The Martyrs of England and Wales

Once upon a time I was asked to render the phrase a militibus hereticis interrumpti, found in the Necrology or Memorial Book of the Dead of the English Benedictine Congregation, in rather less polemical terms than ‘murdered by heretical soldiers’, the translation we had been using hitherto. I settled on ‘killed in time of persecution’, a paraphrase rather than a translation, but which had the merit of not causing apoplexy among visiting members of other Churches. Accusations of murder and heresy do not go down well when praying for the dead. The fact that the original translation was thought to be unacceptable illustrates something of the sea-change that relations between the different Churches have undergone in this country during the past half century or so.

Today the Catholic Church in England and Wales commemorates the forty canonised martyrs and 242 recognized beati of the Reformation period. The feast used to be kept on 25 October, the date on which in 1970 Pope Paul VI canonised them, but was later transferred to today, the feast of St John Houghton and the Carthusian martyrs of whom Maurice Chauncy wrote so moving an account. It seems to me appropriate and in keeping with a more generous appreciation of the complex nature of the Reformation and the religious disputes of those times. If you have read Chauncy’s account, you will have been struck by the serenity with which the monks prepared for death, their lack of rancour and their love of Jesus which spurred them on. Sometimes martyrs are made ‘likeable’ only by their martyrdom. The rest of the time they appear to us difficult and even disagreeable. Not so the Carthusians. The manner of their death was entirely consistent with the manner of their life, and it is a glory for us who come after them.

Of course, the canonised saints and beati represent only a fraction of those who, during the Reformation and subsequent Penal Times, remained steadfast in the Faith, paying the price (literally) of their refusal to conform. Our Free Church friends are sometimes surprised when told that Catholics too were ranked among Dissenters and suffered similar disabilities until the unpopular Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 removed some of the most infamous. Suspicion of Catholics lingered long. During my childhood I can remember my father remarking of a certain golf club that it admitted neither Jews nor Catholics!

So, how do we celebrate the feast today in these ecumenical times, when the Churches desire to stand together in all things lawful and apart only when necessary and always with charity? To me, celebrating with thanksgiving those who have gone before is not a difficulty. Humanly speaking, I owe my own faith to the fidelity of Englishmen and women who clung to their Catholicism through thick and thin. Some were martyred; many more were fined or had their lands confiscated, were made to attend Anglican services and subjected to petty and not so petty regulations (e.g. they couldn’t keep good horses or attend the universities). My community of profession traces its history back through the centuries to the time when Englishwomen had to go abroad to become nuns. Indeed, one of my kinswomen, D. Anselma Anne, was among the four English Benedictines who died in prison at Compiègne during the French Revolution. I think we can celebrate such a history with gladness and rejoicing, praying that we ourselves may show a like fortitude if necessary. At the same time we must pray that Christians may never again be persecutors of one another. The long centuries of religious discrimination in this country are not ones of which we can be proud.