Whilst Sophie Ellis-Bextor may have sung about “Murder of the Dancefloor” last Friday evening I witnessed what Alfred, Lord Tennyson described as “nature red in tooth and claw” on the Presbytery lawn. And, yes, the pesky magpie was at the centre of the traumatic events. Over and above all the other outdoor noises, (and there are certainly increasing amounts in comparison to the still, quiet days of a year ago), could be heard the shrieking call of the resident blackbirds. Well used to their rather loud conversations with one another across the garden I initially dismissed their cries as mere background din. However there was something urgent in the persistence of the clamour that made me look out of the window. To my horror I saw a magpie astride a blackbird chick whose distraught parents had noisily taken matters into their own hands by systematically dive-bombing the larger predator. Rushing outside I soon found myself a part-player in the unfolding drama. Having frightened the magpie into retreat I shielded and examined the chick … only to be the subject of friendly fire coming from its parents who continued to swoop low with beaks pointing in my direction. Eventually they gleaned I was friend rather than foe.
Whilst surprised at the size of the chick, at a guess just a few days away from discovering the gift of flight, I stood for some time protectively over it, whilst it recovered somewhat from its experiences. All the while its parents were in close proximity, gathering, during the temporary truce, food for their off-spring to eat. Backing away, I observed feathered parents tending to the immediate needs of their chick. It was incredibly moving. Standing sentinel, it wasn’t too long before the magpie, with a reinforcement companion, was back, viewing the scene at a safe distance. For about an hour and a half I was back and forth from desk to lawn offering assistance to the blackbirds in fending off the magpies. Having observed the physical damage done to the chick, not to mention its traumatised emotional condition, there was little more that I could do. The time lapse included several crude imitations by myself of our Father in Faith, Abraham, shooing the birds of prey from the altar of sacrifice spoken of in Genesis (15:11). The ringing of the phone took me indoors for what was the briefest of moments leaving the birdlife to their finest, bravest, worst and cruellest. As the call, an automated message reputedly from Amazon (other delivery services are available !) informing me of the imminent arrival of a package that I had not ordered, ended, I noticed that a sudden eerie stillness had descended outdoors. The chick was gone, its parents silenced and not a magpie to be seen … just the tail end of a cat rushing at speed down the drive ! It was the unforeseeable ending to a script that many the creator of a TV drama would have been envious of.
The next morning the blackbird parents were back in the garden, bathing, seeking food and calling loudly to each other. Both continue to bob around, and I have noticed the gathering of further nesting materials, so perhaps their treetop residence is being repaired. Unsure about the spiritual lives of birds, I did reflect that not even the savage removal of a chick takes place “without the Father knowing it.” (Matthew 10:29)
Sacrifice is an defining element of Christianity, rooted in the offering made by Christ of Himself on the hill of Calvary, it is present in the first Testament, and in the early history of Christianity St. Stephen is widely recognised as being the first of a long, and sadly continuing, list of named individuals called upon to lay down their lives for the Faith. Last Tuesday we celebrated the Feast of the English Martyrs. Having been Parish Priest in an area where one of the churches was dedicated to the collective patronage of these men and women, the day holds a special significance. In a period of just over a century, beginning in December 1886 and concluding (so far) in 1987, successive Popes have acknowledged our fellow country women and men’s ultimate gift of themselves in fidelity to the Catholic Faith by raising them to a road which led to two of this number being canonised in 1935 (Ss. John Fisher and Thomas More), forty more in 1970, and Archbishop Oliver Plunkett of Armagh in 1975. Earlier and later, groups of martyrs were beatified; fifty-four in 1886, nine in 1895, one hundred and thirty six in 1929, and eighty five in 1987. The ceremony of December 1929, presided over by Pope Pius XI (1922 – 1939), was attended by Gilbert Keith Chesterton and recalled in “The Resurrection of Rome.” In 1935, for the Canonisation of the Yorkshire-born Bishop John Fisher and Thomas More, a considerable number of clergy and pilgrims from Leeds were present in Rome; the Diocese able to boast of having the first church in England dedicated to the new martyr-saints, at Burley-in-Wharfedale, built in 1932, largely from the personal resources of widower-priest, and late-vocation, Fr. Frederick Le Fevre.
The pathway to public recognition for this cohort of martyrs began quickly. As early as the mid-1580s, whilst Elizabeth I sat on the English throne, the relics of sixty-three martyrs were already being honoured and images made for reproduction in devotional literature. The pubic persecution of Catholics in England began on 4th May 1535 when three monks were executed at Tyburn in London – Prior John Houghton of the London Charterhouse, Prior Robert Lawrence of the Beauvale Charterhouse, and Richard Reynolds, a Brigittine monk from Syon Abbey – beginning a period of about one hundred and fifty years during which the ultimate price for being recognised and betrayed for the Catholic Faith was execution. This sacrifice was made in a variety of environments including the public scaffold, languishing in prison and during the process of barbaric torture. Amongst the ranks of these men and women were a Countess and a rural Priest, who died almost a hundred and forty years apart and whose formal recognition by the Church was separated by over a century. Margaret Pole, one of just two 16th century English women peeresses in their own right, was the daughter of George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, and niece of King Edward IV. Her formative years were dominated by personal turbulence rooted in political wrangling, and came to an end when her cousin, Elizabeth of York, married Henry VII. Through this union she found herself married to a relative of the King’s, Sir Richard Pole. Seemingly secure, politically speaking, the Poles became Chamberlain to Arthur, Prince of Wales, and lady-in-waiting to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, respectively. With Prince Arthur’s death in 1502, Margaret lost her role, and when Richard died in 1505 leaving her with five children and a limited income, it was Henry VII himself who paid for her husband’s funeral. ‘Gifting’ her middle son, Reginald, to the Church, Margaret retired to live with the Bridgettine community at Syon Abbey.
