Wednesday, 27 June 2012

And there he is: John Southworth & the English Martyrs

Today is the feast day of St. John Southworth, one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales.   Tonight we will celebrate as we feast on a traditional English Sunday roast (on a Wednesday).

Our mantle, ready for the feast day, with an image of St. John Southworth and a garland of the flag of St. George

 Ten years ago, I had one of the greatest privileges of my life as I was able to attend the mass held in honour of his feast day.   His feast day is only officially celebrated in the diocese of Westminster.
That morning, I attended mass in the St. George and the English Martyrs chapel in Westminster Cathedral.   It was the first time I was at a primarily Latin mass and it was the first and only time I attended mass on a feast day when the priest was able to say, "And there he is," as we were able to look over at the saint's very remains in the chapel.


Pictured above are Southworth's remains, as they are displayed in the feretory in the St. George side chapel.   This dear priest was arrested four times for being a Priest in England.   He was released three times and escaped after his fourth arrest.   In 1654, he was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn.   Southworth was allowed two unusual mercies: he was allowed to wear his priestly vestments and he was allowed to die by hanging, instead of the usual practice of being hung until almost dead and then drawn and quartered while still alive.   Also rare, his remains were parboiled and taken to France, where he had studied.   During the French Revolution they were buried in a secret location.   In 1927, the remains were discovered and returned to Westminster, the area where he did so much service to the poor.

Procession as Southworth's remains were brought to Westminster in 1927.

Imagine continuing to practice the faith, knowing that if your were "caught" you would probably be sentenced to a horrible death.  Catholics were being actively hunted down and persecuted, so every celebration of mass was a dangerous event for those involved.   I am humbled and completely in awe when I think upon the faith of these men and women.

As I've written before, I have a special devotion to English saints: the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales, the English who were martyred before the Elizabethan persecutions of Catholics, and more recent English saints.   When we went to England in 2002, the purpose of our visit was for my husband to do research in London and Liverpool.   Our trip also was a pilgrimage for us.

We were able to visit Canterbury, where St. Thomas Becket was martyred.   It was one of the most profound moments of my life as I stood on the very spot where this great servant to the poor and God was slain by misguided knights.   Then, just as profound was  standing in the side chapel which was once the glorious chapel where pilgrims venerated Thomas Becket.   After the English Reformation, the chapel was stripped bare.   I stood there and let the tears form as I stared at the lone candle on a bare floor that marks the now empty, cold side chapel.   In that grand, former Cathedral, where so many Catholics once worshiped freely.   It is good that Becket's memory is still kept alive in some form by the Anglicans who now occupy the space, but it is a bittersweet acknowledgement for me.

The grand destination of so many pilgrims: Canterbury



The powerful place of St. Thomas Becket's martyrdom.   The cross commemorates the angles of the knights' swords as they entered the saint's body.   He was simply kneeling in prayer.   It is even more striking in person.   To the right, the plaque on the wall denotes the place where Pope John Paul II and the Archbishop of Canterbury prayed for reconciliation and peace.   It is one of the holiest places in the world for me and I look forward to returning with my children.


The St. Thomas Becket window at Canterbury.   We have a small reproduction hanging above our kitchen door--a special keepsake.

While in London, we stayed in a bed and breakfast near Westminster Cathedral, the seat of Catholicism in England.   Not Westminster Abbey of which so many are familiar.   That was the Cathedral before the reformation.   It is now an Anglican church and a place of honour for so many venerated English figures from politics and the arts who are buried there.   It was so odd to tour the great building and think of its Catholic history.

Main altar at Westminster Cathedral.   Breathtaking.  I was able to see this daily while in London--unbelievable!
St. George and English Martyrs side chapel at Westminster Cathedral
We visited Westminster Cathedral every day during our stay for daily masses, adoration, and moments of reflection in one of several side chapels.   The St. George chapel, dedicated to St. George and the English martyrs, was my favorite place to visit within the Cathedral.   Yet, there was a sadness to each visit.   There were huge expanses of blank areas within the Cathedral as the faithful few Catholics there raise funds to complete planned mosaics.   Contrast that to the grand Westminster Abbey or Canterbury, completed when England was Catholic.   It's a physical reminder of what once was--what England once was--when a Catholic heart beat within England.   I was also able to attend a memorial mass for the Duke of Norfolk.   Their family remained Catholic during the persecutions and that Duke had been a faithful patron of the English church.   It was an honour to join in remembering him at his time of death.

We were also able to visit St. Etheldreda's Church, in Ely Place, in London.  It is a hidden, quiet church and a most sacred place to reflect upon faith and hope.


Fr. Edmund Jones, martyred in 1590, one of the English saints remembered in St. Etheldreda's.

 I come from a lineage made up of primarily English, with some Scots-Irish and Welsh thrown in.   So, I find my roots in the Home Isles.   I feel a connection to that land very keenly.   I felt it when I visited.   My ancestors were Catholic.   Later, my family who came to America were Quakers.   My mother was raised Church of Christ.   And now I am Catholic; part of our family has come back to the faith.   My children have been baptized Catholic and my oldest has had the privilege of receiving Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.    I even have my own little Thomas Becket--my son's name-- that reminds me daily of the total gift, completely unearned and undeserved, that was my conversion and of my connection with my ancestors.    May I always remember the gift of my conversion and the responsibility it brings.

Here are St. John Southworth's last words, spoken from the gallows.   They are a perfect reflection for his feast day:

  "My faith and obedience to my superiors is all the treason charged against me; nay, I die for Christ's law, which no human law, by whomsoever made, ought to withstand or contradict . . . To follow His holy doctrine and imitate His holy death, I willingly suffer at present; this gallows I look upon as His Cross, which I gladly take to follow my Dear Saviour . . . I plead not for myself . . . but for you poor persecuted Catholics whom I leave behind me."

St. John Southworth and all the holy saints of England and Wales, pray for us!


For further reading on the faith of the English before the Reformation, these books by noted historian Eamon Duffy, are a wonderful resource.   Check out all of his books!




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