Sunday, 3 May 2015

The English Martyrs: a contemporary reflection

There is a plaque - of modern origin - in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, the University Church in Oxford.
When I stood before this plaque a few months ago, the overwhelming impression it communicated to me was one of indifference. The list is indifferent between those names that are the names of Catholics and those names that are the names of Protestants/Church of England. I suspect that none of those on the list would have found it a matter of no difference as to whether or not they were Catholic, or Protestant or in some cases (High) Church of England. And this post suggests that it is also indifferent as to those who might be considered genuine martyrs in some sense and those whose deaths were more the result of a political endeavour.
In very different times, both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have identified in the moment of martyrdom - that is, of death suffered in consequence of a profession of or living out of the Christian faith - a moment of particular ecumenical significance. It is indeed, they suggest, a moment of perfection of Christian unity. See my earlier post in this subject here. Pope Francis has again referred to the ecumenical implications of martyrdom in a short address to members of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (also reported here):
There is a strong bond that already unites us which goes beyond all divisions: it is the testimony of Christians from different Churches and traditions, victims of persecution and violence simply because of the faith they profess. And not only now, that there are many of them: I think also of the martyrs of Uganda, half Catholics and half Anglicans. The blood of these martyrs will nourish a new era of ecumenical commitment, a fervent desire to fulfil the last will and testament of the Lord: that all may be one (cf. Jn 17:21). The witness by these our brothers and sisters demands that we live in harmony with the Gospel and that we strive with determination to fulfil the Lord's will for his Church. Today the world urgently needs the common, joyful witness of Christians, from the defence of life and human dignity to the promotion of justice and peace.
There is here an indifference between the Catholic and the Anglican martyr that is not the same in nature as that manifested in the plaque in the University Church. It is an indifference that arises because the persecution involved arises from what is held in common among those who suffer, rather than from the oppositions between those who suffered that were extant at the time of the Reformation.

There is also another subtle point about the two eras: at the time of the Reformation, it was reasons of state (not acknowledging the monarch as supreme head of the Church in England was in law treason, for example) that were the immediate occasions of the deaths of both Catholic and Anglican, and not in se a conflict between those who were members of the two Churches. The common experience of Catholic and Anglican martyrs in the present time is not, therefore, any kind of contradiction of what happened in former times.

The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of these Martyrs of England on 4th May, and the celebration prompts a reflection on the ecumenical implications of that celebration. Re-reading all the documentation around the event of the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs in October 1970 it is striking to recognise the ecumenical sensitivity that surrounded the conclusion of the cause and the celebration of the canonisation.

In his homily at the Mass of canonisation, Pope Paul VI clearly indicated that the martyrs died because of their loyalty to the Catholic faith, and in particular, their loyalty to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist and to the prerogatives of the Successor of Peter as the universal shepherd of the Church. (Pope Paul's Angelus address after the canonisation ceremony explicitly refers to their deaths as testimony to the "hierarchical and unifying structure of the Church".)  He also acknowledged that they were also loyal subjects of their country, many dying with a prayer for their King or Queen on their lips, who had been put in the dramatic situation where it became impossible to live these two loyalties without suffering death. (Catholics who were shown by historical research to have had political motives were not included among those canonised.) Pope Paul cited the words of Lumen Gentium n.42 to the effect that in martyrdom the Christian "becomes perfectly conformed to [his Master] in the shedding of his blood".
...these Martyr Saints are a shining example of the kind of Christian whose life is the true expression of his baptismal consecration, strengthened by the sacrament of confirmation. For such a one, religion is not something on the fringe; it is the very substance of his being and of all his activity ... 
But Paul VI's homily included a warm greeting to representatives of the Anglican Church and those who had come to the ceremony representing Great Britain. He ended his homily thus (italics added, to draw attention to a passage that has particularly struck me for its rather beautiful articulation of the meaning of ecclesial unity):
May the Lord grant, that, in these times of increasing religious indifference and of the spread of materialism, not only as a philosophy but as a way of life, the example and intercession of the Forty-Martyr Saints may comfort us in faith and strengthen our authentic love for God, for his Church and for all men.
May the blood of these Martyrs be able to heal the great wound inflicted upon God’s Church by reason of the separation of the Anglican Church from the Catholic Church. Is it not one-these Martyrs say to us-the Church founded by Christ? Is not this their witness? Their devotion to their nation gives us the assurance that on the day when - God willing - the unity of the faith and of Christian life is restored, no offence will be inflicted on the honour and sovereignty of a great country such as England. There will be no seeking to lessen the legitimate prestige and the worthy patrimony of piety and usage proper to the Anglican Church when the Roman Catholic Church - this humble “Servant of the Servants of God” -  is able to embrace her ever beloved Sister in the one authentic communion of the family of Christ: a communion of origin and of faith, a communion of priesthood and of rule, a communion of the Saints in the freedom and love of the Spirit of Jesus.
Perhaps We shall have to go on, waiting and watching in prayer, in order to deserve that blessed day. But already We are strengthened in this hope by the heavenly friendship of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales who are canonized today. Amen.
At the consistory in May 1970 at which the canonisations were approved, Pope Paul used a memorable phrase in connection with the ecumenical implications of the canonisations. He said that the canonisations would promote "an ecumenism worthy of the name". Looking back from the perspective of the present day suffering of both Catholics and non-Catholics in the name of Jesus Christ in many parts of the world; from the perspective of the existence of Ordinariates in the Catholic Church where the living of an Anglican patrimony is possible; and from the perspective of the challenge to us all, Catholic and non-Catholic, to live to the full the demands of our baptismal/confirmational consecration in the circumstances that we face today; Pope Paul's  phrase seems to be receiving a prophetic fulfilment.

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