Saturday, May 07, 2016

Letter in the Catholic Times this weekend: English Martyrs' feast days

Grotesquely innappropriate memorial to the 'martyrs of the Reformation'
in the University Church, St Mary's, in Oxford.
Last weekend there was an interesting letter from Christopher Keefe lamenting the neglect of the English Martyrs, who are grouped together with a feast day on 4th May in the Ordinary Form calendar. I have a letter in this weekend to point out that it is still possible to celebrate the old, separate, feasts for many of these martyrs with the Latin Mass Society.


Christopher Keefe (Letters, 29th April) laments the decline of public commemoration of the the English and Welsh Martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries, assigned a single feast day on 4th May.

In the pre-1970 calendar, used for the Extraordinary Form (Traditional) Mass, there are many separate feast days, for individuals and groups, often specific to a diocese, and this helps the Latin Mass Society in the task of commemorating these great men and women around the country. We arrange annual Masses for the Padley Martyrs in June and for St Richard Gwyn in Wrexham in October. Last weekend we honoured St Anne Line with a procession in York, as well as a splendid Mass, and will be processing through the streets of Oxford similarly to remind residents of the Catholic martyrs of that city, in October. In the last case our efforts have been rewarded with permanent public memorials at the two places of martyrdom in Oxford, which were previously unmarked. All these events are open to all.

These saints and beati certainly should not be neglected: we need their prayers more than ever today.

Yours faithfully,

Joseph Shaw
Chairman, the Latin Mass Society

I managed to write 'St Anne Line' instead of 'St Margaret Clitherow': mea culpa. I was in too much of a hurry.

The Bishops of England and Wales only succeeded in having the English and Welsh additions to the liturgical calendar approved by Rome in 2010. An aspect of this which I hadn't realised, pointed out by Mr Keefe, is that the feast on 4th May coincides with the Church of England celebration of what they call the 'English saints and martyrs of the Reformation.' All sorts of ecumenical possibilities beckon. As does the sick bag.

Quite what the Anglicans imagine they mean by this I do not know. Their liturgical texts are here. An Anglican blogger exemplifies the confusion of mind necessary for this kind of thing.

What is significant about this day is that we are not simply remembering ‘our own’ martyrs, those like Cramner, Ridley and Latimer, who died for maintaining adherence to the Church of England in the face of Roman Catholic persecution. We are also remembering those Roman Catholics who died at the hands of Protestants for maintaining their Faith and allegiance. We are recognizing that there was true Godliness and great courage in martyrs on both sides of that divide, and therefore also recognizing that there was terrible error and great evil committed by those who ordered the martyrdoms on both sides!

Er, right. So when St Thomas More and Archbishop Cranmer ordered the execution of heretics and recusants they were 'evil', and when they died for the faith for which they had struggled in life, a faith which included the appropriatness of their actions towards their victims, they were Godly martyrs. Yeah, that really makes sense.

There are two issues here. One is a matter of good taste. It is not good taste to commemorate together those who would not wish to be commemorated together. It is a corralling of their historical memories for purposes to which they would have violented objected. It betrays monstrous arrogance to attempt this, and it is negates their historical importance and their heroism to say that the actions of all sides were just a hideous mistake.

The other issue is the question of what it means to be a martyr. I don't expect non-Catholics to understand this, but for Catholics the concept of martyrdom is a technical theological one with important implications. It washes away all sin, even Original Sin, and in this way acts as a sort of baptism, if the person involved in not already baptised. But to be martyred does not just mean 'to be unjustly killed': it means to be killed for the Faith, for the truth.

Here are the admirably clear words of Mgr Ronald Knox.

A martyr, in the essential signification of the term, means a man who dies, not merely to bear testimony, but to bear testimony to the truth. Edmund Campion died because he believed in the Pope and the Mass. Thomas Cranmer died because he disbelieved in the Pope and the Mass. It is an intelligible attitude to say that Crammer was a martyr and Campion was not. It is an intelligible attitude to say that neither Cranmer was a martyr nor Campion. But to say that both Crammer and Campion were martyrs is to say good-bye to all reason and all common-sense. Each of them died in the belief that he was bearing witness to the truth; and if you accept both testimonies indiscriminately, then you are making nonsense of them both. The only point in common between the two men is that both died for their religious opinions. It is ridiculous to suppose that either of them accepted death as a protest against the theory of religious persecution. On the contrary, Cranmer persecuted with the best of them. Neither of them minded being put to death for the sake of religion; but either protested that the religion which he died for was the true one. It is a poor compliment to such heroism to conclude that after all it does not much matter one way or the other!

I've written more about this here.

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  1. I agree it is an affront to commemorate the English martyrs with those of the C of E. As St. Margaret Clitherow (a distant relative of ours) firmly stated at the time of her murder "I will not pray your prayers nor will you pray mine." To yield to pressure on the part of the C of E isn't beneficial to the Communion of Saints. It isn't even a good move towards ecumenism. I pray they may one day return to the Church founded by Christ but not at the cost of our true faith.

  2. May 4th is certainly a date to be commemorated as it marks the first execution under Henry VIII of those who are now venerated as saints or blessed - the Carthusian Martyrs, St Richard Reynolds the Briggetine and the parish priest Blessed John Hailes. Of course all those in the Roman Martyrology may be celebrated on their appointed day if otherwise unobstructed in the Ordinary Form.

  3. I would disagree with Knox re Cranmer. I believe the historical record shows that Cranmer was happy to renounce his heresy when it was convenient to him. He did so on numerous occasions. On the last occasion when his new renouncement did not result in his freedom from execution, he did make his dirty little reprobate speech defending his hersey. This is more likely out of spite rather than conviction proved by the very facts of his renouncements.

    Knox is quite right concerning the dual commemorations. The only thing one commemorates in such a fashion is the indifference to the Truth.