Let the memory of our martyrs be an inspiration

By Moira Billinge

I had the joy of going to the Ladyewell shrine in Fernyhalgh, Preston, recently with a lovely group of people from my parish. Our day began with Mass, celebrated in the chapel within the grounds of the house. We were serenaded throughout by the sound of torrential rain as it beat relentlessly against the glass partitioning.

Later I was able to spend quiet time in the reliquary – the stillness and silence of the room offering a wonderful opportunity for prayerful exploration among the relics of beloved martyrs such as Saint Thomas à Becket and St Margaret Clitheroe.

The Burgess altar, built in 1560 and at which St Edmund Campion, St Edmund Arrowsmith and Blessed John Woodcock actually celebrated Mass, is included in the exhibition. Designed to fold away to resemble a sideboard, it opens out to become an altar and contains a secret drawer in which priestly vestments were hidden.

Decades ago, like most Catholic schoolchildren, I was well versed in the lives and terrible deaths of the martyrs. There was a Friday-morning diet of Schuster’s Bible History while the Friday-afternoon curriculum often included the latest edition of Jambo, a children’s magazine about the foreign missions. Most of us didn’t realise that we were learning about role models who could become lifelong inspirations.

There was, for instance, the little Chinese girl, Li, who was shot dead by Communist soldiers as she reverently consumed the consecrated hosts that had fallen to the ground from a desecrated tabernacle: Li’s parish priest, held prisoner in the sacristy, witnessed her execution. Even children could be role models for the rest of the world.

One of my sisters is a nun who, from very early childhood, had a massive devotion to the martyrs. If I returned home from RE lessons with any blanks in my knowledge, she would happily fill in the gaps from her huge repertoire of stored information.

Learning about the martyrs as we did – and reinforced in my case by the extra-curricular instruction provided by my sister – was a good thing, even if today some of the more horrific details might be toned down due to modern sensibilities.

Remembering the incredibly brave men and women who died for their faith during the Reformation and beyond, and thanks to whom we are – at least in this country – able to go to Mass and receive our Sacraments without fear, is still important. They are part of our precious Catholic history and must never be airbrushed from it: ordinary people who gave up their lives rather than their faith. (And, lest we forget, Christians in some countries continue to suffer the most brutal persecution and deaths for their beliefs.)

Honouring our martyrs doesn’t set us against other faith communities, but it does emphasise how treasured the Mass and the Sacraments could and should be to us all. The excruciating torments, of past and present-day martyrs, cannot be overestimated. Courage and belief provide no analgesia to the agonies of martyrdom.

As we approach All Saints’ Day on 1 November, may we remember the martyrs with gratitude and pray that their influence will inspire our increasingly secular society; that there will be a sustained growth of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life; and that Christians across the world will be able to practise the ‘Faith of our fathers’ in freedom.