Wednesday 5 July 2023

Let us not lose sight of Jesus

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews spoke of a ‘cloud of witnesses’, by which he meant the martyrs, both of the Old Testament and which his readers must also have understood to refer to those among them who were suffering for Christ. Those who have given witness by the shedding of blood for the Faith have been the constant glory of the Church, since the day Paul stood guard over the cloaks of those responsible for the stoning of the deacon Stephen.

Why have there always been martyrs? Why do they hate Christians so much? The message we preach is that God loves us, that he came to be one of us, that he remains present among us, in order that we can love one another. Why is that message simply not ‘Good News’ to so many, and why throughout the Church’s history have they felt it necessary to resort to such extreme violence to stop us believing this and sharing it with others?

The most savage of persecutions have been, and still are, against our teaching that the Lord loves the world so much that he became one of us — the Incarnation. Even in our own country, the persecution was largely around the idea that our Lord wants to remain among us, to be truly present in the Mass, coming to us in Holy Communion. The persecution of Catholicism in these isles was, I believe, the longest ongoing persecution of the faith, causing sad divisions among our countrymen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But it was the cause of much holiness too, since there were many men and women who clung to the true faith with amazing tenacity and equal charity. Among these people are the great names of souls like St Thomas More and John Fisher, Edmund Campion, Ralph Sherwin, Margaret Clitherow and Margaret Pole. But there were others also, whose names haven’t really made it to the history books, such as the men whose memory we keep today, the anniversary of their martyrdom in Oxford on 5 July 1589. These are: Blessed George Nichols and Richard Yaxley, both priests, who died together with Blessed Thomas Belson, a gentleman, and Humphrey Pritchard, a bartender. Unlike the others, Blessed Humphrey was not a ‘university man’, and when taunted during his trial in Oxford by some learned divines, who told him that he did not know what it was to be a Catholic, he replied that he knew what he was to believe and that he would willingly die for so good a cause. They were hanged, drawn and quartered.

Jesus did warn us that his coming would bring division and indeed it has. It is a tremendous pity that the Mass, which is the sacrament of Unity, has been — even in the household of faith — something around which the divisions have been most vehement, whether it be theological or liturgical differences of opinion, where truth is boiled down to personal preference. What happens at the Mass is what matters above all, that Christ comes to us, that we plead his sacrifice for the sin of the world and he is given to us in Holy Communion, the Bread of Angels and Food for the Journey. The writer of Hebrews tells us to fix our eyes upon Jesus, and never to lose sight of him. This is advice our martyrs adhered to as ‘they ran with perseverance the race that was set before them’.

Although things look dark, we still have Our Lord. We have his presence in the Blessed Sacrament and we are able to come and pray each day in an open church. Moreover, we have the teaching of Christ, the Good News of God’s saving and merciful love, with a mission to pass it on to others, preaching as love knows how, by kindly words and virtuous life (Fr Faber).

It would be very easy to give in to the prevailing spirit and become discouraged, but we have the example of those men whose feast we keep today, our Oxford City Martyrs, whose perseverance and charity are a wonderful inspiration and example for us.

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