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Vatican approves English feast days

The 12th-century casket of Thomas Becket is put on display at Canterbury Cathedral (Photo: PA)

Four new feast days have been approved for the liturgical calendar in England and Wales.

The Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments approved the feast days at the request of the bishops.

They commemorate St Gregory the Great on September 3, St Thomas Becket on December 29, the English Martyrs on May 4, and St Augustine of Canterbury on May 27.

Elevating these saints’ days to national feasts means they will take precedence over the Church’s universal liturgical calendar and must be celebrated in England and Wales.

All four feast days have great significance for England and Wales.

St Thomas Becket, the 12th-century saint immortalised in T S Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral, is the protector of secular clergy and patron of Portsmouth.

St Thomas, as Archbishop of Canterbury, fought against King Henry II for the freedom of the Church. He sought to defend ecclesiastical property and was imprisoned, exiled and martyred at the sanctuary at Canterbury Cathedral by four knights.

Henry had his body burned and he was canonised in 1173 soon after his death. The King made public penance for having called for St Thomas’s death and allowed himself to be scourged at the tomb.

During John Paul II’s visit to Britain in 1982, the pope and then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, knelt together in prayer at St Thomas’s shrine.

St Gregory the Great, a Doctor of the Church and pope, was fixated on converting the Angles and set out to Britain as a missionary at the permission of Pelagius II. The people of Rome were so upset by his departure that they demanded he be recalled. Three days after setting out, St Gregory returned to Rome once more.

Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Rule laid out the guidelines for the ideal bishop as shepherd and teacher of his flock. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI preached about him as a pope who loved the Britons and monastic life.

Chosen by Pope Gregory the Great to lead the mission to Britain, St Augustine of Canterbury was sent to Kent in 595 and converted the pagan King Aethelbert to Christianity. Benedict XVI also dedicated two catechesis sessions to him.

The feast of the English Martyrs is celebrated on May 4. The 40 martyrs canonised under Paul VI in 1973, previously celebrated on October 25, are celebrated with the 85 beatified Martyrs of the Reformation and the other martyrs of the 16th and 17th century. The feast coincides with the Church of England celebration of English saints and martyrs of the Reformation.

These are a significant group of saints in British Catholicism and include St Margaret Clitherow, the butcher’s wife from York who became a Catholic at the age of 18 and was arrested for harbouring a priest. She was crushed to death under a large door loaded with weights. St John Haughton, St Robert Lawrence, St Augustine Webster, and St Richard Reynolds were Carthusian monks executed at Tyburn on May 4 1535.

St Cuthbert Mayne, another martyr, was a young man from Devon who went to St John’s College, Oxford, in the late 1500s, where he met St Edmund Campion and eventually became a Catholic.

Fearing arrest after a letter from Gregory Martin addressed to him ended up in the hands of the Bishop of London, Cuthbert fled to Cornwall. From here he fled to the English College at Douai and was ordained a priest. He returned to the English mission and was discovered, tried at Launceston and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.