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 loyalty.
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 brethren.
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.
Seventeen years 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.
Blessed Martyrs of England and Wales, pray for us!