Lately I’ve come across some posts in the Catholic Blogosphere about the perils of our English Catholic ancestors.

My Dominican brethren at Godzdogz post about a visit to the recusant house, Mapledurham, near Reading:

The house has several hiding holes in which priests would hide from the authorities during penal times, and we were all most impressed at how cleverly constructed these hiding holes were. They boasted many ingenious features that allowed the priest, among other things, to look out into the grounds of the house and to escape when the coast was clear. The hiding holes must have served their purpose for there is no record of a priest ever being captured at Mapledurham!


The house boasts many other interesting features, including a bureau that hides an altar, complete with tabernacle and candlesticks inside. All of this made for a very enjoyable day, particularly as we were blessed with fine weather. The house is well worth a visit, it would interest anyone but is of particular interest for Catholics of course, being such a good reminder of how much our ancestors in the faith suffered and struggled to remain true to the faith of the Catholic Church during those dark years.

Thank God for that, but you can imagine the anxiety and anguish, both of the priests and those who sheltered them?  Although they may have been fortunate to escape physical punishment, their suffering was no less real or difficult to bear.  They suffered white martyrdom.

Father Blake of St. Mary Magdalen Church in Brighton celebrated his 25th anniversary of ordination on 12 May, which is also the feast day of the English Carthusian martyrs–men who suffered red martyrdom.  From Father Sean Finnegan’s homily on the occasion:

John Houghton, together with two other priors from the North, went to speak to Thomas Cromwell, the King’s strong arm man in religious matters. We can be sure that with his lawyer’s training, St John tried everything to make it possible to take the oath of allegiance to the King, without, however, compromising principle. Nothing availed, however, and all three were arrested, the charge being that —and I quote — ‘John Houghton says that he cannot take the King, our Sovereign Lord to be Supreme Head of the Church of England afore the apostles of Christ’s Church’, which rather makes it sound as if the apostles had also usurped what was the King’s rightful position.

In any event, he was condemned, of course—Cromwell had had to threaten the jury with treason charges themselves in order to achieve it, and the three priors together with a Bridgettine priest and a secular priest were all dragged to execution together. St Thomas More, by now in the Tower of London, watched them from the window of his cell setting off, and commented to his daughter who was visiting that they looked just like bridegrooms going to their wedding, a comparison that St John Fisher was also to use on the morning of his own death.

King Henry was insistent that the priests should be executed in their religious habits, to teach other religious a lesson, one presumes. This meant that after St John was cut down from the gallows, still alive, to be butchered, the thick hairshirt he wore under his heavy habit had to be cut through by the executioner, who had to stab down hard with the knife. And then, finally, as the executioner drew out St John’s still beating heart before his face, he spoke his last words: ‘Good Jesu’ he said, ‘what will you do with my heart?’

Father Timothy Finegan also shares the story, illustrated with paintings from the Chapter House at Parkminster.

In this picture you can see one monk hanging while another forgives the man who is about to execute him.

Carthusian martyrs

The stories of the English martyrs always give me a rather sound shaking.  They are a powerful safeguard against complacence.  The mad, cruel, and unjust persecution of good and blameless men like St. John Houghton and his Carthusian brethren, not to mention St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, and many other English Catholics began with the lust and arrogance of just one man, and the crookedness and/or cowardice of his supporters.

How capricious temporal powers are!  How tenuous the position of our Church and ourselves in this world!  Things can shift in any direction at any time.   Who would believe that St. Thomas More would fall from being Chancellor of England to having his head cleft off?  Who would believe that St. John Fisher would be the one and only bishop to remain true to the Catholic faith?  Who would believe that such innocent and holy monks could be found guilty of treason?  Who would believe it if it weren’t a fact of history?

And what about us?  We here in the 21st century, in the U.S. and elsewhere in the western world–do we really imagine that we are safe?  We Catholics are not safe in this world.  We never have been and never will be.  If we are fortunate, we may be spared the red martyrdom of those Carthusian martyrs.  But to escape martyrdom completely is impossible for a devoted Catholic.  We will always be dealt wounds by this world, to some or other degree.  We all, without exception, have our crosses to bear.

But far from calling us to fear and anxiety, the stories of the martyrs call us to fortitude, steadfastness, and ultimately victory!  May they be always in our hearts and minds as we are always in their prayers.