of God, or to none at all despite claims to prayer? How long does sobriety have to last? If relapse occurs, is that a strike against the saint’s performance?
Doctors cannot verify a cure when the affliction does not not reside in an organ or limb. Miracles of the moral life go undetected by PET scans. The will to stay sober is hidden from quantitative means, batteries of diagnostic tests, and imaging systems. In 2002 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Cause of Saints rejected Matt Talbot’s. The canonical demand for an incontrovertible miracle was deemed unmet. In the words of a respondent to the previous post:
He’s the perfect patron for alcoholics. . . . Yet, until he restores someone’s eyesight or heals the lame, the cause for which it seems he was made will go without its saint.
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Class and politics—call it pastoral perspective—insinuate themselves into formal procedures sensitive to the diplomatic and communal dimensions of a candidacy. Viewed from the corridors of Vatican City, Matt Talbot was a man of no consequence whose demon was personal. Edith Stein, by contrast, was a well-placed scholar and an intellectual, at once a Carmelite nun and a German Jewish convert. Murdered in the demonic sweep of twentieth century history, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross could be situated in the ancient tradition of virgin martyrs. A candidacy such as hers brings with it opportunities for institutional distinction—at an historic moment—absent from Talbot’s. Drunks are an undistinguished constituency.
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The parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15), radiant with promise of redemption, took on flesh in the life of this inconspicuous man. In his modesty and simplicity of heart, honed by austerities modeled on the ascetic practices of Irish monasticism, he achieved a holiness that has moved countless others. Halfway houses, hostels, and residences for homeless men are named in his honor from Dublin and Glasgow to San Francisco, and beyond to Australia and Tasmania. A hospital for recovering alcoholics opened in Krakow in 2000. The Matt Talbot retreat movement has spread through Canada, the United States and Mexico. There is even a Yahoo group, the Matt Talbot Way of Recovery, for Catholics struggling with addiction of one kind or another. The group claims him as a model who lived the Twelve Steps before they were even formulated.
The life of an ordinary laborer, who slept in a narrow tenement room after a ten-hour day in a dockside lumber yard, is luminous with meaning for untold lives in a racked world. Rejection of Talbot’s cause for lack of a definitive miracle reminds me—hard to explain just why—of John XXIII’s lament that Vatican City is the hardest place on earth to remain a Christian.
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If your Uncle Marty achieves sobriety, will it be because Aunt Mary implored Matt Talbot? Or because Marty’s mother went straight to a long-standing heavy hitter like St. Jude? How to write up the score?
I understand why miracles are sought by the credentialing folk. Still, are proofs of sanctity truly essential? Open to wonderment, we are called to trust. Reliance on stamped, counter-signed affidavits of what remains, ultimately, beyond the realm of verification seems discourteous to the absolute mystery at the heart of things. After the careful, prayerful work of designating a venerable, why not let be? Matt’s heroic virtue had already been affirmed outside the theater of certified marvels.
Written in expectation of canonization, Fr. Dolan’s 1947 pamphlet was directed toward alcoholics and with express generosity toward Alcoholics Anonymous (“that splendid organization”):
The recommendations of Alcoholics Anonymous, in turn, are modern adaptations of the rules for temperance taught for centuries by the Church . . . sympathetic assistance to other inebriates . . . is a form of Christian charity practiced by the St. Vincent de Paul Society but not so successfully or universally as by A.A.
And the ground of that success? It was already shifting when Fr. Dolan was writing:
What is the motive that will establish the will not to drink? The conviction that intemperance is a sin, an offense against God, a sin that . . . also injures the alcoholic and his family, a sin that involves injustice and uncharitableness to all concerned.
Talbot’s hard road to recovery began with guilt, a sense forged in the Catholic culture of Ireland in his day. Dolan reflects on the more recent understanding of alcoholism as an illness. He grants it limited credit—and lists those credits—but also warns against the danger of exaggerating it:
To summarize, it does not matter whether the alcoholic needs or does not need to begin with hospitalization and medication, for once this treatment has been given, the campaign against relapse must be planned as Matt Talbot planned, and for the same motives and by the same means.
Prayer. And fellowship.
What, precisely, are we doing when we call upon the saints? He Whose eye is on the sparrow knew our needs and undisclosed desires before we felt them. And we stand warned against hunger for signs and wonders. To seek them seems . . . how to put it? . . . impertinent, even ungrateful. The miraculous is all around us. We are bound by miracle; we inhabit it. Our very being is a miracle to set the cosmos aflame. How much spectacle, then, do we need? It takes cheek, I think, to requisition temporal feats from the holy dead.
Matt Talbot battled to sanctify his ordinariness. He made of it a gift to the self-giving God. That is miracle enough. Perhaps the most—and the best—we can ask of any saint is to breathe a hint of divine warmth into the heart of an anguished beloved. And into our own.
All praise to you, Matt Talbot.
Note: Those interested in Talbot’s life should look for the expanded 1942 edition of Joseph Glynn’sThe Life of Matt Talbot (the basis of all subsequent bios) and two by Mary Purcell: Matt Talbot and His Times (1977, American Edition) and her Remembering Matt Talbot (1990). Purcell’s biographies, first published in 1954, benefited from the two official enquiries into Matt Talbot’s holiness, first in 1931 and again in 1948.