Dragged on wooden frames across London and all wearing their priestly vestments, five martyrs “cheerfully went to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage” (Thomas More) on 4 May 1535. All were hanged, drawn and quartered for opposing the Acts of Succession and Supremacy. The former recognized the progeny of the adulterous relationship of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn as the legitimate heirs to the throne. The latter had the King asserting himself as “the only Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England”.
They were the first of many martyrs whose feast day we celebrate on Thursday and we call to mind not only the 35 other priests, religious and lay men and women canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970, but the further 242 declared ‘blessed’ and those many unknown Catholics who died defending the faith in a period of 150 years following the Reformation. But the number of those who died on the scaffold, perished in prison or suffered harsh persecution for their faith during those 150 years cannot now be reckoned. They came from every walk of life and are remembered for the example they showed of constancy of faith and courage in the face of persecution.
One of these martyrs is our very own St. Nicholas Owen, a Jesuit lay brother and master carpenter, who constructed many priests’ hiding-holes in houses throughout the country, some of them so cunningly concealed that they were not discovered until centuries later. Another was St. Margaret Clitherow, the wife of a butcher in York, who allowed her house to be used as a Mass centre and who was sentenced to be crushed to death in the city.
For most of us practising our faith in England today, the idea of laying down our lives for the supremacy of the Pope, the unity of the Church and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a remote concept. We would not concern ourselves about persecution unto death and it is for this reason that this feast is of such importance. It reminds us of the selfless sacrifices made by so many so that the faith might live in England through the shedding of their blood – and of the continuing sacrifice made by so many in less tolerant areas of the world today. For it still goes on. Man’s brutality to his brothers and sisters still knows no bounds. For example more than 50,000 Christians have been murdered for their faith in Nigeria in the last 14 years. There and elsewhere priests are beheaded, village women raped, their husbands tortured, children groomed to use guns, religious buildings torched – but does this news ever really grab our headlines? Does it sell newspapers?
The rise in anti-Christian incidents globally is well documented on this link to Aid to the Church in Need. It’s worth a look if only to appreciate that martyrdom is not confined to the past.
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