in preparation for their feast on the 4th May
For the description and related prayer for these reflections, please follow the post:
English and Welsh Martyrs – Prayer
Daily Reflections: 20th – 26th April
Wednesday 20th April Day 8
Blessed Arthur Bell
“We praise you, O God: we acclaim you as the Lord.
The white-robed army who shed their blood for Christ
All sing your praise.”
Arthur Bell (1590-1643) was son of the lawyer William Bell, who died soon. For this reason, Arthur was given into charge of his uncle, Francis Daniel of Acton in Suffolk. At the age of twenty-four, he was was sent to Saint Omer college, and then he left for Spain in order to continue his studies. There, in 1618, Arthur Bell received the habit of the Franciscan Order. But then he was sent back in England for the restoration of the Franciscan province there.
Found guilty of being a Roman Catholic priest, Arthur Bell was condemned to death during the English Civil War. In 1987, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II.
When sentence of death was pronounced against this faithful son of St Francis, Blessed Arthur broke out into song, intoning the Church’s great hymn of praise, the Te Deum. Rejoicing in his heart, he thanked the puzzled judges, for now he was to receive the privilege of dying for Christ. In midst of joy and in the midst of trial, the Christian soul praises the Lord.
The holy martyrs rejoiced in their sacrifice, for like Blessed Arthur, they know they have come to share in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. One with him in his death, they offer their sufferings to assist in the redemption of the world (Cf. Col 1:24). The death of the martyr is a canticle of praise, a song of hope, a great symphony of love which resounds throughout heaven and earth. So we too must rejoice in our sufferings (Rms 5: 3) and offer them as a fragrant offering to the Lord (Cf 2 Cor 2: 14-16).
Thursday 21st April Day 9
St Ralph Sherwin
“I wash my hands in innocence
And go about thy altar, O Lord” (Ps 26:6)
The protomartyr of the English College, Rome, was born at Rodsley, Derbyshire. Ralph Sherwin (1550-1581) conformed to the new religion, but was reconciled to the Catholic Church during his student days at Exeter College, Oxford. In 1575 he went overseas to the seminary at Douai, and two years later was ordained priest there. He continued his studies at the English college in Rome. When the students of the College were required to afﬁrm on oath their readiness to be sent on the English mission, he did so and added: ‘Today rather than tomorrow’.
He returned to England in 1580 but was soon arrested and imprisoned in the Marshalsea and afterwards in the Tower of London,
where he was put in irons and tortured. These irons he called his ‘little bells’, and remarked: ‘I have never heard such sweet harmony before’. They racked him and exposed him in the snow alternately. Once the racking lasted for ﬁve days and nights, and all the time he was kept without food or drink, but he never spoke. He was promised the second bishopric of England if he would conform. He was hanged at Tyburn on 1st December 1581.
“Innocency is my only comfort”, St Ralph testified to his uncle in a letter the day before his death. A man pure and innocent, he was condemned for his faithful adherence to the Gospel and his priestly vocation. Yet in his sufferings, his heart was at peace, immersed in “spiritual consolations and Christian comforts” which the merciful Lord sent him. A pure heart had been created for him and so his spirit was steadfast (Ps 51:10). He was not afraid because he had placed his trust in God (Ps 40:4), and it was the Lord, the defender of the innocent, who would be his vindication (Ps 138:8). And so there was no malice in his soul, like a lamb he was led to his death (Is 53:7), his sacrifice a testament to his goodness.
The martyrs reassure us that the innocent have no fear of condemnation in the eyes of the Lord. Though they may suffer and endure great hardship, if they stay true to their virtuous ways, the Lord will vindicate them and give them what was denied them here on earth. Jesus, the pure Lamb of God, is their example and their consolation. Though malevolence and persecution may tempt them, St Ralph and his companions urge them to resist, immersing themselves in the wounds of Christ and there finding the serenity which will preserve them.
Friday 22nd April Day 10
St Nicholas Owen
“The Lord your God has blessed you in all the works of your hands.
He has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness”
Owen (1550-1606) was a Jesuit Brother. He spent over twenty-ﬁve years travelling up and down England, constructing, with consummate skill, hiding places for priests. Entering the Society of Jesus about 1580, he served in succession St Edmund Campion, Fr John Gerard, and Fr Henry Garnet (Superior of the English Jesuits from 1587 to 1606). He was imprisoned twice, in 1581 and 1594, but always refused to give the authorities any information about his fellow Catholics.
At the time of the Gunpowder Plot Fr Garnet and Brother Nicholas took refuge at Hinlip Hall in Worcestershire, where they were arrested soon afterwards. Nicholas was taken to the Tower of London and tortured severely to make him reveal the whereabouts of his hiding-holes, but this he resolutely refused to do. He was already a sick man, suffering from hernia, and though his persecutors took the cruel precaution of encasing him in an iron girdle to prevent rupture, the torture proved too much. His entrails burst out and he died in terrible agony in the Tower on 2nd March 1606.
