Today, as some will already be aware, is the feast day of St. Margaret Clitherow, St. Anne Line and St. Margaret Ward, three of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. Although they all shared a feast day on 25th October it has, for reasons I cannot remember been moved and they've obviously been split. But that doesn't matter! What matters is what these women did and what they mean for us here in 21st century.
Writing the talk on St. Margaret Clitherow and preparing bits for the pilgrimage next year I have found myself revisiting various points in Tudor history over and over again and seeing (with new eyes) the terrible suffering that all Catholics had to endure simply to express their faith. What strikes me the most the more I read is how much of a miracle it is that the Catholic Faith managed survived in this country at all, and it's people like the above three saints (and all the other saints and martyrs from that period) who kept the love for the Church alive.
The Protestant authorities at the time made it extremely difficult to be a Catholic in England. When Elizabeth was made Head of the Church in England in 1559 by the new Act of Supremacy it was also made illegal to acknowledge the Pope as Head of the Church. Punishment for this was, in the first instance, to lose all of your property, in the second to face the penalties of the Praemunire (outlawry, forfeiture of any lands/goods you had managed not to give up before and imprisonment at Her Majesty's pleasure) and if you were caught a third time you were executed as a traitor. As her reign continued the persecution against Catholics became increasingly violent and after Pope Pius V issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis Parliament made it treason for anyone to a) deny Elizabeth as lawful queen and b) go near anything Catholic. The Privy Council put heavy pressure on local authorities to spy on lay persons, to punish and and all who did not attend Protestant services without good reason (things like severe illness and being heavily pregnant), to flush out priests in hiding (especially men like St. Edmund Campion) and make examples of recusant Catholics. Most people, despite what they may have personally believed, conformed for fear for their lives and those of their families. But, praise God, there are lots and lots who refused to "go with the flow" and worked in secret to keep the Catholic faith alive all over the country.
Obviously I find St. Margaret Clitherow to be a particularly shining example of how much a person is prepared to go through for the sake of Christ. I have a soft spot for her I suppose because she too is a convert and, my word, the lengths she went to to learn more about the Catholic faith (especially with persecution so fierce) are staggering. And to her becoming a Catholic wasn't merely a passing fancy, she had a total conversion of heart. She was repeatedly imprisoned for refusing to go to the Protestant services (one interesting and disappointing side-note is that, during her second or third time in gaol, she missed the once-in-a-lifetime visit of St. Edmund Campion to York!!), she set up a 'Mass centre' in her house (and helped others to get to and from services without being discovered at great risk to her own personal safety), organised the Catholic education of her own children and those of friends and neighbours, refused to plea at her own trial (to safeguard others who would be convicted for recusancy) and suffered a horrific death all for the love of God. I guess I always hope I can learn something from her. She's certainly an example to follow!
But even though I love her story there are so many more people who did so much at that time and to whom we owe an immense debt. Without them Catholicism would surely have died out. One story I adore (and has passed into legend a bit so you could question its authenticity, but regardless it highlights peoples love of their Catholic faith despite what Tudor propaganda says) is that of an inn in York. The landlord was known by the authorities to still have strong Catholic leanings and Mass was frequently said in one of the rooms of the inn. One night, during a service, there was a raid and the priest was lucky enough to hide just before the officers broke the door down. The innholder was questioned (as was anyone present) including his seven or eight year old daughter who stood, stiff as a board, on a small rug in the middle of the pub. They threatened her, tried to bribe her, gave anything and everything a shot so that she'd reveal where the items for celebrating the sacraments (and the priest) were concealed. But she never said a word...just stood there in silence. Eventually they gave up and, when the coast was clear, the girl stepped off of the rug, moved it and let the priest out from his hiding place beneath a trap door in the floor.
Then you also have men like Dr. Vavasour and his wife Dorothy (also residents of York...I know a lot about Catholics in York, don't I?). Dr. Vavasour was in hiding for years for refusing to give up his faith and for being able to expertly explain and defend it. His wife celebrated Mass in their house very regularly (she was the one who hosted St. Edmund Campion's visit) and also suffered much for being Catholic. And, if you go through the records of the time, you'll see dozens of names in the rolls of recusants appearing before the High Commission in York (a lot of them women interestingly - many suffered not only at the hands of the authorities but also violence from their Protestant husbands and fathers at home because they would not conform - although one lady [Jane Geldard] did, in fact, convert her husband) and, on a day like today, they (and all the others up and down the country whose names we don't know) deserve a little hats-off.
So...happy feast day everyone! (Also click here for the link to the Litany in honour of the Forty Martyrs.)