I’ve been doing some reading lately about the English martyrs during the time of the Reformation, and it got me to thinking about martyrdom’s close relationship with the sacrifice of Jesus. In today’s Gospel lesson St. John cries out “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He is the atonement that is sufficient to countermand all the wretched perversity of the human condition. In very mysterious ways, martyrdom is integrated with Christ’s sacrifice.
Much of the following comes from the writings of Fr. Dwight Longnecker, another Anglican who came home to the Catholic Church. (Blog: Jul. 2, 2015:Lessons From the English Martyrs)
He writes: I’ll never forget an experience on the recent pilgrimage to England I conducted with biographer Joseph Pearce. We were visiting Oxborough Hall, the 15th-century moated manor house owned and occupied by the recusant Bedingfeld family. Recusants are English Catholics who remained faithful to this day in spite of terrible persecution.
The house has a famous “priest’s hole,” an ingenious hiding place for Catholic priests to escape Elizabeth I’s internal security police. The secret chamber was built into the walls of the tower in the ancient house. The access was through a trap door built beneath a latrine, down a narrow tunnel and up into a tiny, low room, with built-in seats just big enough for two men.
Fr. Lonecker continues: Joseph and I huddled there in awestruck silence. Without a doubt, priests had sat in that very place, holding their breath and waiting for the dreadful moment of discovery that would lead to imprisonment, torture and the gruesome fate of being publicly [hanged until almost dead and then], drawn and quartered.
We recited the Lord’s Prayer, and Joseph said, “Let’s sing the Salve Regina.” So we sang together that sweet Catholic hymn with tears in our eyes; and after we clambered out, we found a dumbstruck audience. The other tourists and pilgrims had heard us singing and one whispered, “That was amazing! A chill ran down my spine!”
Fr. Longnecker writes of visitng several of the monastaries that Henry VIII confiscated as gifts and bribes to powerful gentry and nobility with whom he wanted to curry favor. It should be remembered that England at the end of the Middle Ages was considered the most devoutly Catholic country in Europe. Called “Mary’s dowry,” the English were respected across Europe for their deep faith.
Within a few short years, however, everything was reversed. The English authorities became deeply and rabidly anti-Catholic. It’s hard not to make a correlation with the United States.
Today we have a higher proportion of believers and church-going Christians than any other developed country. The English example is a reminder that political expediency can cause a once deeply religious nation to do an about-face.
The persecutions in England were harsh, but they were not sudden. Under Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry’s henchmen who held several royal offices, simply started to “investigate” the monasteries, with the intent of closing those that were small and bankrupt, consolidating and making things more efficient. The propaganda was subtle. The suppression of monasteries was presented as an attempt at reform, cleaning up corruption and abuse.
Ironically, Henry VIII actually despised Protestantism. His title, Defender of the Faith was given to him by the Pope as a reward for a scathing attack on Martin Luther. Henry and Britain were going to stay Catholic, but with him as the head of the Church in England instead of the pope.
We should also remember that Henry’s “reforms” were incremental and rather innocuous. At first, the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging Henry as head of the Church in England, was only required of court officials and others in legal or administrative positions. Even then an accommodation was allowed. One could take the oath affirming Henry’s supremacy with the added loophole phrase “insofar as the law of God allows.” Therefore, those who were worried about denying their Catholic faith could take the oath with their fingers crossed. Many, if not most, did.
Then the oath was extended to include all priests, teachers and minor officials. Eventually, the loophole phrase was removed, and those who had taken the oath previously had to swear again. Sadly, those who had already compromised their faithfulness took the next step, rationalizing their actions.
After Henry’s death, there was a tumultuous swing between his very Protestant son Edward, followed by his Catholic daughter Mary. And then Elizabeth I came to the throne.
Elizabeth’s persecutions were similarly gradual. Ascending the throne, it seemed at first that she would tolerate or even endorse Catholicism, allowing each of her subjects to enjoy religious freedom in their worship choices. As the political pressure increased, however, her persecution of Catholics became more draconian.
The Oath of Supremacy was extended to everyone. Attendance was required at the state church services and roll was taken, and if one missed, there were consequences. Offenders who actually attended Mass were fined heavily and had property and lands confiscated; finally, they were imprisoned. Catholic priests were under automatic sentence of death, and to shelter a priest was a capital crime.
Could the persecution of Catholics become that bad in the United States in the 21st century? One hopes not, but we can observe certain parallels.
Government pressure on Catholics to go against their consciences and provide abortion and contraception as part of health care is a reality, and the conscience clauses that provide loopholes feel uncomfortably like the elbow room of “insofar as the law of God allows” in Henry VIII’s oath. Note that after Catholics accepted the loopholes and made the oath, the accommodation was rescinded.
Could Catholics in the United States have their property confiscated and suffer pecuniary fines for not conforming to the wishes of the state?
In the debate on same-sex “marriage” in the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia asked the advocates of same-sex unions if approval could lead to a “Bob Jones situation.” (He was referring to the case of Bob Jones University being deprived of its tax-exempt status because it held that interracial dating was contrary to its religion.) The advocate admitted, “That is a possibility.”
Now that same-sex “marriage” has become the law of the land, a Catholic school, charity or apostolate that refuses to comply could lose its tax-exempt status. This not only means it would have to pay taxes. Additionally, donors would no longer receive tax benefits, and such organizations would be classified as businesses not charities thus incurring huge costs to comply with all business regulations and requirements. This would amount to pecuniary fines by stealth. And there are currently a lot more blatant things. Think of Aaron and Melissa Klein. They were the bakers in the Portland area who, because of their faith, were fined $200,000 for refusing to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.
Could Catholics actually be imprisoned, tortured and martyred for their faith in today’s America? It’s difficult to imagine how things could become that bad, but, then, English Catholics at the beginning of the 16th century would never have dreamt that within 50 years priests would be tortured, garroted and gutted simply for being priests.
We shouldn’t be deluded. Given the right circumstances and conditions, these horrors can happen anywhere.
All we have to do is look at the recent numbers put out by the Center for Study of Global Christianity. They released a report of the persecution of Christians in 2016. The findings are tragic:
- In 2016, about 90,000 Christians were killed for their faith.
- Every six minutes, a Christian was killed somewhere in the world.
- 63,000 died in tribal conflicts in Africa.
- Most refused to take up arms for reasons of conscience.
- 27,000 died in terrorist attacks, the destruction of Christian villages and government persecution in nations, including North Korea.
- More than 500 million Christians cannot freely profess their faith.
- Christians are now the most persecuted religious group in the world.
The steadfastness of the English martyrs like Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher is a bright light within a tumultuous history. We do well to learn about them, remembering that those who don’t remember the horrors of history are doomed to repeat them. We need to pay attention.
I close with a question and a word of comfort. The question is one we pondered in seminary some 45 years ago. Here it is— “During the time of persecution of the faithful, if they come to arrest you, would there be enough evidence for you to be convicted?” The answer is, “I certainly pray to God that there would be.”
The word of comfort comes from the Optional Closing Prayer from the Chaplet of Mercy: Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.