Br Nicholas worked in the middle of the night, missing for days, constructing priest-holes, little arks to provide refuge for the Lord’s servants in times of persecution. Like St Joseph he was the quiet man, the humble one who blessed God for the gift given him and offered it as a sacrifice of praise. It was this service of the Lord which led to his arrest and torture; keeping his secrets he died on the rack, offering his life, with his work, to protect Christ’s priests.
The holy martyrs remind us of the value of our work as many of them, like St Nicholas, died for their acts of service. Every deed, no matter how humble or insignificant, carried out in praise of the Lord or in the service of his Gospel, is of great value and beauty, as it is the expression of a faithful soul. Each deed can be a sacrifice to the Lord, a token of love and if mingled with our sweat, tears and blood it can be the most glorious work of all.
Saturday 23rd April Day 11
Blessed Margaret Pole
“Christ, in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!”
Blessed Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (1473-1541), was an English peeress. Born Margaret Plantagenet, she was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, and thus the niece of Edward IV and Richard III of England.
King Henry VII called her “the holiest woman in England”, when he exiled Margaret Pole because of her opposition to his marriage to Anne Boleyn. For the deny of Henry’s Act of Supremacy by her son, Cardinal Pole, Margaret was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two years and then beheaded, though never given a legal trial. She was beatified in 1886.
The holy widow Margaret was dangerous in her piety. Refusing to conform to her cousin’s new religion, she remained steadfast, and fearful of her rights to the throne, Henry condemned her. “I am no traitor, no, not I”, she wrote on her prison cell, commending herself, not to the vagaries of an earthly ruler, but to the mercy of Christ. She struggled on the block, not because she feared death, but did not presume to think she merited martyrdom – but she did. A woman of noble birth, strong character and tremendous influence, she was always a servant of God.
The martyrs warn us not to seek martyrdom or persecution, not to act in a foolish way that would bring it upon us. They counsel prudence as a virtue to be embraced in the midst of trial and oppression. No martyr is foolhardy, he does not throw away his life for it is sacred, it belongs to the Lord; that life may be taken unjustly, but it is not forfeit for spite or to seek glory. Even death, for the Christian, is an act of service and at the bidding of the Lord.
Sunday 24th April Day 12
Ss Edmund Gennings and Polydore Plasden
“This is my Body which is given for you.” (Lk 22:19)
Saint Edmund Gennings (1567-1591) was brought up a Protestant. At the age of sixteen he became a page to a Catholic gentleman, Richard Sherwood. Impressed by his master’s example, when Mr Sherwood left England to become a priest, Edmund followed. He was ordained in 1590 and then returned to England. Within a year, however, his mission came to an end.
He was saying Mass in the house of St Swithun Wells in London, when Richard Topcliffe, the well-known persecutor of Catholics, with his ofﬁcers, burst in. The congregation decided to oppose force with force rather than allow a sacrilege. They held the door and beat back the invaders until the Mass was ﬁnished, when they surrendered quietly. Edmund Gennings was hanged in 1591. His brother, John, who up to this time had been a Protestant, was converted by Edmund’s martyrdom.
Saint Polydore Plasden (1563-1591) was born in London. He studied at Rheims and Rome, where he was ordained priest, and returned to England to work in his native London. He was arrested with St Edmund Gennings and condemned to death as a priest. Sir Walter Raleigh was present at his execution, and hearing him pray for the Queen, asked, ‘What dost thou think as thou prayest?’ After further questions Raleigh realised that here was no traitor. He ordered the execution to be postponed until he went to plead with the Queen.
But Richard Topcliffe intervened, and put to Plasden what was known as ‘the bloody question’: ‘Then thou thinkest not to defend the Queen against the Pope, if he could come to establish thy religion?’ Plasden answered: ‘I am a Catholic priest, therefore I would never ﬁght, nor counsel others to ﬁght, against my religion, for that were to deny my faith’. And kissing the rope, he went on: ‘O Christ, I will never deny thee for a thousand lives’. After this avowal Sir Walter allowed the execution to proceed, but he insisted that Plasden be allowed to die before he was cut down.
It was as he was saying Holy Mass for the faithful, assisted by his brother priest, St Polydore, that St Edmund was arrested. Clothed in the sacred vestments, the Holy Sacrifice hurriedly completed, he was led out to captivity and martyrdom. These two dedicated priests, Edmund and Polydore, would offer their bodies as a sacrifice in union with the Masses they had offered in their priestly ministry. It is the call of a priest to offer gift and sacrifice (Heb 8:3), to lay down his life for his brothers and sisters in imitation of the Divine Master, there is no greater love (Jn 15:13). The mystery of a priest’s suffering and martyrdom is immersed in the mystery of his offering the holy Eucharist.
