It was on 4th May 1535 that three Carthusians and a Bridgettine monk were dragged from their monasteries and hanged-drawn-and quartered at Tyburn. They were condemned as traitors for opposing the king’s divorce, for upholding the Catholic Faith, the Primacy of the Pope, and refusing to acknowledge King Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church in England. For over 150 years Catholics throughout Britain were persecuted simply for being Catholics. Today we honour these martyrs and we thank God for their fidelity and courage in the face of such unjust persecution.
Today, as we celebrate the Feast of the English Martyrs, we call to mind not only the forty priests, religious and lay men and women canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970, but the further two hundred and forty-two who were Beatified, together with those many unknown Catholics who were persecuted and died defending the Catholic Faith during the 150 years following the Protestant takeover of the Church in England.
For most of us practising our faith in this country 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 very remote concept. The Catholic Church in England still has its struggles – where does it not – but few of us would worry about persecution to the point of dying for our faith, and it is for this very reason that today’s feast is of such importance to Catholics in England. It reminds us of the selfless sacrifice made by so many English men, women and children that the Catholic Faith might survive and flourish in England through the shedding of their blood.
Much has been written about the sufferings of the English Martyrs; they endured trials that are difficult for us to even think about today, and yet their sacrifice was not in vain. Quoting Tertullian, Pope Paul VI in his homily at the canonisation of the forty martyrs said; “‘The blood of Christians is the seed that is sown.’ As it was with the shedding of Christ’s own blood, so it is with the sacrificial offering of her Martyrs in union with His: a source of life and of spiritual fecundity for the Church and the entire world.”
As it was then, so it is today; the sacrifice of the martyrs, united to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ, extends far beyond national boundaries and the limits of their own time. The sacrifice of martyrs provides a rich source of spiritual life and nourishment upon which the Church can draw in times of both peace and trouble.
Holy Martyrs of England, pray for us.