On this day in 1970, Pope Saint Paul VI officially canonized the ‘forty martyrs of England and Wales’ and, we might add, Scotland, priests, monks, laymen and women, put to death for the Faith between 1535 and 1679, as that same Faith was being persecuted and uprooted by the Kings, Queens and powers-that-be who had made a shipwreck of their own.
There were far more martyrs than the symbolic forty, just as there were in other persecuted regions with mass canonizations – such as Korea and Japan. This group stands for the rest. The witness began with the Carthusians in London, tortured to death by Henry VIII more or less for the crime of simply being Carthusians, and not bending to the liceity of his illicit marriage to Anne Boleyn, and his own usurpation of papal power in England. Thomas More, who saw the monks being led to their deaths as though, as he put it to his daughter, to a marriage feast, was soon to follow, with the Bishop John Fisher. Then a whole panoply of others, many under King Henry’s illegitimate daughter and queen, Elizabeth, excommunicated by Pope Saint Pius V in 1570 for her own apostasy and seizure of supreme spiritual authority. Margaret Clitherow was crushed to death, while four months pregnant, for the ‘crime’ of harboring priests to say Mass and hear Confessions. Edmund Campion, once the Queen’s favorite, but who saw the truth and followed it, or Him, to the priesthood, racked until he was crippled, before being hung drawn and quartered, a horrific death which took most of this noble band. They are celebrated on May 4th in England, which needs their prayers, but we may here call them to mind on this day of their Magisterial recognition.
We may be thankful we don’t face such persecution, at least not yet, and if such persecution arrives, it won’t take quite the same form, even if Don DeMarco argues this morning in Crisis that we are living in a growing totalitarian regime. But what persecution we do face would go a long way to purifying and strengthening our weak knees and pusillanimous innards.
I will leave you this morning as I wander off to Mass with these words from Cardinal Newman, quoted recently in a reflection from the inimitable pen of Father George Rutler:
What is the world’s religion now? It has taken the brighter side of the gospel, its tidings of comfort, its precepts of love; all darker, deeper views of man’s condition and prospects being comparatively forgotten. This is the religion natural to a civilized age and well has Satan dressed and completed it into an idol of the Truth. . . . Our manners are courteous; we avoid giving pain or offence . . . religion is pleasant and easy; benevolence is the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, excess of zeal are the first of sins. . . . [I]t includes no true fear of God, no fervent zeal for His honour, no deep hatred of sin, no horror at the sight of sinners, no indignation and compassion at the blasphemy of heretics, no jealous adherence to doctrinal truth . . .— and therefore is neither hot nor cold, but (in Scripture language) lukewarm. (Sermon 24. Religion of the Day)