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Posts Tagged ‘martyrdom’

On Friday the seminary went on pilgrimage to St Albans to visit the shrine of the great saint, England’s first martyr. Just getting out of London was a revelation for some of the seminarians; and many of them couldn’t quite believe that we were still in Westminster Diocese (which takes in the whole of Hertfordshire as well as its London elements). I was born in London but grew up in Harpenden, and went to senior school in St Albans; so I felt very proud to show them that there is life beyond the M25, and that the Diocese extends beyond Enfield.

We started in the Roman museum in the beautiful park below, and then walked up to the Abbey Cathedral for a tour and the celebration of Mass in the medieval Lady Chapel. Our Anglican hosts were very gracious to us in their welcome and in allowing us to celebrate Mass.

shrine to st alban by avail

The restored shrine of St Alban in St Albans Cathedral

The shrine itself was completely destroyed during the Reformation. In recent years it has been gloriously restored, and they have an authentic relic of St Alban that was given to the Abbey by a church in Cologne. What an incredible grace, that after the tragedy of the destruction of the shrine, St Alban is now honoured ecumenically nearly five hundred years later. There is a thriving annual pilgrimage around the time of his feast day in late June each year.

I always think we should make more of him as Catholics, especially in Westminster Diocese. We have the shrine of England’s first martyr in the geographical centre of the diocese, but many people know hardly anything about him.

Here is the short biography from the Cathedral website:

A man called Alban, believed to have been a Romano-British citizen of the Roman town of Verulamium around the end of the 3rd century, gave shelter to an itinerant Christian priest, later called Amphibalus.

Impressed by what he heard Alban was converted to Christianity by him.

When a period of persecution, ordered by the Emperor, brought soldiers in search of the priest, Alban exchanged clothes with him allowing him to escape and it was Alban who was arrested in his place.

Standing trial and asked to prove his loyalty by making offerings to the Roman gods, Alban bravely declared his faith in “the true and living God who created all things”. This statement condemned Alban to death. He was led out of the city, across the river and up a hillside where he was beheaded.

As with all good stories the legend grew with time. Bede, writing in the 8th century elaborates the story, adding that the river miraculously divided to let him pass and a spring of water appeared to provide a drink for the saint. He also adds that the executioner’s eyes dropped out as he beheaded the saint, a detail that has often been depicted with relish since. At the time of Bede there was a church and shrine near the spot, pilgrims travelled to visit, and it became an established place of healing. He describes the hill as “adorned with wild flowers of every kind” and as a spot “whose natural beauty had long fitted it as a place to be hallowed by the blood of a blessed martyr”.

There is an even earlier record of St.Germanus visiting the shrine around 429.

Alban was probably buried in the Roman cemetery to the south of the present Abbey Church. Recent finds suggest an early basilica over the spot and later a Saxon Benedictine monastery was founded, probably by King Offa around 793. This was replaced in 1077 by the large Norman church and monastery, the remains of which are still partly visible in the tower and central part of the present cathedral.

St Alban’s martyrdom is particularly remembered on and around 22nd June each year with a major festival pilgrimage and Passio; an exploration of the martyrdom through carnival.

And you can read the wonderful account by St Bede at this site, which includes these passages:

This Alban, being yet a pagan, at the time when at the bidding of unbelieving rulers all manner of cruelty was practised against the Christians, gave entertainment in his house to a certain clerk, flying from his persecutors. This man he observed to be engaged in continual prayer and watching day and night; when on a sudden the Divine grace shining on him, he began to imitate the example of faith and piety which was set before him, and being gradually instructed by his wholesome admonitions, he cast off the darkness of idolatry, and became a Christian in all sincerity of heart.

The aforesaid clerk having been some days entertained by him, it came to the ears of the impious prince, that a confessor of Christ, to whom a martyr’s place had not yet been assigned, was concealed at Alban’s house. Whereupon he sent some soldiers to make a strict search after him. When they came to the martyr’s hut, St. Alban presently came forth to the soldiers, instead of his guest and master, in the habit or long coat which he wore, and was bound and led before the judge.

It happened that the judge, at the time when Alban was carried before him, was standing at the altar, and offering sacrifice to devils. When he saw Alban, being much enraged that he should thus, of his own accord, dare to put himself into the hands of the soldiers, and incur such danger on behalf of the guest whom he had harboured, he commanded him to be dragged to the images of the devils, before which he stood, saying, “Because you have chosen to conceal a rebellious and sacrilegious man, rather than to deliver him up to the soldiers, that his contempt of the gods might meet with the penalty due to such blasphemy, you shall undergo all the punishment that was due to him, if you seek to abandon the worship of our religion.”

