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Advent With The English Martyrs

December 12, 2017 Featured Today No Comments


Recently I learned from an English Catholic gentleman that in late October the BBC began airing in England a new television series called Gunpowder dramatizing the historical events surrounding the “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605, a violent plot of a few Catholic extremists arising from the desperate situation of Catholics persecuted under England’s monarchy.
Although it is not yet clear whether this series will ever be shown on U.S. television, accounts of it sound encouraging — that it depicts with unsparing honesty the brutal persecution to which English Catholics were subjected by the country’s Protestant regime.
If this is indeed the case, then the airing of this dramatization would serve as a needed and timely reality check to counter all the euphoria with which all too many greeted the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this autumn.
So what does this have to do with Advent? As I think we all realize, Advent is not just about recalling the Incarnation in an intellectual manner. For the ultimate reason why the Church presents us with a year full of changing liturgical feasts and liturgical seasons is to foster our sanctification, to kindle within us a renewed and deepened love for God, and to inflame us with greater fervor for the cause of God in our lives.
In preparing for Christmas, we are striving as best we can to love the Christ Child as our Lady and St. Joseph loved Him, to live out the command of our Lord to souls in every state of life: “. . . You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
In this pursuit, the English martyrs dramatically succeeded. And for many of the martyrs, the seasons of Advent and Christmas were to become seasons of risk, risks taken for the love of Christ.
On Christmas morning of 1558, Bishop Owen Oglethorpe, bishop of the English See of Carlisle, was the celebrant of a Mass in the presence of England’s new queen, Elizabeth I. It was during the singing of the Gloria, that jubilant hymn of exaltation wherein man joins his voice to the angels of Bethlehem to rejoice in the birth of his Savior, that the bishop received a dark message from Her Majesty.
It was her command that he was not to elevate the Host at the consecration — her stated reason was that “she liked not the ceremony.” What were the bishop’s thoughts at that moment? He had to have known that it was always dangerous business to say no to a Tudor monarch. But there were also those words of Saints Peter and John to the Sanhedrin to think about, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge” (Acts 4:19).
Quickly the bishop made his decision and sent word back to the queen: No was his answer, he would not refrain from elevating the Host, for “thus he had learnt the Mass, and that she must pardon him as he could not do otherwise,” adding that “Her Majesty was mistress of his body and life, but not of his conscience.”
The queen responded by getting up and leaving the Mass immediately after the Gospel (F. Procter and W.H. Frere, A New History of the Book of Common Prayer, London, 1908, pp. 96-97; letter of I. Schifanoya to O. Vivaldino, December 31, 1558, in Calendar of State Papers relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 7, 1558-1580, edited by R. Brown and G. Cavendish Bentinck, London, 1890, p. 1; letter of the Count of Feria to King Philip II, December 29, 1558, in Calendar of Letters and State Papers relating to English Affairs, preserved principally in the Archives of Simancas: Volume 1: Elizabeth, 1558-1567, edited by Martin Hume, London, 1892, p. 17).
In the years that followed, this wrath of a queen was to ripen into a murderous wrath against Catholics who found themselves too much in the way of her agenda of Protestantizing England. For all the talk among certain historians that Elizabeth was a most reluctant persecutor, her parliament’s Treason Act of 1585 and the reign of anti-Catholic terror unleashed by her trusted minister Richard Topcliffe tell a very different story. Then as now, the actions of heads of state speak louder than their words.
Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries twenty Englishman were put to death during the month of December. The illustrious Jesuit martyr St. Edmund Campion was brutally hung, drawn and quartered with two fellow priests, Saints Ralph Sherwin and Alexander Briant, on December 1, 1581. A year later, on Christmas Day of 1582, Fr. (Blessed) William Hart had retired to get some much-deserved bed rest from his priestly labors as a comforter of imprisoned Catholics in York when he was arrested.
At Fr. Hart’s trial three months later, the foreman of the jury was threatened and dismissed after he pleaded for the dismissal of the charges against the priest, declaring that Fr. Hart’s life was more angelic than human. And indeed, the martyr spent his final days before his execution in prayer, fasting and contemplation.
It was during the second week of Advent in 1591 that the priests St. Edmund Genings, St. Polydore Plasden, and St. Eustace White and the Catholic laymen St. Swithin Wells, Blessed Brian Lacey, Blessed John Mason, and Blessed Robert Sydney were put to death for their faith. Wells had been condemned for serving a priest at Mass.
Kissing the noose with which he was about to be hung, Fr. Plasden turned his eyes heavenward and prayed, “O Christ, I will never deny thee for a thousand lives.” Fr. White said to the onlookers, “If I had never so many lives, I would think them very few to bestow upon your Tyburns to defend my religion” (John Hungerford Pollen, Acts of English Martyrs Hitherto Unpublished, Burns and Oates, London, 1891, pp. 114, 111, respectively).
Just days later, on the Third Sunday of Advent, Fr. (Blessed) William Patenson was spending the day in the Clerkenwell home of a Catholic layman named Lawrence Mompesson. He had come to Clerkenwell suffering from scruples, and sought there the counsel of a fellow priest named James Young. After both priests had celebrated Mass, Fr. Young chose a text from the Douay-Reims Bible “fit for the Third Sunday of Advent” (ibid., p. 115), and was commenting upon it when a troubling knock at the door alerted them to imminent danger.
A band of churchwardens, sidemen and police had arrived in search of any of the household who had failed to attend Protestant church services that day. Fr. Young successfully hid himself, but Fr. Patenson was discovered and arrested. The latter was to spend Christmas in prison, but before his execution by hanging, drawing and quartering on January 22, 1592, he succeeded in converting six of seven common criminals imprisoned with him.
The melody for the Christmas carol What Child Is This?, “Greensleeves,” has a somber connection with the sufferings of the English martyrs. For it was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that there began the grim practice of playing this melody in a slow, dirge-like manner during executions for treason.
So it is likely that for many of the English priests condemned to death by drawing and quartering, this was the last music they heard before passing from this world. Perhaps in the Providence of God this is why this originally secular melody, sanctified in a sense by accompanying the martyrs to the threshold of Heaven, was destined in later ages to become a haunting carol of the Christ Child.
On Sunday, December 11, 1642, the Third Sunday of Advent, Fr. Thomas Howard, a day after having been condemned to death, heard several Confessions and celebrated Mass in his prison cell, and in the afternoon made a general Confession to a priest visiting him. His final night on Earth he spent in prayer, and very early the next day he celebrated his last Mass.
At his execution, “. . . he prayed for the whole kingdom, and for the conversion and salvation of all. He offered not only his life, but said if he had as many lives as there were hairs on his head, or as there are stars in heaven on a clear night, or drops of water in the ocean, and perfections in God, he would willingly consecrate them all to this effect” (Pollen, Acts of English Martyrs, pp. 366-367).

The Light Shines In Darkness

Amid all their sufferings, England’s persecuted Catholics did not forget what the Gospel of the third Mass of Christmas has proclaimed for centuries, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Each year on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the Benedictine priest and martyr St. Ambrose Edward Barlow (+1641) hosted a large assemblage of his people to celebrate the Nativity with him.
Through the night Fr. Barlow heard the faithful’s Confessions as they kept a night watch of prayer. On Christmas Day, he celebrated Mass for his flock and then waited at table upon the poorest among them as he treated them all to a Christmas dinner. No one went home without the gift of a silver coin from him.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas this year, may we learn to love the Christ Child as the martyrs did — with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our minds, and with all our strength.

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