When Catherine of Aragon became Queen, Margaret was once more appointed to the court as a lady-in-waiting, a move which in 1512 saw her being restored to some of her late brother’s lands, for which she had to pay for the privilege ! A shrewd financier, by 1538, Margaret was the fifth richest peer in the realm, but her relationship with Henry VIII was turbulent. As governess to Princess Mary, with the ascent of Anne Boleyn and Henry’s declaration of Mary’s illegitimacy, she refused to return the princess’s gold plate and jewels to the King, and when she offered to serve Mary at her own cost, he refused. Finding herself caught up in the political intrigue surrounding the Pilgrimage of Grace, for whom Pope Paul III charged her son, Reginald, (who had risen through clerical ranks to the position of a non-ordained Cardinal) with the funding of, and with another already executed, Margaret was stripped of her titles and lands. Imprisoned from November 1538 in the Tower of London, together with a grandson and nephew, she retained several servants to care for her family. Evidence procured by Thomas Cromwell saw her fate – the death sentence – hang like the sword of Damocles over her. The date of her execution was totally dependent upon Henry VIII’s whimsical mood swings, evidenced by the fact that having granted her an expensive wardrobe of clothing in March 1541, just weeks later on 27th May, he signed her life away ! At the venerable age of sixty-seven, Margaret Pole was executed. In deference of her noble birth, just 150, mainly invited, witnesses were present, and not the general populace. Her son, who in the reign of Mary Tudor, was to be the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, despite an earlier rift with his mother, said that he would “never fear to call himself the son of a martyr !”
Annually at Mass we hear the story of Eleazar, a man of advanced years, who chose to die rather than lead others into erroneous ways, as Scripture recalls: “His courageous death was remembered as a glorious example, not only by young people, but by the entire nation as well.” (2 Maccabees 6:31) Listening to it evokes thoughts of a Yorkshire-born martyr, who having ministered secretly as a priest for over half a century was apprehended during the celebration of a baptism at the age of eighty two. Fr. Nicholas Postgate was subsequently condemned to death under legislation passed the previous century in the name of Elizabeth I, in whose reign he was born in 1596/97. On 7th August 1679, on the Knavesmire at York he was hanged, disembowelled and quartered. One of his hands was sent to Douai (France) where he had trained for priesthood. Betrayed by John Reeves, manservant to Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, for the reported payment of twenty-two shillings, the link between the nocturnal skulduggery of Judas Iscariot in the events of the first Holy Week, was not lost in subsequent stories claiming that Reeves took his own life by drowning before any money changed hands ! The longevity of Fr. Postgate’s ministry in a time of persecution and betrayal is almost unique, matched by the fact that he spent almost the last twenty years of his life discreetly celebrating Holy Mass and the Sacraments not far from his birthplace around the Guisborough, Pickering and Scarborough areas. The late dating of his execution ranks him amongst the final swath of martyrs put to death for their Catholic faith, although others would continue to die in penury and prison for their fidelity.
Whilst our hearts may swell with a faith-based recognised near-relational pride at the mention of the sacrifices made by Margaret Pole, Nicholas Postgate and many others, there is another side to the story of the English Martyrs. John Foxe (1516/17 – 1587) compiled a “Book of Martyrs,” which continued to be expanded until the Victorian era, detailing those whose lives were taken from them in the name of a different faith – Protestantism. Often an overlooked element of history by Catholics, not only was Mary Tudor the worthy recipient of the name “Bloody” in reference to her brutal dispatch of hundreds of men and women, but her own father, and siblings, Edward VI and Elizabeth, as well as James I, at the same time as executing Catholics were themselves culturing lengthy martyrologies consisting of those deemed fervent Protestants, who like their Catholic counterparts were prepared to offer the ultimate gift of their lives. Rather like the stealthy cat and the chick, this is probably an unexpected factual ending !
With liberality and freedom in the realm of faith and our ability to live as people of recognisably different traditions it can be easy to forget or overlook the sacrifices made by others in the name of faith, or even dismiss such oppression to the shelf of history. Regrettably in the twenty-first century the ultimate sacrifice, martyrdom, is still a feature on the landscape of faith for many. In the case of the persecution of Christians its presence is often brushed aside by the media. In a time when in a whole variety of ways many have been asked to make sacrifices for a greater good, it is worth recalling Christ’s own words to those who give up what they have for others. He states that there is “no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13) which is the ultimate response to His new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) In the celebration of Holy Mass this weekend we shall participate not simply in the verbal high ambitions of the Word made flesh, but the absolute reality that God’s Word was the bond, or manifestation, of His love for each one of us … sacrificed on the hill of Calvary. So, in signing-off this week I would like to assure those who are continuing to make sacrifices, and especially those feeling the weight and burden of them, you are not alone. As a community of faith we journey with you, and like Simon of Cyrene, I would like to think at we not only walk with you but help to share the load too. This weekend, very especially, you are being remembered at the altar.
Holding you in prayerful remembrance and affection.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas