Shortly before Wolf Hall gripped the nation with its clever but false depiction of the turbulent events of the 1530s, an erudite group of strangers met unnoticed on a green in Essex to honour a man put to death for resisting the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and his unscrupulous henchman Thomas Cromwell, the hero of the BBC drama.
Blessed John Beche, the Abbot of Colchester, was hanged, drawn and quartered outside the gates of the Abbey of St John the Baptist on December 1 1539, after he refused to hand over its keys, arguing that the seizure of the abbey was immoral and illegal. He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1895, meaning that it took the Church 356 years to recognise his martyrdom.
Some 120 years on from that event, there is no sign or suggestion that Blessed John will be canonised any time soon. It is significant, however, that he hasn’t been forgotten and that there remains a cult dedicated to him.
Those immersed in the life of the Catholic Church in these islands will see nothing unusual in an event to honour one of our martyrs; it happens all the time. A month or so earlier, motorists in London were treated to the sight of a procession of priests, nuns and lay Catholics kneeling to kiss a stone roundel set into an island at the busy intersection of the Bayswater and Edgware Roads. This was the site of the Tyburn Tree, the three-sided gallows upon which more than 100 Catholics died for their faith. On that day three oak trees were planted there as a memorial. It is normal for us to revere our martyrs and request their prayers of intercession.
It is perhaps also in the best tradition of English people to wait politely, not jump queues and not ask for favours or privileges, but to be meekly content with what we have and careful never to offend our neighbours. These admirable traits may explain why we have no expectation of the canonisation of hundreds of English and Welsh martyrs of the Reformation. Nor is it fanciful to suppose that some in the Church would prefer to see them not canonised at all rather than risk upsetting ecumenical partners or further incur the wrath of our intolerant secularised society.
Perhaps it is time to shake off this excessive timidity and wake up to changes in the Church under Pope Francis, particularly in the way the Holy Father is approaching canonisations. We need to grasp that this may be the moment Rome again bends a sympathetic ear to a plea for our beatified martyrs to be finally recognised as saints.
Most popes tend to bring their own personal touch to proclaiming saints, and in this Holy Father we can see a pontiff performing canonisations at a faster rate than his predecessors. In just two years, Francis has canonised 829 saints, surpassing the number previously recognised by any single pope, including St John Paul II, who canonised 483 saints in his 27-year reign. But since the figures are skewed by Francis’s group canonisation of the 812 Otranto martyrs, a more reliable indicator of changing patterns would perhaps be the number of canonisation ceremonies performed by each pope. Yet even when this is taken into account, Francis emerges as the most enthusiastic of modern popes when it comes to canonisations.
None of this suggests a radical departure from anything his most recent predecessors were doing. Indeed, the canonisation of the Otranto martyrs was authorised by Benedict XVI on the same day he announced he would relinquish his Petrine ministry. So in the actions of Francis it is possible to see continuity.
Yet it is equally true that Francis is doing things differently. This is seen most starkly in his recourse to “equivalent canonisation”, whereby the Pope uses his authority to suspend normal procedures and infallibly proclaim the candidate to be among the saints in heaven.
This process came to the world’s attention most profoundly when Francis waived the requirement for a second miracle needed to canonise Pope John XXIII in April 2014. But Francis had already used equivalent canonisation to declare the Italian mystic Angela of Foligno a saint just seven months into his papacy.
Again, it could be argued that Francis is only following the example of Benedict, who used the same process to proclaim Hildegarde of Bingen a saint in May 2012. But what sets Francis apart from his predecessors is the proportion of equivalent canonisations he has carried out – seven out of 17 – with the most recent being St Joseph Vaz in Sri Lanka in January.
This fact in itself suggests that the process of saint-making in the Catholic Church is advancing into new territory, entering the latest stage in the evolution of a practice that has been both developed and reformed continuously down the centuries.
In the early Church, saints were usually martyrs canonised by popular acclaim. But abuses, combined with increasing awareness of the significance of sainthood to the universal Church, led popes to intervene repeatedly, until by the end of the first millennium canonisation had become a process restricted to the Holy See. John XV became the first pope in history to preside at a canonisation when he declared Ulric, the Bishop of Augsburg, a saint in 993.
Further reforms continued to centralise the process, slowing it down considerably. (Since the late 16th century, the average length of time between death and canonisation has been about 180 years.) Rome eventually halted the practice of bishops beatifying candidates in their dioceses – a policy reversed by Benedict XVI.
