Katharine of Aragon (1485-1536), the first wife of the much-married English king, Henry VIII, has a new champion. Gregory Nassif St. John, a retired New York stage actor now living in Georgia, has begun the process that he hopes and prays will lead to the Catholic Church declaring that Katharine (Nassif St. John uses the traditional English spelling) is a saint.
Nassif St. John learned of Katharine’s story via The Six Wives of Henry VIII, the award-winning BBC series that aired in 1970. Katharine was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (the royal couple who bankrolled Columbus’ voyage to what turned to be the Americas). In 1509 she married Henry. It was a love match, at least at the beginning, but after 18 years of marriage and the birth of six children, only one of whom, Mary, survived to adulthood, Henry grew tired of his wife. Infidelity was commonplace among kings, and Henry was no better than his brother monarchs, but about the time Katharine stopped conceiving, he became particularly infatuated with one his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. Anne was intelligent, ambitious, vivacious, sexy, and she was candid about her terms: she didn’t want to be Henry’s concubine, she wanted to be his wife and queen.
As a Catholic, Henry could not divorce Katharine, so the only alternative was to have their marriage annulled. Only the pope could declare that what had appeared to all the world as marriage had been invalid from the beginning. In presenting his case Henry argued that because he had married his elder brother’s widow their union was cursed by God — they had no child (by “child” he meant a boy; Mary, as a girl, didn’t count). Katharine countered that she and Henry’s elder brother Arthur had been married only three months before the sickly fourteen-year-old died, and during that time they had never consummated their marriage. When he married Henry, she said bluntly, she was still a virgin — a fact well known to him.
The case dragged on as Pope Clement VII dithered about what to do. After four years of waiting, Henry took matters into his own hands. He had his obliging archbishop of Canterbury annul his marriage with Katharine. He married Anne Boleyn. Then he severed England’s ties with Rome and proclaimed himself head of the Church in England. In short order Anne was crowned queen and Parliament declared her children would be heirs to the throne of England. As for Katharine and Mary, they were shipped off two different castles. Katharine was stripped of her title, “Queen of England,” henceforth she would be known as “Dowager Princess of Wales.” As for Mary, she was declared illegitimate. Katharine absolutely refused to accept such a settlement. Her marriage was valid; her daughter was Princess of Wales; and the pope did have authority over such matters. But under Henry’s new political and religious order, such sentiments were treason. Those who supported Katharine, including Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, were beheaded. Other supporters were hanged, drawn, and quartered; starved to death in the Tower of London; or in the case of Katharine’s confessor, roasted to death over a slow fire. When Henry sent two envoys to threaten Katharine with death if she did not conform to the king’s will, she fully expected that she would die a martyr like her friends.
Henry never went that far, but he was still cruel. He confiscated her jewels and gave them to Anne. He forbade Katharine and Mary to ever see each other again. He stripped Katharine of almost all her household staff, many of whom had come to England with her in 1501. When Anne became pregnant Henry demanded that Katharine hand over the christening gown that all their dead children had worn; all other mistreatment she had borne patiently, but this was too much — Katharine absolutely refused to give up the gown.
In December 1535 Katharine fell seriously ill. By the first week of January 1536 it was clear she was dying. Hours before her death she wrote one last letter to her husband. She begged him to look to “the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles.” Then, after pleading with him to be a good father to their daughter Mary and a generous master to her few remaining ladies, she concluded saying, “Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things. Katharine the Queen.”
“Her story touched me very deeply,” Nassif St. John said in a recent interview. “I knew she was being treated unfairly and cruelly. Her story stuck with me my whole life.”
It’s one thing to feel sympathy for Katharine, but how does one go about making her a saint? Encouraged by his parish priest, Nassif St. John wrote to Michael Evans, the Catholic bishop of East Anglia, (the diocese where Katharine died and where she lies buried) and Vincent Nichols, Catholic archbishop of Westminster, seeking their advice. Archbishop Nichols and Bishop Evans both expressed their support for the cause, but emphasized that there must be clear evidence of devotion to Katharine. In other words, there must be proof that people venerate Katharine’s memory and consider her saintly.
That evidence has been supplied by Charles Taylor, Dean of the Anglican diocese of Peterborough, England. Every year, about the time of the anniversary of Katharine’s death, the clergy of Peterborough Cathedral (site of Katharine’s grave) host a three-day commemoration of this holy but cast-off queen. There is an ecumenical memorial service in the cathedral, a candlelight procession to Katharine’s grave, and a Catholic Mass offered at the High Altar.
“Quite a number of our visitors come to see Katharine’s grave,” Dean Taylor wrote in a recent email. “A few lay flowers or a pomegranate (symbol of Aragon), and even if most do not audibly or even consciously utter words of prayer, the visit to see and remember is to some extent an act of prayer in itself.”
That is a good beginning, but more is necessary. According to Msgr. Richard Soseman, a priest of the diocese of Peoria, Illinois, who worked on the cause for the canonization of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “Laypeople should form themselves into groups, guilds, associations, foundations, etc., to promote the life, holiness, teachings, and example of the candidate. The laity should be wildly enthusiastic about their candidate, and share the good news, which they have as a result of their devotion, with others.” Msgr. Soseman also suggested producing prayer cards and perhaps pamphlets or booklets about Katharine, and disseminate them to anyone even remotely interested. To get the word out, Nassif St. John has created a website: Katharine of Aragon: The Official Website for Her Cause.
Katharine died in 1536, so obviously there are no eyewitnesses to interview about her life and character. An assessment of her holiness must be based solely on her own writings and the writings of people who knew her well. These documents exist in archives in England, Spain, and the Vatican, and the cost of tracking them down and copying them is the responsibility of the association promoting Katharine for sainthood. So this is no idle undertaking.
Nonetheless, Nassif St. John is as modest about his role as he is undaunted. “My part in all of this is simply having started the ball rolling,” he said recently. “Katharine is the focus and I never want the focus shifted to me.” And if Katharine of Aragon does become a saint, Nassif St. John has suggested two areas of which she should be patron saint. “I think she should be considered a patron saint for those struggling with their marriages,” he said, “and I believe she should be the patroness for the reunification between Rome and Canterbury.”