I am always astonished that so many people come. And then, pondering the importance of the thing, I’m puzzled at my astonishment.
We always get a good crowd for the Martyrs’ Walk, held now for several years on the Sunday nearest to the feast of Ss John Fisher and Thomas More. It follows the route of martyrs from Newgate to Tyburn. Like the Tyburn Walk organised by the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, which for many years followed this same route, we conclude with Benediction at Tyburn Convent.
We are not the only group that walks the route during the course of the year and certainly not the only pilgrimage honouring the martyrs – Tyburn has a constant stream of visitors from all over the world. But I am still touched and impressed that a good number of people will turn out on a summer Sunday to walk through London, praying the rosary and stopping at Catholic churches, to commemorate the heroism and sacrifices of four centuries ago.
One paradox of recent times is that the English martyrs are now better known to younger Catholics than they have ever been. Following their canonisation in 1970 by Paul VI, the English martyrs began to give their names to schools and colleges. Thus pupils at, for example, St John Payne School in Essex or the new St Richard Reynolds College in Richmond-on-Thames think of these saints as their own, in a very open and public way. The Catholic aspects of our country’s history have, as it were, come out of the shadows and into everyday life.
Two papal visits undoubtedly helped – especially Benedict XVI’s visit in 2010 with that dramatic candlelit vigil before the Blessed Sacrament in Hyde Park – just yards away from where Catholic priests were hung, drawn and quartered for affirming and proclaiming their belief in that Sacrament.
And there is a sense in which the old “Protestant version” of Britain’s history now longer quite works: the notion of Elizabeth I as Gloriana and Britain as a bastion of Protestant splendour against the evils of Roman superstition, with God definitely on Britain’s side and our whole national identity resting on a break with Rome. Rather, following the Catholic revival of the 19th century, a different understanding soaked into the national consciousness: a sense of continuity as being valuable rather than an emphasis on a break in the story, a feeling that Gothic churches had a natural place in the landscape, that tales of old saints were acceptable alongside those of kings and heroes. And with that came Gothic Revival architecture – notably our Parliament with its church-like spires and mosaics of our national saints.
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