But St. Alban, who had voluntarily declared himself a Christian to the persecutors of the faith, was not at all daunted by the prince’s threats, but putting on the armour of spiritual warfare, publicly declared that he would not obey his command. Then said the judge, “Of what family or race are you?” – “What does it concern you,” answered Alban, “of what stock I am? If you desire to hear the truth of my religion, be it known to you, that I am now a Christian, and free to fulfil Christian duties.” – “I ask your name,” said the judge; “tell me it immediately.” “I am called Alban by my parents,” replied he; “and I worship ever and adore the true and living God, Who created all things.” Then the judge, filled with anger, said, “If you would enjoy the happiness of eternal life, do not delay to offer sacrifice to the great gods.” Alban rejoined, “These sacrifices, which by you are offered to devils, neither can avail the worshippers, nor fulfil the desires and petitions of the suppliants. Rather, whosoever shall offer sacrifice to these images, shall receive the everlasting pains of hell for his reward.”

The judge, hearing these words, and being much incensed, ordered this holy confessor of God to be scourged by the executioners, believing that he might by stripes shake that constancy of heart, on which he could not prevail by words. He, being most cruelly tortured, bore the same patiently, or rather joyfully, for our Lord’s sake. When the judge perceived that he was not to be overcome by tortures, or withdrawn from the exercise of the Christian religion, he ordered him to be put to death.

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Since my previous post about China, this came in from John Allen about the ‘war on religion’ that is underway in many countries. HIs first two examples are Chinese:

  • Fr. Joseph Zhao Hongchun, apostolic administrator of the Chinese diocese of Harbin, was taken into police custody July 4 to prevent him from galvanizing opposition to the illicit ordination of a new Harbin bishop orchestrated by the government. He was detained for three days and released only after the ordination took place.
  • New auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai was placed under house arrest in a seminary after he publicly resigned from the government-controlled “Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics” during his ordination Mass on July 7, which took place with the pope’s blessing.
  • Rev. Kantharaj Hanumanthappa, a Pentecostal pastor in the Indian state of Karnataka, was leading a prayer service July 4 when 20 radical Hindus stormed in to accuse the Christians of proselytizing, threatening them if they didn’t leave. A police complaint was filed, but no action has been taken.
  • The private home of Pastor Ramgopal, a Pentecostal minister in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was raided by police allied with the Hindu radicals. The pastor was reportedly told, “Either you go away and never come back or we’ll arrest you.” He was released only after signing a statement promising not to lead any more prayer services in the area.
  • A Catholic priest in Vietnam, Fr. J.B. Nguyen Dinh Thuc, was attacked by plainclothes police and thugs reportedly paid $25 a head to raid a missionary chapel in a rural area July 1. Their aim was to prevent the celebration of a Mass, part of what local Catholics describe as a policy of “religious cleansing” imposed by Hanoi. When the priest tried to make his way through the mob, he was beaten up, along with several laity who came to his rescue. Maria Thi Than Ngho, one of those laity, suffered a fractured skull in the melee. As of this writing, she remains in critical condition.
  • Abdubannob Ahmedov, a Jehovah’s Witness in Uzbekistan, saw his four-year prison term for “illegal religious activities” extended for another 30 months for alleged violations of prison rules.
  • Yelena Kim, a Baptist in Uzbekistan arrested in late June for “illegally teaching religion,” is now looking at three years behind bars after police raided her home and confiscated Bibles, hymn books and other religious materials.
  • Ghulam Abbas, a mentally disabled man in a region of Punjab under Pakistani control, was thrown into jail July 3 after rumors spread that he had burned some pages from a Quran. Before any investigation or trial could take place, a Muslim extremist mob stormed the jail, dragged Abbas from his cell and burned him alive. According to local observers, it’s at least the 35th extra-judicial murder to take place following an arrest under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws since 1986.

Deep thanks go to the Asia News service for bringing us these stories, which otherwise would be almost totally overlooked.

See the Asia News site here.

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It’s interesting that Danny Boyle has chosen to put Glastonbury Tor at the centre of his Olympic opening ceremony, in his vision of a mythical countryside that will somehow capture the essence of ‘who we are’ as British people.

