Fifty years ago on 25th October Pope Paul VI presided at Mass at St Peters in Rome to celebrate the Canonisation of Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. They were a group of lay and religious and secular, men and women who were representative of a wider number of people executed between 1535 -1679 for continuing to practise their Catholic Faith at a time when it was forbidden for a priest to be in England, to harbour a priest or allow the celebration of Mass in a home. Most were subjected to violent deaths by being hung, drawn and quartered. The first martyrs were monks from the Carthusian Charterhouse in London – which was a centre of great religious influence in the city of London. Henry VIII wanted their support for his marriage to Anne Boleyn and his breaking of legal ties with the Pope in the Act of Supremacy. Because they refused to give that support the Priors were executed and in fact over a period of three years the whole monastic community were imprisoned, tortured and killed. Those first martyrs were John Houghton, Robert Lawrence and Richard Reynolds.
Amongst the group of 40 are three Saints who were born and ministered within our Diocesan area in the first half of the 17th Century. They were John Almond, Edmund Arrowsmith and Ambrose Barlow. Ambrose Barlow was from the greater Manchester area around Leigh- relatives of his lived at Wardley Hall and they recovered the skull of St Ambrose after it had been put on display following his execution. The Hall is now the residence of the Bishop of Salford. St Edmund Arrowsmith was from Haydock, he was a relative of the Gerard Family who were a landowning farming family who remained staunchly catholic.
It was the Gerard family who gave the land for the building of St Oswald and St Edmund Arrowsmith Church in Ashton where they retain a relic of the hand of the martyr. St John Almond was from Allerton. He was a dedicated priest and a learned and skilled orator. His final words at the gibbet in Lancaster were ‘To use this life well is the pathway through death to everlasting life.’
We now jointly celebrate the wider feast of those martyrs who were canonised or beatified, 284 in total, on the 4th May, however on this 50th Anniversary Year of Canonisation we are keeping the Feast of the 40 Saints this Sunday. Pope Paul VI in his homily also referred to the Anglican martyrs who were executed during the short reign of Queen Mary and described the Canonisation as an occasion for ‘advancing an ecumenism worthy of the name by witnessing to safeguarding real values which lead to peace and the prosperity of human society.’ The Pope concluded his homily that day with these words “Faced with the choice of remaining steadfast in their faith and of dying for it, or of saving their lives by denying that faith, without a moment’s hesitation and with a truly supernatural strength they stood for God and joyfully confronted martyrdom. At the same time such was the greatness of their spirit that many of them died with prayers on their lips for the country they loved so much, for the king or queen, and not least for those directly responsible for their capture, their sufferings and their cruel deaths. May our thanksgiving go up to God who, in His providential goodness, saw fit to raise up these martyrs.”
Canon Anthony O’Brien