Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Relics of English Martyrs: Torture and Hope

Thanks to Ian Stubbs on The Catholic English Martyrs Facebook page, I found this story about the Stonyhurst Christian Heritage Centre (I received their Christmas card last week) being featured in a BBC documentary about relics:
The Collections of Stonyhurst College featured prominently in a documentary broadcast on BBC Four at the weekend. In the programme, Treasures of Heaven, [Note that if you are not in the U.K. you can't watch the video] Andrew Graham-Dixon explored the ancient Christian practice of preserving Christian relics and the largely forgotten art form that went with it - the reliquary. His research took him from the Crown of Thorns venerated at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket – and even to more recent events in El Salvador with the cause of Blessed Oscar Romero. But it was in Stonyhurst that he was confronted with some of the most gruesome relics.
“The Reformation ushered in a bleak and bitter period for those adhering to the old Catholic traditions of worship,” he said, approaching the college. “If you want to understand that (largely concealed) history, there’s no better place to come than this.”
The most revealing treasure in the Stonyhurst Collection, according to Graham-Dixon, is also the most unassuming: found in the 19th century, behind a wall in a nearby Catholic home, it had lain undiscovered for more than 200 years. But it is the only one of its kind in the world. The chest, disguised as a travelling salesman’s trunk, contained everything needed for a Jesuit to say Mass. Beneath a ladies bonnet was concealed the altar stone, a chalice, corporal and an early 17th century chasuble. Jan Graffius, Curator at Stonyhurst, went on to explain how ministry had to be carried out clandestinely at this time, since anyone caught celebrating Mass would be tried for treason, for which the sentence would be death.
There are indeed more gruesome relics of torture and suffering associated with the missionary priests who returned to England to serve Catholics:
Moving on to the rope that tied St Edmund Campion SJ onto the hurdle prior to his execution at Tyburn, Jan described in the programme the process of being hung, drawn and quartered - in gory detail, before revealing another of the relics held at Stonyhurst: the right eye of Blessed Edward Oldcorne SJ. Graham-Dixon describes it as “one of the most disconcerting body parts to have been passed down to the museum”. Kept in a small silver reliquary, the eye . . . was collected by a local Catholic after Oldcorne’s execution in Worcester in 1606. “I have never seen anyone look at this,” said Jan, “without being moved, shocked: there is always a human reaction” to this relic of torture.
But according to Jan Graffius, the relics are more than just grisly mementos of past events. “I think that the real comfort that Catholics derived from holding, looking at, being near these objects, is a sense of affinity with the sacrifice of the priests who were trying to bring their faith to them, and hope for the future: keep these safe until such a time when this cruelty and persecution is no longer in England. So it’s a pledge for the future, as much as a contact with the past.”
I think I have found the programme on youtube here. How great to see Canterbury, and Paris, and Stonyhurst! There are some great images of Pugin's architecture at St. Edmund's College Chapel near Ware. (The documentary must have broadcast originally several years ago.)

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