You can read this in many ways – and I’m sure all will become clear when the ceremony unfolds. On the one hand, Christians should be delighted that a place full of such Christian significance – both in myth and in history - takes centre stage at the Olympics. Glastonbury is where, so the legend goes, Jesus once walked with Joseph of Arimathea. The tree that grew from Joseph’s staff and became the holy thorn is a central part of the Olympic set – linking Jesus’s own supposed international travels with those of the Olympians. And Glastonbury Tor itself has been a Christian shrine for centuries – an outpost of the local abbey, that then became a place of Catholic martyrdom and witness when Richard Whiting, the Abbot, was hanged there for refusing to follow King Henry’s religious reform.

On the other hand, Glastonbury is at the heart of the mythology of pagan Britain, and has become a centre of New Age spirituality and the occult. And surely it is no accident that St Michael’s tower, which dominates the Tor, is completely absent from the models presented to the public by Boyle recently. So I don’t think this will be a nuance-free celebration of the Christian roots of British history and culture.

Paul Kelso writes about Boyle’s presentation:

Revealing details of the opening scenes of a ceremony that will be watched by   more than 500 million people, director Danny Boyle said he was creating a   vision of the “mythic” British countryside that he hoped would capture the   essence of “who we are”.

The main stadium will be transformed into a meadow, with landscaped real grass   laid over the infield and a game of cricket unfolding in one corner. The   theatrical maxim of not working with children or animals will be thoroughly   ignored, as 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine   geese, 70 sheep and three sheep dogs feature in the opening scene.

At one end of the stadium work is already under way on a replica of   Glastonbury Tor, with an oak tree on top instead of the chapel that stands   on the real thing.

In front of the Tor will be a mosh-pit, decorated with the recognisable   Glastonbury flags, where up to 100 members of the public will be allowed to   stand.

At the other end of the stadium, beneath a giant bell, will be the posh-pit,   which will also include members of the public, and reflect, Boyle said, the   spirit of promenaders. In between will stand four maypoles, each styled as the national flower of the   home nations, a rose, a thistle, a daffodil and flax. Overhead on the model unveiled on Tuesday were model clouds, one of which   Boyle said would deliver rain “just in case it doesn’t rain anyway”.

The National Trust, which runs the Tor, explains it’s Christian significance:

For centuries, Glastonbury Tor has been one of the most spiritual places in the world. For many Christians, the Tor was a very important place of pilgrimage.

People have always flocked here to soak up the history surrounding this special site.

Joseph of Arimathea

Some believe that Jesus visited his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, who came to the Mendips to trade in lead and silver.

The story goes that when Joseph was walking on Wearyall Hill and planted his staff into the ground, it took root. It grew into the holy thorn, which is still there today. This was a sign to him to build a church on this site.

The church was made from wattle and daub, and was the first church in England. It’s now known as Glastonbury Abbey. The thorn blooms at Christmas and at Easter time.

The Holy Grail

Legend has it Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail with him after the crucifixion. He hid it in the cavern underneath Glastonbury Tor, which caused two springs to form.

You can fill up bottles of water from this spring today at Chalice Well Lane.

Jesus

It’s said that Joseph of Arimathea brought his sister, Anne, to Israel, where she gave birth to Mary.

Jesus wanted to see the birthplace of his grandmother, so he came to Britain with Joseph of Arimathea.

It’s also said he came to Glastonbury and walked among ‘England’s green and pleasant lands.’

St Patrick visits the Tor

St Patrick is also said to have spent some time at the Tor, as a hermit before he moved on to Ireland.

The Tor quakes

There’s evidence that monks were living on the Tor as far back as the 9th century.

We believe the monks came from the local abbey, to be in solitary reflection at the Tor.

At this point, the church would have been wooden. A stone church was built in the 12th century.

After an earthquake in 1275, the church fell down. In its place a much smaller and sturdier building was put up.

St Michael’s Tower was added later and still remains one of Somerset’s most iconic symbols.

Dissolution and danger

Pilgrimages to the Tor continued, but became more difficult due to the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.

The abbot of the abbey, Richard Whiting, refused to swear his allegiance to Henry. As a consequence, he was hanged from Glastonbury Tor.

His body was then quartered and sent to Wells, Bath, Bridgwater and Illchester. After this, the church fell into disrepair. Its stone was removed, and only the tower remains today.

And if you want to read Simon Jenkin’s guess at where this is all really going, click here.