The martyrs rejoiced in the Holy Mass – it was their strength and joy in the midst of affliction. The graces and blessings which emanated from the Eucharist sustained them and helped them endure their sufferings, as it revealed the significance of their martyrdom. Like them, may we never take this Sacrifice for granted, but rather seek enter more deeply into it; to lose ourselves in the great mystery that is being unveiled before us so we may find ourselves again in our union with the Eucharistic Lord.
Monday 25th April Day 13
St Philip Howard
“The more affliction for Christ in this world, the more glory with Christ in the next”
St Philip Howard (1557-1595) was born in London, at Arundel House. Earl Philip had a royal godfather in the person of Philip II of Spain, at that time King of England through his marriage with Mary Tudor. Philip’s wife, Anne Dacre, became a Catholic while still young. Towards the end of 1581 the Earl was present at Blessed Edmund Campion’s famous disputes in the Tower, drawn possibly by mere natural curiosity. The sight of the martyr’s saintly, changed Philip’s whole life.
After two years, his mind was ﬁnally made up, and he sought the ﬁrst opportunity to be reconciled to the Church of his baptism.
The Queen’s disfavour grew more and more marked, till at length Philip saw that the only chance of safety for himself and his family lay in ﬂight, while ﬂight was still possible. Philip composed a letter of explanation to the Queen, in which he re- afﬁrmed his loyalty, and set forth his reasons for leaving the country. On 14th April 1585 the Earl and Countess of Arundel left England, embarking at Littlehampton. But while the coast was still in sight, the fugitives were suddenly arrested, apparently through treachery.
The Earl was taken to the Tower of London, where he remained for three years, until, in the outburst of persecution following upon the defeat of the Armada, he was charged with having prayed for the success of the Spanish ﬂeet. Philip Howard defended himself resolutely at his trial, all unprepared as he was, and unsupported. His enemies, though they condemned him as guilty, dared not carry out the sentence, knowing that he would be regarded as a martyr. Philip was sent back to the Tower. In 1595, he contracted a fatal illness which showed many symptoms of poison. Philip Howard’s long martyrdom came to an end after a night of continuous prayer.
St Philip afflictions began when the blood of St Edmund Campion was splattered on his doublet during the Jesuit’s execution. It was the blood of this martyr which brought the nobleman to his senses and back to God. Philip was a favourite of a jealous Queen Elizabeth; but as he turned from her to Christ, he was banished from court and fell under suspicion. The allure of the world lost its influence over him. No longer of this world, he began to desire the higher things (1 Cor 12:31), was devoted to his wife and lost interest in worldly pleasures, riches and status. This conversion to a more Christian life led to his arrest, condemnation and gradual wasting away in the Tower of London.
The holy martyrs teach us that conversion of life is necessary for Christian discipleship. Those whom Jesus numbers among his most faithful followers are those who can resist the distractions of the material world and put him before everything else. They trust in him, knowing that once they seek first his kingdom, everything else will follow (Mt 6:33). They know that the earth will pass away and set their hearts in Christ who endures. The gifts of the earth are beautiful, and they are given to us, but it is only when we see them in Christ that their frail and temporary beauty can be of true practical use.
Tuesday 26th April Day 14
Blessed Edward Obaldeston
“Thus even my friend, in whom I trusted,
who ate my bread, has turned against me”
Edward Osbaldeston (1560-1594) was born in Lancashire. He studied at the English College in Douai, France, and then attended the seminary in Rheims. Four year after his ordination, Edward sent back to England to convert Catholics in 1589. Having said his first Mass on the feast of the feast day of Saint Jerome, Edward was always devoted to Him.
He was arrested in York and condemned for high treason for being a priest. Edward was among the eighty-five martyrs of England and Wales Pope John Paul II beatified in November 1987.
Blessed Edward was betrayed by a brother priest, by one who had abandoned his own ministry. The young priest was taken by night after only five years of pastoral ministry in England. To be betrayed by one who shared in the sacred ministry may have led lesser men to be bitter, but Edward was serene and generously forgave his betrayer. With great humility he prepared for his death. With deep Christian insight he saw providence at work in the day of his capture, the feast of St Jerome in 1594, a saint he had adopted as his patron. “If it should please his majesty [God]”, the martyr wrote, “to suffer me to fall into the persecutors’ hands, that then it would please his infinite goodness to protect me to the end; which I have no doubt he will.”
Like Christ, the martyrs are models of . All of them died begging forgiveness of God for their persecutors, praying for their salvation and wishing them every blessing, often excusing them citing the words of the Lord that they did not know what they were doing (Lk 23:34). If these men and women who are given over to an unjust death can forgive from the depths of their heart (Mt 18:35), so we too can forgive our brother or sister when they offend us on so many other minor injustices.
Learn more with CTS booklet A Year with the English Saints, edited by Fr Marcus Holden