14 NOVEMBER 1970, Page 16


For all the [English] saints


Few people in Britain probably noticed on 25 October this year that some fourteen thousand British citizens had quietly slipped away to Rome, long after the end of the holi- day season. If they had been attending a foot- ball match the exodus would have attracted a certain amount of attention but there is a self-effacing, almost handgdog quality about British Roman Catholics which might well have something to do with the event they had come to celebrate: the martyrdom of forty English and Welsh Catholics during the penal times of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when to be a Catholic was to be guilty of treason.

It took nearly three hundred years from the death of the last martyr to bring the forty of them to the point of canonisation, when Pope Paul vi solemnly declared them to be saints. Meanwhile, interdenominational attitudes had changed. Influential Catholics associated with what are sometimes called `progressive' opinions—Mr Tom Burns, editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, Father Thomas Corbishley, the fashionable Jesuit preacher, and various others—argued that to proceed with the canonisation might excite unwholesome emotions and memories among English Catholics which were out of keeping with the spirit of the oecumenical age. The bickering continued spasmodically. characterised by all the lofty and dignified noises of a chicken-coop. At one point. the' hierarchy stepped in and removed • Philip Caraman, the distinguished Jesuit historian, from his job as Vice Postulator for the cause. Father James Walsh, another Jesuit, remained —a fervent °ecumenicist, who was thought more sensitive to the political implications of the movement. For a time—around 1965—it began to look as if the cause was lost— which began on 4 May 1535 with the execu- tion at Tyburn of three Carthusian Priors— John Houghton, Robert Lawrence and Augustine Webster—for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging King Henry vitt as supreme head of the Church in England.

But then the Catholic hierarchy of Eng- land and Wales found, rather to its own surprise, that matters had already been taken too far. Somewhere far beneath the nation's awareness, a mass movement had taken root among Britain's five million Catholics. A pamphlet by Margaret Waugh editing the brief lives of the forty martyrs sold half a million copies. Martyrs' Rallies, completely unreported in the secular press, were held at Stonor Park, Henley-on-Thames, and Laun- ceston. Cornwall, in South Wales. on Chelms- ford football ground and at Bellevue, Man- chester (famous for its boxing matches), attracting 3,000. 4.500. 20.000, 50,000 and finally 80,000 pilgrims. It became apparent that. if the postulation of the forty martyrs had been dropped for oecumenical reasons, the reaction among English and Welsh Cath- olics would be one of profound disgust with the entire oecumenical movement.

Extremely fierce local loyalties were aroused in every region which claimed a birthplace or other association with one of the martyrs. As a matter of fact, when the forty were chosen from among the 357 exe- cuted Catholics who might have been eligible, local claims were taken into consideration for this very reason.

But to understand the total enthusiasm behind the cause of the canonisation, one needs to understand something of the Eng- lish Catholic psychology. To the extent that he is influenced by Catholic education, every English Catholic carries with him as part of his religious equipment an acute awareness of what happened to the Catholics in penal times. He has read accounts of the lives and deaths of these martyrs time and again. Sometimes these are highly coloured, like this contemporary description of the death of St Edmund Gennings: 'He, being ripped up and his bowels cast into the fire, if credit may be given to hundreds of people standing by and to the hangman himself, the blessed martyr uttered (his heart being in the execu- tioner's hand) these words, `Sancte Gregori ora pro Me', which the hangman hearing with open mouth swore this damnable oath.

`God's wounds. See, his heart is in my hand and yet Gregory is in his mouth. 0 egregious Papist!'

Countless stories survive, either being handed down or from the official chronicles of the time, and these have become a large part of the English Catholic culture: the tale of an incompetent executioner who, intend- ing to hold up a martyr's heart with the shout `Behold the heart of a traitor' held up his liver instead, and was booed by the crowd; of Sir John Roberts, the Benedictine martyr, who, noticing the fire prepared for boiling his entrails, made the slightly sick joke: 'There's a hot breakfast towards, des- pite the cold weather'.

But more of the accounts are sober enough. Since their crime was treason, not heresy, none of the martyrs was burned, most were hanged, drawn and quartered, although a few were sentenced to be beheaded, or simply hanged. One—St Margaret Clitherow —was crushed to death for refusing to plead; another, Nicholas Owen, was tortured to death by Robert Cecil before he could be brought to trial. For most, the death sentence was the one pronounced by Sir Christopher Wray, Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench, on Sherwin, Campion, Kirby and five others in Westminster Hall on 16 November 1581: `You must go to the place from whence you came, there to remain until ye shall be drawn through the open city of London upon hurdles to the place of execution, and there be hanged and let down alive, and your privy parts cut off, and your entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your head to be cut off, and your bodies to be divided in four parts, to be disposed of at her Majesty's pleasure. And God have mercy on your souls.'

The fortitude of these men, who had to watch their fellows suffering this treatment before being asked a final time whether they were prepared to change their minds, was un- doubtedly equalled by that of the Protestant martyrs who were burned for heresy. There was no reason, however, why the two sets of martyrs should be seen in competition. The names in English history which every English Catholic inherifs for his demonology: Thomas Cromwell, Turcliffe, the appalling Robert Cecil, Titus Oates—were all unscrupulous

creatures of politics, not religious zealots. Nobody had ever accused the Church of England of having encompassed their deaths.

The same cannot be said, of course, about the Protestant martyrs under Queen Mary, for whom the Catholic Church bore direct responsibility; or about the Anabaptist martyrs who were burnt by Catholics and Church of England alike throughout the whole period. We hear very little about them from either side nowadays.

