Would I have had their courage?

Would I have had their courage?

Cardinal George Pell

This is the homily given by Cardinal Pell to the staff and seminarians at the English College, Rome, late last year, on the occasion of the Martyrs' Day Mass. The English College is a seminary which has been training priests to work in England since 1579.

Nearly thirty years ago when I was a seminary rector in Australia, as all rectors do, I used to offer in my sermons and community addresses a mixture of spiritual and practical advice.

In my understated approach to such matters, I used to urge the seminarians not to speak about their boring personal lives, but to preach the gospel, telling their people about God's love and Jesus' call to conversion.

This morning I'm not going to follow this advice, at least for the start of my sermon on this feast of the 44 English College martyrs, which is so central to your identity as future English priests.

It must be more than a decade ago when I was visiting this chapel (not for the first time) that I paused to pray and think in this holy place before the painting where the community gathered to sing the Te Deum, when the news came through that another of their brothers had become a martyr.

As a seminarian I had looked forward to my work as a priest with the families and the young people in the comparative prosperity, freedom and priestly respectability of Australian life.

The question that came to me here was this one. Would I have thought of becoming a priest, could I have found the courage to become a priest and return home to an almost inevitable martyrdom, where the only alternative was to take the coward's exit of apostasy?

Naturally, I could not answer that question, but I do know that to come to such a decision it would have been necessary for me to travel a long way spiritually and psychologically.

One initial point might be made in passing. Recent studies by historians such as Eamon Duffy have given the lie to the propaganda of hundreds of years that Catholic life in England in the sixteenth century, beginning with Henry VIII, was an empty shell, weak, when it wasn't corrupt.

The evidence does not sustain any such thesis. In fact the destruction of monasteries meant the destruction of the only agencies supporting the poor. It is claimed that as a consequence thousands actually died of hunger.

More germane for our purposes is the fact that hundreds of English men also came to four other formation centres on the continent, not just here in Rome, to become priests and often to work among their persecuted brothers and sisters. Faith had not vanished from the families and communities which produced so many brave men. Probably Catholic England then had more seminarians than we have now.

In fact the suppression and diminishment of the Catholics took generations of ruthless and systematic pressure, patient and intelligent, with conspicuous cruelty, but not too much to provoke overall public opinion, such as it was, to act out the conviction that enough was enough. It is an example of English efficiency at its best, for the worst of purposes.

You therefore are blessed and privileged to belong to such a tradition. It is no justification for pride and arrogance, because they set the bar so high. But such a tradition should not be taken lightly and requires from you a prayerful consideration.

Religious awe

The final chorus in T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral explains beautifully to us this obligation of religious awe:

We thank thee for thy mercies of blood, for thy redemption by blood. For the blood of thy martyrs and saints

Shall enrich the earth, shall create the holy places. For wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his blood for the blood of Christ, there is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it?.

We should not romanticise or water down these men of courage; we should not try to recast them in the pale watercolours of our generation.

The Jesuits had not long been founded. Respectable Catholic opinion then looked on them the way the more straitlaced among us look on the Neo-Cathechumenal Way. The Catholics who had supported the more cautious restorationist policies of Queen Mary and Cardinal Pole were deeply uneasy about these firebrands.

However we should be clear that in one way they were not like the Maccabees, who raised an army and fought for their religious freedom against the pagans Greeks. Overwhelmingly the martyrs from the English College were good servants of their Queen or King.

They were tested by fire; the Spirit of God did rest upon them as they struggled to be glad because they had some share in the sufferings of Christ. But they too had their treasure in earthenware jars, often very different jars.

Life in the College was sometimes turbulent and tensions were exacerbated by spies, including government agents among the students. St Robert Southwell was a victim of the clash between the secular clergy and the Jesuits who ran the College.

St Cuthberth Mayne was the first English seminary priest to be martyred in 1577, but St Ralph Sherwin is the first name in the College register ( liber ruber) who vowed to go to England "today rather than tomorrow". He was also the leader in the English pro-Jesuit party during the "troubles" with the passive conservatism of the Welsh party.

The martyrs' stories are different but always colourful. St Eustace White on his conversion was solemnly cursed by his father William, a staunch Protestant. Tradition tells us that Henry Walpole was sprinkled with blood from St Edmund Campion's brutal execution, which stimulated his conversion.

John Lockwood spent 44 years on the mission before he was executed in 1642. Edward James was arrested on board ship off Sussex even before he landed.

In the early days before professional executioners, Joseph Lambton's executioner panicked and fled leaving the drawing and quartering unfinished. A French surgeon who was watching completed the task for 20 shillings. Such stories deserve to be told.

Let me conclude with a brief glimpse into the future. We thank God that no bloody persecution looms on the horizon, that no longer is it a situation of kill or be killed between Catholics and Protestants. Ecumenism is a blessing with vast social consequences today.

But the signs are not all good. For example, we know of Cardinal Francis George's prediction that his second or third successor would die in jail. Let us hope he is wrong.

Small harassments are on the increase. Wearing a cross at work has been forbidden and evangelicals have been arrested for protesting against homosexuality.

In The Spectator a couple of weeks ago a pro-choice writer highlighted a more ominous development. He had been scheduled to debate abortion against a male pro-lifer at Christ Church Oxford. Hundreds of furious Oxford University women, especially on Facebook, demanded that the debate be cancelled, because the speakers did not have uteruses and because the "students' mental safety" would be threatened. They reject the idea of free speech, claiming "their right to feel comfortable".

Pope Benedict's warning

Unfortunately it was not too surprising that Christ Church, at the centre of one of the world's leading universities, capitulated to this bullying and halted the debate because of "security and welfare issues".

It is one thing for schools today to ban the singing of "Baa Baa, Black Sheep", but it would be a different world if many of these extremists finished up helping to run the country!

Pope Benedict warned about the potential threats from the dictatorship of relativism. He was not wrong.

The Catholic Church helped bring freedom in what was the world of European Communism. It is not at all unlikely, even if slightly ironic, that Catholics, and socially conservative Catholics, will play an increasing role in the struggle to retain religious freedom and freedom of expression in the English-speaking world. As priests it will be one of your tasks to participate in this struggle and encourage lay women and men of good will to battle publicly for these causes.

I conclude with a prayer from St John Fisher, preached in a sermon in 1508, the last year of Henry VII's reign and 27 years before Fisher's execution during the reign of the notorious Henry VIII:

Lord, according to your promise that the Gospel should be preached throughout the whole world, raise up men fit for such work. The apostles were but soft and yielding clay till they were baked hard by the fire of the Holy Ghost.

So, good Lord, do now in like manner with Thy Church militant, change and make the soft and slippery earth into hard stones; set in Thy Church strong and mighty pillars that may suffer and endure great labours, watching, poverty, thirst , hunger, cold and heat which also shall not fear the threatenings of princes, persecution, neither death, but always persuade and think with themselves to suffer with a good will, slanders, shame, and all kinds of torments, for the glory and laud of Thy Holy Name.

By this manner, good Lord, the truth of Thy Gospel shall be preached throughout all the world.

Therefore, merciful Lord, exercise Thy mercy, show it indeed upon Thy Church.

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