Fr Stewart Foster says that London is full of reminders that the Church in this country produced an amazing number of holy martyrs
0 n October 25, 1970, Pope Paul VI canonised the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. There had, of course, been two earlier canonisations, namely Ss John Fisher and Thomas More by Pope Pius XI in 1935, and to these are added the many beatified martyrs, the last group of whom were so declared by Pope John Paul II in 1987.
But, from a personal point of view, 1970 is the year I remember most vividly. I was aged 12, and shortly after the October canonisations I had the privilege of serving Mass at Ingatestone Hall in Essex, seat of the Petre family and the scene of many of the priestly labours of St John Paine, one of the 40, who had been martyred at Chelmsford in 1582. The priest who celebrated that Mass in 1970 was Fr Thomas McMahon, who, incidentally, as Bishop of Brentwood, would ordain me to the priesthood 22 years later. He wore on the occasion of the Mass at Ingatestone Hall the John Paine vestment, a chasuble dating from pre-Reformation times and kept by the Petre family. I would wear that same vestment for my first Mass after my own ordination, which I celebrated in the Catholic church at lag atestone.
Today I live in the East End of London, just off Green Street, a vibrant multi-ethnic thoroughfare. But even here the footsteps of the martyrs may be heard, for it was in Green Street, in 1580, that the great Jesuit, St Edmund Campion, established a secret printing press for the propagation of Catholic literature. Where West Ham football stadium now stands, where countless shops sell every conceivable item of food and clothing from around the world, and where indeed there is a Catholic church, Our Lady of Compassion, Upton Park, a saint of God once trod.
I mention these personal associations in order to make a very important point: the Martyrs of England and Wales, be they priests, lay people, or members of religious orders, are men and women intimately associated not only with the preservation of the Catholic Faith in times past, namely the penal days, but figures whose presence still pervades our land. And if this is true of London and Essex, it is even more the case in places such as Lancashire, where, proportionately to the total population, Catholics tended to survive in greater numbers in times of persecution.
I would like to return to Essex, however, and to mention in greater detail the life and heroic witness of John Paine. He was a native of the Diocese of Peterborough and was employed as steward to the Shelley Family of Stondon Hall, near Ongar in Essex. He entered the English College at Douai in 1574 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1576, leaving for England on April 7 of that year. Disguised as a steward, John Paine lived at Ingatestone Hall under the protection of Lady Anne Petre, and from here ministered to Catholics in the locality. He also worked as a priest in London, and within two months suffered arrest and imprisonment. However, by March 1577 he had been released. He returned to the Continent, but was back at Ingatestone by July 1578. On July 2, 1581 John Paine celebrated Mass in the house of William Moore, a Catholic gentleman of Haddon, Oxfordshire. He was betrayed by the notorious informer George ("Judas") Eliot, and a few days later was arrested in Warwickshire. Committed to the Tower of London, John Paine was examined under torture and was subsequently charged with treason against Elizabeth I.
At the November trial of Edmund Campion, Eliot claimed that Paine had sought to dissuade him from allegiance to the monarch, but Paine, even under torture, refused to admit the accusations against him. Eventually, on March 30,1582, he was found guilty of treason at the Chelmsford Assizes, and it was in the county town of Essex, on April 2, that he was led to the gallows. To the end, declaring "I die a Christian Catholic priest", John Paine denied any treason. So well-respected was this priest that the crowd who witnessed his fate forced the executioner to wait until John Paine was dead before cutting his body from the scaffold to be drawn and quartered.
He was one of 127 priests put to death during the reign of Elizabeth. In the scholarly investigations which formed part of the process in preparation for John Paine's canonisation a leading role was assumed by Canon Brian Foley (later Bishop of Lancaster), who as a priest of the Diocese of Brentwood by his own admission regarded John Paine as a model for his pastoral ministry: the Church needs fearless, dedicated and compassionate pastors.
The Martyrs of England and Wales are models and, above all, intercessors for us today. The story of the martyrs helps us to appreciate the immense sacrifices that have been made for the cause of religious freedom.
Ecumenism, too, is served by recourse to the martyrs, because true and genuine respect for those of other Christian traditions does not run shy of doing the truth in love. There are indeed many obstacles along the path to that unity for which Christ prayed, but to cherish the memory and witness of those who died for conscience's sake is not one of them. It is important to remember that in 1970, as the Forty Martyrs were declared saints, a Catholic pilgrimage visited Smithfield to pray at the spot where, during the reign of Mary, Protestants had been put to death for their beliefs. Many Christians, of all traditions, are today confronted by threats to their religion. For the Catholic martyrs of England and Wales persecution was overt and violent, while today the attacks upon the Church and upon religious belief in general are often more subtle, but for all that none the less real.
I write these few reflections on the eve of the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the Day of Prayer for Vocations. Thinking of St John Paine and his fellow martyrs, and looking forward to the Feast of the English and Welsh Martyrs on May 4 (although this year, being a Sunday, the Ascension of the Lord takes precedence), I ask you to join in asking the Lord of the Harvest to bless his Church and the whole world with an abundance of holy priests, religious and lay faithful.
Fr Stewart Foster is the archivist of Brentwood diocese