Wednesday, December 27, 2017

St. Stephen, the Holy Innocents, and the English Martyrs

Merry Christmas!

As I remind this blog's readers every year: It's Still Christmas!! Liturgically and prayerfully, we are still celebrating the Birth of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary. Throughout the season, which lasts until the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, we continue to recall this great mystery and what it means in our lives as Pope Benedict XVI said in 2009:

God’s sign is his humility. God’s sign is that he makes himself small; he becomes a child; he lets us touch him and he asks for our love. How we would prefer a different sign, an imposing, irresistible sign of God’s power and greatness! But his sign summons us to faith and love, and thus it gives us hope: this is what God is like. He has power, he is Goodness itself. He invites us to become like him. Yes indeed, we become like God if we allow ourselves to be shaped by this sign; if we ourselves learn humility and hence true greatness; if we renounce violence and use only the weapons of truth and love.

At the same time we recall that mystery, we honor those who proclaimed it by word and deed: martyrs and confessors, evangelists and saints. December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen the Deacon, the protomartyr; and December 28 is the feast of the Holy Innocents, who suffered because of King Herod's fear of Jesus, of a baby born in Bethlehem. There are connections between these feasts and the Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation and they intersect in Rome at the Venerable English College.

The first connection is with St. Stephen, as described in Francis Aidan Cardinal Gasquet's history of the Venerable. He highlights how the students at the Venerabile commemorated the feast of St. Stephen, the proto-martyr of all Christian martyrs:

On St. Stephen's Day was inaugurated a long-continued practice of one of the students preaching before the Pope and Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel on that feast. The ceremonial to be observed on these occasions is noted down in the volume of addresses and sermons before referred to. A carriage was sent from the Vatican to bring the preacher from the College: he was to remain in the sacristy vested in his surplice until the Master of Ceremonies came to fetch him after the singing of the Gospel. He was then, on entering the Chapel, to bow profoundly to the Cardinal celebrating the Mass, and then to proceed to the papal throne, where first kneeling on both knees he was to ascend and kiss the Pope's foot, to salute His Holiness with a bow, and returning to the bottom step, was again to genuflect on both knees, and having received the blessing, was to ask permission to publish the usual Indulgences. In his sermon he was not to turn directly to the Pope, but to look rather to the Cardinals; neither was he to raise his voice too loudly, and to beware of being carried away by his eloquence or of making use of too many gestures. After the sermon was finished, he was directed to return to the steps of the throne and remain kneeling whilst the Confiteor was being sung, after which he was to rise and publish the Indulgence, again kneeling whilst the Holy Father pronounced the blessing. At the end he was to follow the Master of Ceremonies to the sacristy. The occasion must have been a trying ordeal for the student even although, as was evidently the case, the Latin discourse had been composed for him. The feast suggested references to the possible martyrdom of the selected orator, when his turn came to go forth from Rome for the English Mission.

Two of these preachers did suffer martyrdom in England: Blessed John Cornelius and St. David Lewis.

(Image: Stoning of Saint Stephen, altarpiece of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, by Jacopo & Domenico Tintoretto)

The second connection, between the feast of the Holy Innocents and the English Martyrs comes through St. Philip Neri, who would greet the seminarians and the ordained men of the Venerable by quoting the first line of an ancient hymn of Prudentius:

Salvete, flores martyrum,
quos lucis ipso in limine
Christi insecutor sustulit
ceu turbo nascentes rosas.

Vos prima Christi victima,
grex immolatorum tener,
aram sub ipsam simplices
palma et coronis luditis.

Iesu, tibi sit gloria,
qui natus es de Virgine,
cum Patre et almo Spiritu,
in sempiterna saecula. Amen.

Father Edward Caswall, Oratorian, translated this hymn for Lauds as

Flowers of martyrdom, all hail! 
Smitten by the tyrant foe 
On life’s threshold – as the gale 
Strews the roses ere they blow.

First to bleed for Christ, sweet lambs! 
What a simple death ye died! 
Sporting with your wreath and palms 
At the very altar-side!

Honor, glory, virtue, merit, 
Be to Thee, O Virgin’s Son, 
With the Father, and the Spirit 
While eternal ages run. – Amen.

As the Catholic Culture website notes, the connection between St. Philip Neri and the Venerable continues:

He had a particular love and concern for the seminarians of the Venerable English College in Rome. He was aware that the majority of these students, once ordained priests, would return to England and ultimately shed their blood as martyrs for Christ and his Church. To this day, the seminarians of the English College sing first vespers on the Solemnity of Saint Philip Neri at the Chiesa Nuova in honor of the Roman priest who blessed their forebears on their way to martyrdom.

(Image: Guido Reni, Massacre of the Innocents)

(Image at top: Botticelli, Nativity of Our Lord)

No comments:

Post a Comment