Sunday, May 3, 2020

A Little Like Recusants: Spiritual Communion in Recusant England and Today

This year, on October 25, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the canonization of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome (1970).

Their feast was moved in 2000 from October 25 to May 4, the anniversary of the executions of the protomartyrs among the Forty, Saint John Houghton, prior of the London Charterhouse, Saint Robert Lawrence, prior of Beauvale Charterhouse, Saint Augustine Webster, prior of Axholme Charterhouse, and Saint Richard Reynolds, a Bridgettine monk of the Syon Abbey. These four, and a Blessed martyr, John Haile, Vicar of Isleworth (beatified on December 29, 1886 by Pope Leo XIII) were all hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn in 1535.

(The original feast day of October 25 is still kept in the dioceses of Wales under the title of The Six Welsh Martyrs and Their Companions--the "English" martyrs are the companions. This year because October 25 is a Sunday the feast will not be observed.)

In this time of pandemic, I've wondered if other Catholics like me who usually attended Daily Mass as often as possible, kept a weekly Holy Hour in their parishes, and were likewise pretty active in religious observances, have been experiencing something like what Catholics in Tudor England did when gradually, eventually cut off from the public worship of the Church. I was fortunate enough to attend Mass at Noon on Tuesday, March 17 and receive Holy Communion that day at the Cathedral. During the brief homily, it was announced that no public Masses would be celebrated after 1 p.m. that day and that all Adoration Chapels would be closed as of 1 p.m. that day. Anyone keeping their Noon Holy Hours in their parish chapels might have witnessed the Blessed Sacrament being removed from the Monstrance and transferred to the Tabernacle, the candles snuffed out, and the door locked. Like the Stripping of the Altars in the middle of the day.

In our diocese (Wichita, Kansas), churches have been kept open and visits to the Blessed Sacrament--limited to ten people at a time--have been possible. Confessions have been regularly offered, with the required safety precautions. Otherwise we have had to rely on broadcast (EWTN) or streamed Masses (Facebook and YouTube)--and of course, the practice of a making Spiritual Communion.

Secretly practicing Catholics in England had recourse to Spiritual Communion regularly during the Recusant/Penal era. Lisa McClain in Lest We be Damned: Practical Innovation & Lived Experience Among Catholics in Protestant England, 1559-1642 (Routledge: 2005), cited the Jesuit priest John Radford's 1594/1605 book for Catholic laity in England, A Directorie teaching the Way to the Truth in a briefe and plaine Discourse against the Heresies of this Time. He explained that yes, the Sacraments, especially the Mass and Holy Communion, are the normal means by which Catholics receive sanctifying grace but that God was not bound to the Sacraments. Even if they could not attend Mass, they could unite themselves to the celebration of the Mass wherever it was; even if they could not receive Holy Communion, they could make a spiritual communion: God had not left them without the means of receiving His love and grace. Another book, William Stanney's 1617 A Treatise on Penance, instructed Catholics how to make a Spiritual Communion: make a good examination of conscience and an act of perfect contrition, and then pray to receive Jesus spiritually through act of fervent desire. McClain notes that Stanney seems "uncomfortable with an exact substitution of spiritual reception for the corporal, but he clearly comforts Catholics that they would make progress toward salvation by receiving spiritually in the absence of the Mass."

As generally noted in histories about Catholic practices before the Reformation, the laity did not receive Holy Communion nearly as frequently as we do today--a Catholic who did so, like Margery Kempe or Margaret Beaufort, was thought unusual. Ordinarily, they confessed their sins at the beginning of Lent (Shrovetide) and during Holy Week, and then received Holy Communion on Easter Sunday: then they broke their Lenten fast. In The Stripping of the Altars, Duffy notes that this was more a community event than an individual act: everyone went to Holy Communion Easter Sunday--extra priests were brought in to accommodate all the communicants.

But English Recusant Catholics could not be assured that they would see a priest, risking capture and martyrdom, each Easter so they could "take [their] rights" ("taking one's rights" was the common term; when I was growing up it was referred to as "the Easter duty"!). That's why Spiritual Communion became so important and McClain demonstrates that the missionary priests serving in England wanted to encourage use of this devotion whenever Catholics couldn't attend Mass or receive Holy Communion.

So Recusant Catholics availed themselves of these spiritual means of remaining connected with the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrament of Holy Communion. McClain describes how Stanney consoled these Catholics with the thought that their hunger for receiving the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus was part of their sanctification, bringing them closer to Jesus in their hearts even though they could not receive Him.

That's exactly where we are--or should be--today in the time of limited physical access to Mass and the Sacraments. Pray God we will be able to attend Mass soon--and be prepared to receive Holy Communion worthily.

Holy Martyrs of England and Wales, pray for us!
All the holy, unknown saints of Recusant England, pray for us!

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