by fr. Clement Nur, S.J.
'THIS Sunday is "Martyrs' Sunday." The Forty Martyrs, canonised by Pope Paul on October 25, 1970. died 400 years ago. Since those days, the whole climate of religious feeling has changed in England and Wales.
A new fellowship has been established between the Catholic Church and the Church of England. Why keep harking back to the time when Catholics were hanged at Tyburn. and Protestants burnt at Smithfield? Has not the time come when we should forgive and forget?
Forgive yes. forget no. Forgiveness belongs to the essence of Catholicism, and of Christianity. We Catholics forgive from our hearts the persecution of the Catholic martyrs, as they themselves did in their last words on the scaffold. Anglicans forgive those Catholics who burnt heretics in the reign of Queen Mary.
Two years ago when a Catholic pilgrimage was led to Smithfield, to make public reparation for the cruel and unjust burning of something like 200 Protestants between 1555 and 1558, one was deeply moved to find already waiting for us a crowd of Anglicans, holding a large banner with the words : "In contrition and reparation for the persecution of Catholics."
Even so, we have no reason at all to forget our English and Welsh martyrs, though there is a danger that we might. We need not. for example, forget, that in 1558 William Cecil drew up a document called "A device for the alteration of religion," outlining a masterly scheme for the abolition of the Catholic religion in England.
But in 1574 some newly ordained young priests came overseas from the English College, Douay, in disguise, and made their way to the country houses of Catholics known to Dr. William Allen. who had founded the college in 1568. Each year more and more came over, 100 by 1581 and 438 by the end of the reign.
This small group of dedicated men made an immediate impact on the country. The panic of the government at this so-called "invasion by seminary priests" was shown by a whole series of savage penal laws. To be a priest in England, having been ordained abroad, was called high treason, and those caught were hanged, drawn and quartered.
These are the men to whom we Catholics today owe our Catholic Faith, and also those men and women who helped them. They came to save the Faith for posterity. "God lives," said St. Edmund Campion, "posterity will live; their judgment is not so liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death . . . This Church shall never fail. so long as priests and pastors shall be found for their sheep."
St. Robert Southwell, standing on the gallows. said : "I see the beginning of a religious life set on foot in England of which we now sow the seeds in tears, that others hereafter may with joy carry in the sheaves to the heavenly granaries." We must never forget that we are the heirs of their sufferings; in our turn we have a responsibility to hand on this heritage to our posterity.
Today, so many Catholic teenagers, critical of authority, critical of the Church's teaching, are drifting into disbelief. They don't find religion worthwhile; the Mass, they say, is boring and futile.
Our martyrs died for the Mass. Anyone reading a good life of one of the martyrs Evelyn Waugh's life of Campion, for example — would find it interesting, intriguing, stirring. He would be bound to ask himself : would men of such calibre endure torture and death for something that is futile and not worthwhile'?
Courage is something every boy and girl admires. No one could read the life of St. Margaret Clitherow, or St. Cuthbert Mayne without admiring them. The Pope canonised them in order that they might be brought before our minds, by sermons, by talks in class, by pilgrimages to their shrines, by pictures, by lantern lectures, by books, by pageants. by plays, and so on.
They are the heroes of our race, more heroic even than Drake and Raleigh and Nelson and General Gordon, and the like.
The example of the martyrs is a strong incentive to fulfil our obligation of self-denial. While Campion was at Oxford, with dazzling prospects of a brilliant career and the patronage of great and wealthy noblemen,‘ he sacrificed everything to become a priest and subsequently a martyr.
When Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, was leading a life of pleasure, spending money like water, he listened to Campion defending the truth in the Tower of London, as a prisoner. and his eyes were opened. Not long after, he became a Catholic, was arrested, endured severe hardship in the Tower for 11 years, was sentenced to death, but died in prison.
Margaret Clitherow loved her husband, her children, and a very happy home, but she consented to be crushed to death for harbouring priests.
Cuthbert Mgyne was confined in a dark underground prison in Launceston Castle for five months, loaded with chains, allowed no books or writing material, no visitors, until he was led out to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Nicholas Owen, suffering from hernia, was hung up by his wrists, hour after hour, till he died.
Many people in England today believe that sexual pleasure is the ultimate measure of human happiness. The martyrs believed that the love of God is the ultimate measure of human happiness. We must never forget our martyrs.