Tuesday, June 26, 2018

England's Nero and the Sacred Heart of Jesus

From First Things, a review of a biography of Henry VIII, focusing on the author's knowledge and understanding of medieval Catholic piety and devotion:

Matusiak is neither Catholic nor especially anti-Catholic. He acknowledges the recent attacks by historians on St. Thomas More, but isn’t persuaded by them. He is a little bewildered by sixteenth-century Catholic piety, but paints a vivid picture of it. And he is perceptive on the king’s relationship to Catholic orthodoxy: “Henry sought throughout the 1540s to impose his own idiosyncratic, hybrid version of doctrine which contained elements both to satisfy and at the same time to frustrate all sides.”

But while I was enjoying this book, I was conscious of an absence, which became obvious only when we got to St. John Fisher’s martyrdom. It is not just that Matusiak characterises Fisher’s stance as an “overreaction”; that is understandable. A non-Catholic is unlikely to sympathize with Fisher’s view that to reject a single doctrine is to abandon the Faith. No, what really rings false is Matusiak’s portrait of the saint as “a hair-shirted, hard-praying, uncompromising flagellant … a scholar and ascetic worthy of beatification.” That’s not inaccurate, but Fisher was so much else besides.

He was, before his dramatic end, a bishop who traveled his diocese visiting the sick of every parish, sitting by the bedside of some suffering invalid for three or four hours at a time; who gave cash and a meal to the beggars crowding at his door each day, while denying himself not just comforts but normal amounts of food and sleep; whose near-contemporary biographer wrote, “To poor sick persons he was a physician, to the lame he was a staff, to poor widows an advocate, to orphans a tutor, and to poor travellers a host.” What Matusiak misses is the deepest thing in St. John Fisher—his love for God and for his neighbor.

Likewise, Matusiak draws an affectionate sketch of the strong-willed Catherine of Aragon, who defied “an assemblage of England’s great and mighty with consummate ease.” But we do not glimpse the Catherine who yearned, as she wrote in a late letter, for “the calm life of the blessed,” when she would see the God she adored.

Matusiak gives us a sense of sixteenth-century English Catholicism, in its awareness of the supernatural—“At this time when funerals were among the most frequent of church services, hell itself was never more than a failed heartbeat or horse’s stumble away”—and its variety of devotions. But he cannot explain to the reader why the removal of the traditional religion so enraged Northern England that around 40,000 people took up arms. The Northerners were, he says in an unusually flat passage, “conservative.”

A better clue to their motives would be found in the banners they were carrying. The army—or as they called themselves, pilgrims—marched behind huge images of the Five Wounds of Christ, including His wounded heart: an image that was a precursor of the later devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Ignatius Press has published an updated edition of Timothy O'Donnell's excellent Heart of the Redeemer, in which the author traces the history of this perennial devotion. Here at the end of the month of June, dedicated to devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, it's appropriate to remember how Catholics throughout the ages have loved the Lord in His Sacred Heart.

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