What was going on? I am reliably informed that this is all a highly crafted – and risky – bit of spin. Two weeks ago Boyle gave a totally different interview about the ceremony, splashed by the Hollywood Reporter. It made no mention of sheep and meadows but said Boyle was “partly inspired by Frankenstein”, about whom he directed a play at the National Theatre last year. The ceremony would be “more like a cauldron, with all the people hovering over and around you.” This implies that something terrible is going to happen to the sheep – and explains the last-minute dropping of pigs as allegedly vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The countryside set was a feint, inducing critics into taking it at face value and “the show”, thus to make the eventual spectacle more shocking. This explains otherwise inexplicable references to The Tempest, William Blake and Frankenstein, which are guiding the subsequent “acts” of Boyle’s show. The second act is a total contrast, the dark side of Blake’s vision, a tableau of storm clouds and satanic mills, of industrial Britain as a place of noise and filth, suffragettes and striking miners.

This is to be followed by a pastiche of cool Britannia. James Bond helicopters zoom up and down the Thames while 900 nurses dance in glorification of the NHS and hi-tech “best of British” products. It sounds like loyal workers dancing in honour of a North Korean “dear leader”. We are told that 10,000 people have needed 157 rehearsals to get the scenes right, and threatened with dismissal if they reveal what they are doing to outsiders or to other parts of the show. The set for prancing nurses at Dagenham is guarded like Guantánamo Bay.

The contents list for all might be a script for the BBC satire, 2012. It is a politically correct miasma of Shakespeare and Frankenstein, Trainspotting and Slumdog, humour and irony, ploughmen and miners, all summoned by a gigantic bell, strangely in honour of Caliban. It is as if Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver were asked to cook the same casserole in the same kitchen. The music is by Underworld, who wrote for Boyle’s Trainspotting and Frankenstein. Paul McCartney will rasp the closing number. This could hardly be further from Tuesday’s vision of Delius and Vaughan Williams. In other words, the countryside was an ironic hors d’oeuvre, to be exploded and splattered over the face the Olympics.

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We had a visit to Stonor Park recently. This is the house near Henley where St Edmund Campion was finally caught. It’s full of intricately constructed priest holes and escape routes. It’s also set in a valley of exquisite beauty in the Oxfordshire countryside, and worth a visit even if you are not into the martyrs or recusant history. See their website here for information about visiting.

St Edmund Campion, St Nicholas Owen and St Ralph Sherwin

The highlight for me, with all my interest in media and communication, was to visit the room on the second floor above the front door. This is where the famous printing press stood, on which Campion’s Decem Rationes was printed. It was wonderful to imagine them hidden up there, working without enough type, wondering whether they would even manage to finish and distribute the work. What faith it must have taken, and courage.

Forgive me copying some words from a previous post about Campion and the text, just in case you don’t know the story:

In the Spring of 1581, Edmund Campion had been in England as a Jesuit missionary for just over a year. Fifteen years earlier he had preached before Queen Elizabeth in Oxford, and now he was in Lancashire on the run from government spies. Between illicit sermons and undercover Masses Campion was writing a Latin treatise called Decem Rationes, Ten Reasons, in which he set forth the Catholic faith and challenged his compatriots to debate with him.

Kathleen Jones describes what happened when the manuscript was finished: “It was extremely difficult to get this work printed. Eventually the work was carried out on a secret press at the house of Dame Cecilia Stonor in Stonor Park, Berkshire. Lady Stonor was later to die in prison for her part in this enterprise. Owing to a shortage of type, the treatise had to be set one page at a time, and it took half a dozen typesetters (dressed as gentlemen to disarm suspicion) nine weeks to set it. On Oxford’s Commemoration Sunday, 27 June 1581, four hundred copies were found distributed on the benches of the university church. The publication of Decem Rationes caused a tremendous sensation, and efforts to capture Campion were redoubled” (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition, Liturgical Press, 2000, 12:3).

You can guess why I wanted to re-tell this well-known story today. We’ve come here to celebrate World Communications Day, and by chance we are doing this on the feast of the Martyrs of England and Wales. It provides a wonderful opportunity to connect these two themes of Christian witness and social communication.

The story of Edmund Campion shows us that any Christian who wants to witness to their faith beyond their immediate circle of family and friends will need to use the communications media. Not just to use them reluctantly, but to embrace them with a passion. For Campion, this meant the printing press. I love the historical detail that they didn’t have enough movable type to set the whole book. Can you imagine the frustration, and the consequent dedication that was required: to set one page, to print it; then to reshuffle type, and print the next page. Six men holed away in a Berkshire manor house for two months. And then the audacity of smuggling the printed texts into Oxford.

Are we, as the Church today, completely engaged with the communications media? Are we realising its potential for good? Are we putting our energy and intelligence into using the media effectively? Our time and people and money? What would Edmund Campion be doing today to communicate his Ten Reasons?