We remain today very much conditioned by the reforms of the 20th century, which included the requirement of Pope Pius XII for medically verifiable healing miracles as signs from God that the candidate was indeed a saint; but most importantly by the substantive reforms of St John Paul II in the apostolic constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister of 1983, supplemented by the 2008 instruction of Benedict, Sanctorum Mater. Together these documents remain the baseline against which the reforms of Francis are being measured.
In brief, these texts demand that, following evidence of a cult, a Cause is introduced locally with the approval of Rome. If it passes a preliminary stage of investigations which are concluded by the Ordinary, a document called the positio is then sent to Rome to be scrutinised by theologians, who, if satisfied, ask that the candidate be declared Venerable. Two miracles are then sought, one for beatification (unless the candidate is a martyr) and the other for canonisation.
The current practice developed rather than superseded the reforms of Pope Urban VIII in his 1643 constitution Coelestis Hierusalem. This document first codified the practice of equivalent canonisation as an important exception to the saint-making process. Urban declared that he did not “wish to prejudice the case of those servants of God who were the objects of a cultus [cult] arising out of the general consent of the Church, or an immemorial custom, or the writings of the Fathers, or the long and intentional tolerance of the Apostolic See, or the Ordinary”. It was by this method that St Thomas More and St John Fisher were declared saints, as well as Ss Cyril and Methodius (the patron saints of Europe), and St John Damascene, St Peter Damian and St John of Avila, to name just a handful.
Evidently, it is Pope Urban’s text that Francis is turning to with greater frequency. This tendency should encourage English Catholics to once again dream that the martyrs they venerate will be declared saints.
They have more than enough justification. Mother Xavier McMonagle, the assistant mother general of Tyburn Convent, the enclosed religious community at the site of the Tyburn Tree, says interest in the English martyrs has soared in recent years and the international cult surrounding them is “plainly evident in the ever-increasing stream of pilgrims to the crypt of these martyrs at Tyburn Convent”.
Some of the interest, she suggests, derives from a “desire to learn more about martyrdom as a phenomenon” in an age when Christians are once again being violently persecuted. She says this “highlights the religious heroism of our Reformation martyrs also, and drives people to seek out the truth of what really took place in their lives and what inspired their heroic acceptance of a cruel and barbaric death”.
She believes there is a powerful case, in particular, for the canonisation of the 85 martyrs beatified by St John Paul in 1987. This group included a substantial number of lay Catholics, people with ordinary occupations such as a glover, a servant, a joiner, a tailor and a bookseller. But there are also 50 martyrs beatified by Leo XIII and 108 people beatified by Pius XI. Some of them make very compelling cases indeed.
Surely Francis, a man who is averse neither to group canonisation nor equivalent canonisation, will look kindly on these magnificent witnesses to the faith in an age crying out for a new evangelisation.
But it isn’t just the martyrs we should be thinking about. The Passionists, for example, have been praying for 50 years for the miracle that would enable the Pope to canonise Blessed Dominic Barberi, the missionary who received Blessed John Henry Newman into the Church in 1845.
English Passionist provincial Fr John Kearns says that, from his own experience, he can see that Causes are held up partly by the reluctance of doctors to testify publicly that a healing is inexplicable. He sees equivalent canonisation as a possible way round the problem. “The difficulty we have is not just in getting the miracle,” he says. “We have known cases of physical healings but doctors weren’t willing to go public. If they did, they fear they would be a laughing stock. We are at the mercy of the medical profession, where we are.”
He adds: “There is great wisdom in not rushing into it, but at the same time the sensus fidelium – the sense of the faithful – is very important when it comes to these things.”
So how, in the absence of a miracle, does the Pope decide if a candidate is in fact a saint? Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth suggests it comes down to the Holy Father using his legitimate authority after prayer and discernment.
“It would seem to me that if we were to have the beatified martyrs canonised we would have to persuade the Holy Father that these men and women are in heaven and are indeed saints,” the bishop says. “I think the key thing is that he himself personally becomes convinced through prayer and reflection that these men and women are in heaven and need to be declared as such.
“We would need to show that these martyrs died for the truth of the faith and the unity of the Church, and they have witnessed to that which specifically Catholics believe.”
This indicates that English Catholics must petition the Pope to canonise their martyrs with the same vigour that persuaded Paul VI to declare one miracle sufficient to canonise 40 of them as saints in 1970. Now is surely the right time to find the courage and conviction to put the case directly to the Holy Father.
Where should we start? There will be no shortage of public gatherings in honour of the martyrs this year. There will be another in Colchester on May 22, again to remember Blessed John Beche. Bishop Alan Williams of Brentwood will be there. Outside the gates of an abbey ruined by the awful Thomas Cromwell would be as good a place as any to get things moving.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (10/4/15).
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