Bl. George Haydock and Companions

(1584 – 1679)

On November 22, 1987, Pope John Paul II beatified Blessed George Haydock and 84 other men who died for their faith in England during the Reformation. The rite of beatification at St. Peter’s in Rome was a notable British celebration. A large delegation from England and Wales was on hand: 32 bishops, 300 priests, and a crowd of layfolk, including blood descendants of 12 of the new “blesseds”.

The beatification crowned a study of the deaths of the 85 candidates that had lasted for 12 years, and had produced seven volumes of information, totaling 2667 pages, about their lives and deaths.

The time of these martyrdoms extended from 1584, when Bl. William Carter, a printer, was hanged, until 1679, when the last of the 85 died on the scaffold – Blessed Charles Meehan, an Irish Franciscan priest. Most of the group were diocesan priests; a few like Blessed Charles belonged to religious orders; and 22 were laymen of various estate: landowners, teachers, a bartender, a stableboy, etc

As they represented every level of society, so they represented every adult age from the 20’s to the 80’s. The government books declared that they had been executed for “treason” or “felony”. What the historical investigation proved was that the priests’ “treason” was simply that they had been ordained as priests and went about Britain fulfilling their priestly duties. A law of 1585 had declared that any Catholic priest who ministered in England was by that fact a traitor, deserving of hanging.

The non-priests of the group were not condemned for treason, but for aiding these “traitors”. They had opened their homes to the Catholics for Mass; they had hidden the priests from the police; they had done them a thousand loyal services to show their devotion and gratitude. They had, so to speak, offered these “apostles” a “cup of cold water”. But this sort of aid to priests was a felony according to the anti-Catholic law; and felony, too, was punishable by death. These laity, therefore, collaborated gladly with the clergy for the glory of God, even to the point of sharing death with them.

When the new list of blesseds was announced, some asked why no women were among them. Certainly there were women – over 20 of them – who suffered for their Catholic faith, some of them the wives of those who were executed. Three of these women have already been canonized, and one beatified. But these four had been executed. Generally, British law felt a delicacy about executing women. Therefore, most of the Catholic women who died for the faith died in prison; and it is harder to judge in those cases whether they are to be considered as “martyrs” or “confessors” (tortured for the faith, but not executed).

Another question raised was the effect of the beatifications on ecumenical relations. Would it not alienate the Anglicans, whose heads, the queen (or king) were responsible for the Catholic martyrs’ deaths? Or was it fair to proclaim Catholic martyrs while saying nothing of the 200 Protestants who were executed for religious reasons by Catholic Queen Mary Tudor? After all, Vatican II declared that the human person should never be forced to act against his conscience (Declaration of Religious Liberty, 2).

If complaints have been made in the past about beatifications of English Catholic Reformation martyrs, these criticisms were mostly absent in the present case. Sincere ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Anglicans since Vatican II has changed the whole outlook. This time the Church of England even sent a bishop to represent it at the beatification ceremony. This time, too, Archbishop Robert Runcie, Anglican primate of Canterbury, and Cardinal George Basil Hume, Catholic archbishop of Westminster, answered the question in a joint statement. They prayed together, “God our Father, giver of all peace and concord, forgive the sins which we have committed against each other, heal our divisions and bring us to peace and unity through the prayer of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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