Why are so many Catholics embarrassed by the English martyrs?

English martyrs (Aidan McRae Thompson)

Gunpowder, the new BBC drama about the Gunpowder plot was the talk of the staff room at the school where I am chaplain this week, as we returned from half term. It has certainly captured many people’s imagination and gives a realistic insight into the plight faced by recusant Catholics. Even students came up to tell me that they had seen it, some more interested in the gore it has to be said. It has certainly opened up the opportunity to take about this part of our Church’s history and share some of the stories of the martyrs of this nation.

I also minister in a parish dedicated to the English Martyrs. The parish recently commissioned a large altarpiece by the artist Aiden McRae Thompson, which is a series of paintings depicting the English Martyrs in procession and witnessing to their faith. The central panel, a roundel, depicts the Tyburn gallows being shattered by the fire and dove of the Holy Spirit. It is absolutely striking and has led to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the English Martyrs in the parish.

Installation of a sequence of painted panels to adorn the Altar wall at English Martyrs Catholic church in Hillmorton, Rugby (by Aidan McRae Thompson)

It always seemed unusual to me that prior to this addition there was not any focus of the English Martyrs in this Church which was dedicated to them. This seems to reflect a wider reluctance to draw attention to the forty martyrs of England and Wales amongst many Catholics. I have become increasingly aware of a sense that devotion to the English Martyrs is slightly out of fashion and viewed as politically incorrect. When was the last time you heard of someone who had a devotion to St John Fisher or St Margaret Clitherow?

There appeared to be a renewal around the time of the Canonisation of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales in 1970, which is testified to by the number of Churches of the English Martyrs which originate from that period. Since then things appear to have waned a little.

A significant contributing factor has been the ecumenical dialogue that has taken place over the last forty or so years. The pursuit of Christian unity led a focus upon what Catholics and non-Catholics hold in common and to de-emphasise aspects of the faith which make us different. In this context, both Protestant and Catholic martyrs can easily be seen as a sign of division and a stumbling block to unity.

A couple of years ago, I concelebrated at a Mass of Consecration of a new church. The final hymn was the much loved, Faith of our Fathers. Afterwards one of my fellow priests became a bit hot under the clerical collar about this musical choice because he was aware that there were representatives of other Christian Churches present. He was worried that offence would be caused and relationships could be affected.

As a consequence of such sensibilities, many Catholics today have forgotten the stories of the English Martyrs. We may remember some of the bigger names like St Thomas More or St Nicholas Owen but many of the other inspiring lives have slipped from our common consciousness. Airbrushing and sanitising history will not help in our dialogue with other Christians and we lose something of the depth of our faith if we downplay the sacrifice and heroic witness of our martyrs.

Hopefully, Gunpowder will somehow reignite interest amongst Catholics in this period of history and also in their devotion to the saints. The National Trust has already seized the opportunity to promote many of their properties linked to the series. As Catholics, we also have an important story to share with the world about these men and woman. If we have a renewed devotion to the English Martyrs we stand to gain much strength and inspiration, especially in this increasingly secular time when faith is often treated with increasing hostility.

May the English Martyrs pray for us!

Fr Matthew is the Author of Building the Kingdom in the Classroom, A School Chaplains Diary