[Andrew Webb adds: I think Campion was arrested at Lyford Grange, not Stonor]

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How do you make sense of a radical commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience in the contemporary world? Is it possible for someone to say: “For love of Jesus Christ, and in answer to his call, I desire to give myself to him, freely and forever, and to devote my whole life to the extension of his Kingdom”?

It was good to be with Sister Cathy Mary of the Holy Spirit on Saturday, as she said these very words and made her final vows in the Congregation of the Religious of the Assumption in their beautifully restored chapel in Kensington. You can see their website here.

I’ve already posted about the renewal of religious life in this country, and one of the many encouraging signs on Saturday was the number of young religious sisters from other congregations who were there to support Sr Cathy.

Fr Matt Blake OCD gave a beautiful homily about the meaning of a lifelong commitment in religious vows. Three thoughts really struck me. First, reflecting on the journey of faith that brings someone to this point, and why the extended period of discernment and initiation is so important, he said:

It takes time for God’s deepest desire for you to become your own deepest desire for yourself.

That’s why, quite often, when we make a heartfelt prayer to God that he would reveal our true vocation, the answer doesn’t always come straight away. It’s not just that we aren’t ready to hear; sometimes we aren’t ready to want what God wants, or to want what he wants us to want.

Second, he spoke about a scene from the film Of Gods and Men, which I haven’t seen yet. One of the monks is agonising about whether he should stay in the Algerian monastery and risk giving his life as a martyr. In response his abbot says something like, ‘But you have already given your life without reservation to God in your monastic vows’. And the monk is overcome with a sense of clarity and peace about his desire to remain where he is – whatever the cost.

Fr Matt drew out from this a profound thought about the nature of commitment: that instead of acting as a restraint, which is what we often fear, it actually gives you a greater freedom. When you make an unconditional ‘yes’ (e.g., to Christ, or to a specific vocation, or to a husband or wife), it means you have already accepted all the future commitments that come along implicitly with this original commitment. Some, of course, will be difficult; some will be unexpected; some will even seem to stretch the meaning of that ‘yes’ in ways that seemed unimaginable at the beginning. But they will all be part of the same decision to give oneself completely.

This gives an enormous freedom and security. There will be incredibly difficult choices to make, but the fundamental one has already been made. And that takes away the existential anguish of constantly having to reconsider whether this purpose, this deepest commitment, is actually worthwhile or not.

The final thought was about the Gospel reading, which was the story of the Annunciation – when the Angel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary and announces that she will give birth to the Son of God. Fr Matt said “I’ve always thought that the most important line in the whole passage is…” – and we all started guessing whether it would be one of Gabriel’s profound words to Mary or Mary’s profound words to Gabriel. But he went on “…the most important line in the whole passage is the last one: And the angel left her.

That threw me. I must have heard this passage a hundred times, but not once have I thought about that last line. It doesn’t mean, said Fr Matt, that God ever abandons anyone, or that the gift of his Holy Spirit is ever taken away from those who are trying to be faithful to Christ in their vocation. But the glory that surrounds the event, even the clarity and inspiration that made the commitment possible – these can fade and sometimes disappear. What endures is the commitment itself. We don’t know if the Virgin Mary ever saw the angel again in her lifetime, but she treasured his memory and clung to the truth that he had revealed.

I don’t think Fr Matt was being pessimistic about Sr Cathy’s future by drawing attention to this line. He was just speaking from his experience of religious life, and in his own way he was offering encouragement: You’ve had a wonderful day professing your final vows, now you can get on with the business of living them.

PS: These thoughts came from silvana rscj in the comments:

Following on from your reflections on the angel… in PierPaolo Pasolini’s film the Gospel According to St Matthew, Mary does meet the angel again, 33 years later at the tomb of her son, now risen from the dead. There is a lovely look of recognition on her face, and, finally, understanding of everything the angel had told her all those years ago.

Maybe that’s how it will be for us too: many years and events later, we will eventually come to understand the promises God has made to us, and, like Mary, enter into a deeper, closer relationship with Jesus…

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Fr Vincent Van Vossel, CSSR, Superior of the Redemptorists in Baghdad, speaks about the terrible choices facing Christians in Iraq after the massacre that took place on 31 October in the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation.

Iraqi Christians are now terrified and in shock. They are faced with a terrible dilemma: emigrate and save the lives of their loved ones, or stay in the country and witness to the faith, risking death.

The massacre was widely reported. Aid to the Church in Need have produced this short video about the worsening plight of Iraqi Christians.

