It was on the Solemnity of Jesus Christ the King of the Universe in 1987 (November 22) that Blessed John Paul II beatified the Eighty-Five Martyrs of England and Wales:
This feast of Christ the King proclaims that all earthly power
is ultimately from God, that his Kingdom is our first and lasting concern and
that obedience to his laws is more important than any other obligation or
Thomas More, that most English of saints,
declared on the scaffold: “I die the King’s good servant but God’s servant
first". In this way he witnessed to the primacy of the Kingdom.
Today we have declared Blessed another eighty-five
martyrs: from England, Scotland and Wales, and one from Ireland. Each of them
chose to be "God’s servant First". They consciously and willingly embraced death
for love of Christ and the Church. They too chose the Kingdom above all else. If
the price had to be death they would pay it with courage and joy.
Blessed Nicholas Postgate welcomed his execution "as a
short cut to heaven". Blessed Joseph Lambton encouraged those who were to die
with him with the words "Let us be merry, for tomorrow I hope we shall have a
heavenly breakfast". Blessed Hugh Taylor, not knowing the day of his death,
said: "How happy I should be if on this Friday, on which Christ died for me, I
might encounter death for him". He was executed on that very day, Friday 6
November 1585. Blessed Henry Heath, who died in 1643, thanked the court for
condemning him and giving him the "singular honour to die with Christ".
Among these eighty-five martyrs we find priests and
laymen, scholars and craftsmen. The oldest was in his eighties, and the youngest
no more than twenty-four. There were among them a printer, a bartender, a
stable-hand, a tailor. What unites them all is the sacrifice of their lives in
the service of Christ their Lord.
The priests among
them wished only to feed their people with the Bread of Life and with the Word
of the Gospel. To do so meant risking their lives. But for them this price was
small compared to the riches they could bring to their people in the Holy
Sacrifice of the Mass.
The twenty-two laymen in this
group of martyrs shared to the full the same love of the Eucharist. They, too,
repeatedly risked their lives, working together with their priests, assisting,
protecting and sheltering them. Laymen and priests worked together; together
they stood on the scaffold and together welcomed death. Many women, too, not
included today in this group of martyrs, suffered for their faith and died in
prison. They have earned our undying admiration and remembrance.
These martyrs gave their lives for their loyalty to
the authority of the Successor of Peter, who alone is Pastor of the whole flock.
They also gave their lives for the unity of the Church, since they shared the
Church’s fait, unaltered down the ages, that the Successor of Peter has been
given the task of serving and ensuring "the unity of the flock of Christ". He
has been given by Christ the particular role of confirming the faith of his
The martyrs grasped the importance of that
Petrine ministry. They gave their lives rather than deny this truth of their
faith. Over the centuries the Church in England, Wales and Scotland has drawn
inspiration from these martyrs and continues in love of the Mass and in faithful
adherence to the Bishop of Rome. The same loyalty and faithfulness to the Pope
is demonstrated today whenever the work of renewal in the Church is carried out
in accordance with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and in communion
with the universal Church.
Central to this renewal, to
which the Holy Spirit calls the Church, is work for that unity among Christians
for which Christ himself prayed. We must all rejoice that the hostilities
between Christians, which so shaped the age of these martyrs, are over, replaced
by fraternal love and mutual esteem.
ago  forty of the glorious company of martyrs were canonized. It was the prayer
of the Church on that day that the blood of those martyrs would be a source of
healing for the divisions between Christians. Today we may fittingly give thanks
for the progress made in the intervening years towards fuller communion between
Anglicans and Catholics. We rejoice in the deeper understanding, broader
collaboration and common witness that have taken place through the power of God.
In the days of the martyrs whom we honour today, there
were other Christians who died for their beliefs. We can all now appreciate and
respect their sacrifice. Let us respond together to the great challenge which
confronts those who would preach the Gospel in our age. Let us be bold and
united in our profession of our common Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.
Last year the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, celebrated Mass in thanksgiving for the 25th anniversary of these beatifications--and in his sermon he noted the detail that 10,000 English Catholics attended the ceremony in Rome! You may find a link to his sermon here.
Blessed Martyrs of England and Wales, pray for us!