Once the decision to proceed with canonis- ing the forty martyrs had been taken, how-

ever, leaders of both Churches started worry- ing about its likely effect on relations between them. The first list of martyrs was found to number thirty-nine. Someone in the office for the Vice Postulation situated in the Jesuit headquarters in Farm Street pointed out that this might be -seen as a devious and satirical reference to the Church of England's Thirty.

Nine Articles. Another martyr had to be added—now St Henry Morse. When one of the office's researchers began to have serious doubts about another of the martyrs—John Stone—on the grounds that very little could

be discovered about him, they decided that his name would have to. stand nevertheless, ratfler than reduce the number to the dreaded thirty-nine.

Constant representations were made to . Canterbury, pointing out that these Catholic martyrs were the victims of political persecu- tion for their religion, that nobody blamed - the Church of England. that nothing would ever interfere with the cordial relations which existed between Rome and Canterbury. On

the eve of the canonisation, one of the Vice Postulators, Father Clement Tigar, published a lengthy treatise on the Protestant Marian

Martyrs as an act of atonement. The Pope's homily, to be delivered at the service of canonisation, had been punted between the

office for Christian Unity and other depart- ments of the Holy Office until it read like

a television commercial for the advantages of Christian Unity. However, by that time it was too late. The worst fears which anyone had ever entertained were realised. The Church of England, in the person of Dr Ramsey, had taken grave offence.

Perhaps, in the event, he was right to do so. Canterbury was represented at the cere- mony by Dr Harry Smythe, an Australian of low church sympathies who is permanently stationed in Rome. No bishop was sent from England, and no messages were received. The Conservative government, taking its lead from Canterbury. sent nobody either. Lord Lothian, who asked to go, was forbidden to do so. Only the -British Minister to the Vatican, Mr Desmond Crawley, sat uncom- fortably wedged in the same box as the Duke of Norfolk and the seven female relatives whom the Duke brought with him.

What did the 14.000 English pilgrims to Rome think about it all? English Catholics. nurtured in the history of religious persecu- tion, take governmental coolness in their stride. Harold Wilson had hinted that he would attend the ceremony himself as Prime Minister—perhaps recognising that it was the biggest moment for English Catholicism since Catholic emancipation in 1829, perhaps thinking of the 12,000 Catholic voters in his own constituency of Huyton, in Lancashire. Not one of Britain's five million Catholics expected Mr Heath to do that, knowing his delicate relationship with the Ulster Unionist party. Nor did any of them care a fig about it either way. But-the Italians were furious. One English Conservative Catholic re- marked afterwards that Mr Heath and Dr Ramsey seemed between them to have CO

verted the Pope to Catholicism at long last. Oecumenists expected that he would refer to the Protestant martyrs in the course of his homily, even that he might formally with- draw the controversial Bull Regnans in Excelsis published by Pius v in 1570, which denounced Queen Elizabeth i in round terms and forbade any Catholic to obey her. When it became clear that Pope Paul intended to do neither of these things. Vatican wags sug- gested that if he had mentioned the Protes- tant Martyrs, he feared that simple Catholics might suppose he had canonised them; and far from withdrawing Regnans in Excelsiv, he was seriously thinking of writing another Bull in similar terms.

I have said that the fourteen thousand Catholic pilgrims who crowded into uncom- fortable hotels all over Rome for the occasion did not care a fig about the attitude of the Government. the Church of England, or anything else. Nor, of course, did most people in the Church of England care a fig either. Essentially, the whole thing was a matter for the leaders of the Church to sort out between themselves. But their anxieties did find expression in one manifestation which must certainly be unique in the history of English Catholicism.

The great day dawned, and fourteen thousand English Catholics were crowded into St Peter's. With typical Roman incompe- tence, we had to be seated an hour early. while technicians shouted Pronto, pronto' through the loudspeaker systems. The service itself was the traditional Roman mixture of high pomp and shoddiness: as a concession to the modern age, the doves which for some reason are traditionally presented to the Pope in cases of gold and silver were caged in chromium. But it was curiously and un- deniably moving to see 14.000 Englishmen gathered 2,000 miles away from home in the thoroughly un-English splendour of St Peter's to honour the memory of co-religion- ists. put to death in the most squalid circum- stances 400 years before. The hymns had all been carefully chosen several months in advance, so as to give no offence to Angli- cans. Some were even Anglican hymns, which, being unknown to the congregation. passed by in almost total silence. Above all it was decided that this was not an occasion for singing the triumphalist anthem of English Roman Catholicism. 'Faith of our Fathers'. Unfortunately, it is also an old favourite, and the organisers did not reckon with that long wait. About half an hour before the Pope was due to enter, a whisper started among the massed ranks.

'Faith of our fathers, living still In spite of Dungeon. Fire and sword!' Within a few minutes. it had grown to a mighty roar, defying all the organiser's efforts to sabotage it with impromptu volun- taries: 'Faith of our fathers. Mary's prayers Shall win our country back to thee: And through the truth that comes from God England shall then indeed be free.'

The five days which followed can only be described as an °ecumenicist's nightmare, as triumphalist demonstration succeeded tri- umphalist demonstration. Romans had never seen Pope Paul greeted with such enthusiasm before. Nobody who took part in the extra- ordinary week can seriously doubt that there is enormous goodwill between the Christian communities to unite and settle their differ- ences; but equally nobody can fail to have their doubts whether the present leaders of the Churches are adequate in the task of achieving that reconciliation.