This is the rest of the report about Fr Vincent’s comments, which comes from Fides and Aid to the Church in Need:

A commando of terrorists linked to al Qaeda stormed the church, crowded with faithful during the Mass, taking those present hostage. Iraqi security forces made a raid to free them, but the the militants reacted with a massacre that left 58 dead, including two priests, and about 70 wounded.

Fr Vincent, who has lived in Iraq for 40 years and teaches at Babel College in Baghdad, the college affiliated with the Pontifical Urban University, has issued a heartfelt testimony to Fides: “We are living something that is really terrible. There had never been a massacre of such magnitude, all within a church during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. I have visited the church and listened to the testimonies of the faithful in shock. The terrorists mercilessly killed women and children. The community is traumatized. The church looked like a cemetery.”

The Christian community in Baghdad has lost two young Syro-Catholic priests, Fr Wasim Sabieh and Fr Thaier Saad Abdal, while a third priest, Chorepiscop Fr Rufail Quataimi, is still in the hospital in a serious condition.

“What a tragedy! The two priests who died, not yet in their thirties, were my students at the College. They were very active in Bible apostolate, in interfaith dialogue, and charity. Fr Thaier was in charge of a Centre for Islamic Studies, and Fr Wasin was very involved in helping poor families. We will miss them,” said Fr Vincent.

The Redemptorist recalls that “yesterday a number of attacks hit Baghdad and Shiite areas, which means that not only Christians are under attack, but the whole area is flooded by terrorism. It is hard to see a hopeful future for the nation right now,” he said. “We do not know who is behind these acts, nor where the nation is headed.

Meanwhile, the people suffer. There are such great evils that beset the country.” Hence, the dilemma for Christians: “The faithful say their life has become impossible. Many Christian families are organizing themselves to leave the country. The excruciating dilemma is whether to flee in search of a better future, or stay, risking their lives. In this tragic moment, the Bishops have a great responsibility to speak to the faithful, to give their reasons and hopes, to convince them to stay. The task of our pastors, today, is very difficult,” he remarked.

The funeral was held yesterday, says the Redemptorist missionary. “It was attended by many Muslim leaders who asked the government to defend Christians. We hope that, after yet another massacre, civil authorities listen to the cry of Christians in Iraq and place an end to their suffering.”

The Christian Churches for the Iraqi communities in the UK have arranged a joint remembrance service for the worshippers killed at Our Lady of Salvation for the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad on Sunday. It will be take place on Friday 12 November [NOTE NEW DATE], at 7pm at the Syrian Catholic Church, Holy Trinity Church, 4 Brook Green, London W6 7BL.

This is the response of Archbishop Vincent Nichols, speaking for the Catholic Church in England and Wales:

I want to express my horror at the atrocity that occurred at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Karada, Baghdad and my solidarity with those who suffered and died. This massacre has taken a terrible toll on a vulnerable and diminishing Christian community that, along with other religious minorities, continues to suffer persecution. My thoughts and prayers are with all those Iraqis who struggle against violence and extremism. The Christians of the Middle East have a special vocation as peace builders, as the recent Synod emphasised. I know that they will continue to be faithful to that mission and that Catholics in this country will continue to support the Iraqi Church.

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The restored shrine of St Alban

I was at the Bright Lights festival a few days ago, which ended with a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Alban in St Alban’s Abbey. I’ve always known that he is Britain’s first martyr, but another obvious thought struck me very forcefully for the first time: that he is our first ever saint. Of course there could have been many other holy men and women before him, but Alban is the first we know about, the first to be honoured as a saint, the first whose shrine still stands.

Here, in this town where I happened to go to school, is where things began. This is where our pagan culture first encountered the beauty and mystery of Christianity. This is where Christianity began to transform that culture from within, not as a threat or a danger, but as a seed of hope, a vision of what the human heart longs for but hardly dares to believe.

If you don’t know Alban’s story, here is a short biography:

St Alban was the first martyr in the British Isles; he was put to death at Verulamium (now called Saint Albans after him), perhaps during the persecution under the emperor Diocletian. According to the story told by St Bede, Alban sheltered in his house a priest who was fleeing from his enemies. He was so impressed by the goodness of his guest that he eagerly received his teaching and became a Christian. In a few days it was known that the priest lay concealed in Alban’s house, and soldiers were sent to seize him. Thereupon Alban put on the priest’s clothes and gave himself up in his stead to be tried.

