Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Martyr's Beads II: Blessed Thomas Atkinson

Coming the day after St. John Ogilvie's feast, and with another connection to the Rosary, I wanted to highlight Blessed Thomas Atkinson, who was executed on March 11, 1616 in York. He was 70 years old and had been serving in England as a missionary priest since 1588:

Thomas Atkinson, of Yorkshire, England, studied for the priesthood in Reims, France, where he was subsequently ordained in 1588 around the age of forty-two. Returning to England, he traveled about on foot to minister to his fellow Catholics, becoming a special friend of the poor among them. It was only after breaking a leg that the indefatigable priest resorted to traveling by horse instead. His labors in the service of persecuted Catholics became so well known that, to escape arrest by the Protestant authorities, he could only journey safely by night. In the end, he was betrayed by an informer and captured while staying at the home of a Catholic family. Then about seventy, Father Atkinson was led to prison together with the couple that had hosted him, and their children. The “incriminating evidence” found by the government officials in the priest’s possession consisted of Rosary beads and the text of an indulgence. Condemned to death by drawing and quartering, Father Atkinson is said to have faced death “with wonderful patience, courage, and constancy, and signs of great comfort.”

As Nathan Mitchell notes in The Mystery of the Rosary: Marian Devotion and the Reinvention of Catholicism, the Rosary--the beads of the Rosary--had become a marker "of recusant Catholic identity" and the beads "embodied what it meant to be a practicing Catholic in a time of religious strife and persecution." (p.5) Of course, one does not have to have a set of Rosary beans in hand to pray the Rosary and meditate on the life of Jesus and His Mother, one could use one's fingers! Father Atkinson's possession of an indulgence, which might have been--I don't find this detail in the sources I've looked--a papal document, would have been even more condemning for the court. In his book, Champions of the Rosary, Father Donald Calloway mentions that Father Atkinson was encouraging enrollment in the Confraternity of the Rosary and the the indulgence document he possessed gave details of indulgences obtained by praying the Rosary. Sources I've found also do not indicate whether or not Father Atkinson was offered James I's Oath of Allegiance.

Father Atkinson was beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1987 as one of the Eight-five Martyrs of England and Wales. Obviously, as he had served his Catholic flock quietly for almost three decades he was no danger to the state. But he was captured during a period of James I's reign when fear of Catholicism was heightened and the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbott, was much in favor of persecuting Catholic priests. I also could not discover what happened to the family arrested with him. They may have been held in prison for some time, but James I did not want to make martyrs of lay people. Except for at the beginning of his reign in the transition from Elizabeth I, laymen or women who aided priests were not executed as often as they were during Elizabeth I's reign. They were fined and imprisoned, but not executed.

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