The judge asked Alban, “Of what family are you?” The saint answered, “That is a matter of no concern to you. I would have you know that I am a Christian.” The judge persisted, and the saint said, “I was called Alban by my parents, and I worship the living and true God the creator of all things.”

Then the judge said, “If you wish to enjoy eternal life, sacrifice to the great gods at once!” The judge was angered at the priest’s escape and threatened Alban with death if he persisted in forsaking the gods of Rome. He replied firmly that he was a Christian, and would not burn incense to the gods. He was condemned to be beaten and then beheaded.

As he was led to the place of execution (traditionally the hill on which Saint Albans abbey church now stands) a miracle wrought by the saint so touched the heart of the executioner that he flung down his sword, threw himself at Alban’s feet, avowing himself a Christian, and begged to suffer either for him or with him. Another soldier picked up the sword, and in the words of Bede, “the valiant martyr’s head was stricken off, and he received the crown of life which God has promised to those who love Him.”

The feast of St Alban is kept on the twenty-second day of June each year.

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The seminary community went on a visit recently to the Carmelite sisters in Ware. We had some extra time this year and used it to drive up the A10 to St Edmund’s College. This was the site of the seminary before we moved to central London in 1975.

Learning about the history of the college reminded me that some of the most significant projects of renewal within the Church have taken place in times of difficulty, and that they have sprung up precisely in response to these difficulties.

The arms of Cardinal William Allen (1532-94), who was an alumnus of Oriel College Oxford, in the Hall of that college, and drawn by Sir Ninian Comper. His arms feature three rabbits or conies.

When Catholics were being persecuted in the 1560s in England, William Allen decided that rather than putting his head in the sand and just hoping that things would improve, it was time to do something creative to preserve and build up the life of the Church. His dream was to have a centre of learning that would nourish the religious and intellectual life of Catholic laity and future priests.

Instead of complaining that this wouldn’t be possible on English soil, he used some lateral thinking and founded a college in a place where it would be possible: Douai, in northern France.

It’s remarkable to see the Douai Diaries on display in the museum at St Edmund’s. You can read Allen’s own handwritten accounts of those first years at the College. Volume One was open at the first page, with the year 1568 inscribed in the margin. Who could have known, at that early stage, that it would prove to be such a source of renewal for the Church – the education of the laity, and the building up of the priesthood for mission at home. And that five hundred years later two seminaries (Ushaw outside Durham, and Allen Hall in London) would still be continuing the tradition it started.

All of this because the Church refused to be disheartened by the difficulties it faced, and decided to do something bold and creative.

What kind of boldness and creativity do we need today?

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I’ve just finished John Guy’s book A Daughter’s Love, about Thomas More and his daughter Margaret.

It’s much more than the story of their relationship — fascinating though that is. It acts as a double biography of two remarkable people, and sheds new light on Thomas More’s personality and sanctity. I would highly recommend it simply as a way into the life of Thomas More if you have never read anything about him before.

This is what John Guy writes in an appendix about how he came to write the book:

My research in the archives had shown me that the Mores weren’t the cosy, happy extended family that has come down to us in history, grouped around the fireside toasting muffins as if in a Victorian painting.

In reality, they were often divided by money and religion, just like most other Tudor families. Thomas More’s early life, not least his sojourn in the Charterhouse in his early 20s, and his Utopia show us what values he held, but despite his asceticism and iron will he found confinement in the Tower very difficult to handle. For all his outward assurance and murderous wit, he was prone to fears and doubts. ‘I am,’ he candidly confessed to Margaret, ‘of a nature so shrinking from pain.’

Margaret always knew that her father’s most endearing characteristic was his gregariousness and love of his children. He was himself among the first to admit that he was too emotionally dependent on them to face Henry’s wrath alone. After his quarrel with the King came out into the open, Margaret became his principal human contact. She was his rock, his anchor, his true comfort in tribulation, and without her help he didn’t know if he would manage to hold out with dignity, or at all…

In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, adapted in 1966 as a feature film directed by Fred Zinnemann and winning six Academy Awards, Thomas More is supremely confident about the stand he makes against Henry’s tyranny. Bolt blots out even the tiniest allusion to More’s fears and doubts, and Margaret is airbrushed out of the story. She, however, fully understood what it was that her father went through, and why.

The poignancy, the tragic irony of her story is that, as a teenager, she had yearned for her father, who was constantly absent on Henry’s business, to return home. She wanted to see him every day and was eager for him to tell her all that he did in the exciting, alluring world of the Royal Court. He, for his part, told his family as little as possible to spare than risk, since politics under Henry could be deadly.

Then, after he collided with the King, he yielded and shared his innermost thoughts with Margaret. ‘You alone,’ he told her, ‘have long known the secrets of my heart.’ And she, for her part and despite her anguish, knew that she must now steel herself to give him over to a higher cause.

Their final embrace on Tower Wharf, a few days before his execution, is one of the most moving encounters in British history.

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Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, then the Archbishop of San Salvador.

Romero commemoration March 2010 by speakingoffaith.

Romero commemoration in San Salvador, 20 March 2010

Archbishop Vincent Nichols celebrated a Mass in his honour in Westminster Cathedral, and spoke these words.

We are now familiar with the heroic stand taken by Archbishop Romero. He was determined to follow a clear path. Week by week, in a way that riveted attention, he spoke the truth of how things were. He named all those who, in the course of the week, had been murdered by agents of the government. He made sure that they were not forgotten, nor discarded as worthless as their killers wanted. He worked to alleviate the suffering of the poorest, making resources available, using his time to be with them. He worked to improve their prospects, encouraging the church congregations to see that the Gospel has to be lived in action, actions aimed at the integral human development, of which we speak today.

This was his programme, a programme he followed with courage in the extreme and difficult circumstances which were the fruit of systematic exploitation and which led, a short time after his death, to the outbreak of a twelve year long civil war. This was a brave path which drew both criticism and support.

At the heart of that stand was Oscar Romero’s repudiation of violence. And it was his brave direct appeal to members of the army and the police to refuse orders to kill which, as we know, provoked his own murder on 24 March 1980 in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence while actually celebrating Mass.

In his final homily, Archbishop Romero said: ‘Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies….The harvest comes because of the grain that dies…We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.’ And he was not afraid to pay the price.

Today, as we give thanks to God for this remarkable witness, what do we learn for ourselves? Our circumstances in this country are not cast in such extreme conflicts. We are thankful for our tradition of democratic politics and the rule of law by which we handle the exercise of power. Yet there are many places in the world where this is not so and we keep in our prayers all who suffer through the misuse of power and the domination of heartless and oppressive self-interest. Indeed we are committed, through actions which reflect our Gospel commitment, to bring assistance to the huge number of poor and deprived people in the world, working in partnerships with many others of good will.

But here, in our circumstances, what do we learn? Perhaps most of all we can be inspired by Oscar Romero’s courage to speak the truth of the human reality that is before our eyes. This is a fundamental commitment in service of the Gospel. But it is always costly. We know how easily events are manipulated, how ‘facts’ are distorted to fit a predetermined narrative, often one that is fashioned to serve another purpose, whether of a political or an economic nature. We know how, in the Church too, we can be tempted to hide distressing failure and we can recognise the cost of doing so. Yet the first step towards a freedom of action is the courage to name and acknowledge the truth, whether that is true effects of the financial crisis, the truth of the failures in the care of the vulnerable elderly,  the real effects of sexual permissiveness, or the real impact of social breakdown and of poverty in this country. Then the inspiration of the Gospel will produce in us the desire to act in the service of this truth and in support of those most in need.

In all of this we must take care, as Oscar Romero did, that our words and actions, expressed in the name of the Church, do not spring from any political ideology but from a commitment to the dignity of every person and from a commitment to the common good, a good which excludes no-one from its embrace. This was the framework of his thought.

And Archbishop Nichols quotes these words of Archbishop Romero, spoken on the day before he was killed:

How easy it is to denounce structural injustice, institutionalised violence, social sin! And it is true, this sin is everywhere, but where are the roots of this social sin? In the heart of every human being. Present-day society is a sort of anonymous world in which no one is willing to admit guilt, and everyone is responsible. We are all sinners, and we have all contributed to this massive crime and violence in our country. Salvation begins with the human person, with human dignity, with saving every person from sin. And in this Lent this is God’s call: Be converted!

There are links to various writings about Romero and other resources here. And many of his homilies in English translation here.

CIMG0012.JPG by alison.mckellar.

The text from the photo above includes these translations of the quotations painted on the wall:

Here, the entrance of the community building serves as a reminder and commemoration of the work and life of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

“The church cannot remain silent in the face of injustice without becoming an accessory to it.” – Monseñor Romero, July 24th 1977

“We either offer our service to the lives of Salvadorans or we are complicit in their death.” February 2, 1980

“I look not for my own personal gain but for the common good of my people.” January 14, 1979

“A pastor must be where the suffering is.” October 30, 1977

“From this moment on, I offer my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador… May my blood be a seed of liberty.” March, 1980

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