Several days last week I had the opportunity to do a little travelling. We undertook two pilgrimages, one to the Shrine of Walsingham and one to Canterbury Cathedral. Along the way, we also visited Ely Cathedral, Rochester Cathedral and a little Church of great significance St. Dunstan’s in Canterbury.
I brought the concerns of all to the feet of Our Lady in Walsingham at the gorgeous little Slipper Chapel, with a particular mention of the situation in Connecticut, which I find profoundly disturbing, even if for now the nefarious efforts to execute a plan to control the Church has been withdrawn into the shadows. Somehow there has been a parallel stream of sadness and foreboding that followed me from church to church: sadness, because of the stripping of England’s altars; foreboding, because of the potential storm of iconoclasm that awaits us in America.
The Slipper Chapel in Little Walsingham is all that remains of the Catholic presence in the once great Marian Shrine of medieval Christendom. Before the Reformation pilgrims travelling to Our Lady’s house would stop at the Slipper Chapel, the last pilgrim house on the way to the great shrine. There they would confess their sins, hear Mass and then remove their shoes and barefoot begin the Holy Mile, the last mile to the priory in Great Walsingham. Today, the priory is a mere ruin and is in possession of the Anglican Church.
The statue of Our Lady at the top of this post is the replica in the Slipper Chapel of the original image that pilgrims venerated at the priory. The shrine was founded in 1061 by Richeldis de Faverches, who was taken in spirit to Nazareth and asked by Our Lady to build a replica, in Norfolk, of the Holy House of the Annunciation. The great priory was built over the site of the Holy House. Medieval pilgrims came from all over Christendom to Walsingham, making it the third most visited pilgrimage site of the time, after St. Peter’s in Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. During the Reformation, Henry the VIII had the image brought to Chelsea Market and publically burned in the presence of Thomas Cromwell. At that time, the priory was also closed and then it fell into neglect. Later it was finally destroyed. A single remaining gothic arch marks the place of the Church nave.
In 1578 St. Philip Howard, the Earl of Arundel, while he was still a Protestant visited the site in the company of Queen Elizabeth and was inspired to write the following verses:
Owls do screech where the sweetest hymns
Lately were sung
Toads and serpents hold their dens
Where the pilgrims did throng.
Weep weep O Walsingham
Whose days are nights,
Blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites.
Sin is where Our Lady sat,
Heaven turned to hell;
Satan sits where Our Lord held sway,
Walsingham O farewell.
Less than ten years later Howard converted to the Catholic faith and eventually died a martyr. Such inspiring sorrow! Tears lead to contrition and sometimes to heroism.
England is haunted by the ghost of Catholicism. In Ely Cathedral, hundreds of intricately carved stone niches open their gaping mouths in an ageless scream against the sacrilege perpetrated by the iconoclasts and heretics. Where statues could not be removed they were smashed and chiseled into indistinct oblivion. The Mistress of the great Lady Chapel, purportedly, the largest in England, has been replaced with the “Dancing Queen” (my denomination).
Visiting the various ancient churches, all most all of which are now in the hands of the Church of England, we were struck by the hospitality of our separated brethren. In Rochester Cathedral, the seat of the great martyr, St. John Fisher, we were invited back into one of the private sacristy rooms by some of the ladies of the cathedral and were shown their marvelous embroidery work. The work years and years, meeting once a week, to restore ancient vestments and frontals, and do so with quiet devotion. In all the ancient churches, we were met always with courtesy, even frankness regarding the truth of the Reformation. The Catholic beauty of the history of England is profoundly poignant and sad.
In Canterbury Cathedral, the ghost of Catholicism is everywhere. St. Thomas Becket’s tomb was completely destroyed by the Protestants. Now only a single candle marks the spot where his relics were once venerated. John Peckham, an eminent Franciscan who studied under the Seraphic Doctor St. Bonaventure, who debated St. Thomas Aquinas and who became Archbishop of Canterbury is entombed not far from where St. Thomas Becket was martyred. The remains of Cardinal Reginald Pole, the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury are hidden away in an unadorned tomb in the gated apse. The ancient Norman chancel, magnificent yet simple, inspires and hearkens back to a more rich and sacramental liturgical tradition.
But not all the ghosts in Canterbury are Catholic. In the old chapter house an ancient and huge multi-panel stained glass window, has replaced with a nineteenth century pantheon of English patrons, some saints, some not, like Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer (lower left). The inscription on the massive work credits the Freemasons for the donation.
I mentioned in an earlier post, my hope was to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice in the prison cell of St. Thomas More in the Tower of London. I discovered since I have been here that the officials there had become rather dissolution by the enthusiasm of certain Catholic preachers, who spoke frankly about their Catholic frustrations over the Reformation in England. I can appreciate that, but it ends up just ruining it for everyone else. Such sadness needs to lead to action, but to action that bears fruit. And that is part of the sadness. If we Catholics have so much light, why don’t we use it more effectively and wisely?
In any case, I said a private prayer to Our Blessed Lady and St. Thomas that if it be God’s will obstacles could be overcome and I would be able to celebrate Mass in the place of St. Thomas More’s imprisonment. Perhaps a God-modified answer came to that prayer when Fra Solanus overheard one of the guides in Canterbury Cathedral mention that St. Thomas’ head was in a nearby Church in town. When questioned on this, the man replied that outside Westgate there is an ancient little church, called St. Dunstan’s, where “legend” has it that the saint’s head was to be found in the crypt. However, we were also cautioned that no serious excavation had been attempted of the crypt which was now filled with earth, so the legend could not be verified
We eventually made our way to the little church and discovered that William Roper, the son-in-law of St. Thomas, had come from Canterbury and his family had a crypt in St. Dunstan’s Church. We found it remarkable that in this now Anglican Church there were stained-glass windows depicting “Sir” Thomas More, donated by Catholic Churches dedicated to St. Thomas in Germany and the United States. We also were pleased to find that there was something more than legend to the story, that the Roper crypt had actually been excavated (as it turns out in 1978). And then in the semi-darkness of the side chapel over the Roper Crypt, Father Agnellus found a memorial slab on the floor that reads:
BENEATH THIS FLOOR
IS THE VAULT OF THE
ROPER FAMILY IN WHICH
IS INTERRED THE HEAD OF
SIR THOMAS MORE
OF ILLUSTRIOUS MEMORY
OF ENGLAND WHO WAS
BEHEADED ON TOWER HILL
6TH JULY 1535
ECCLESIA ANGICANA LIBERA SIT
Apparently St. Thomas’ daughter Margaret, who had retrieved the St. Thomas’ head from London Bridge a month after his execution, had brought the relic to Canterbury where she lived with her husband William Roper, and there in St. Dunstan’s the relic was reverently interred. Some of the Anglicans, who are often, shall we say, “less definite” about things, doubt that the skull is that of Thomas More, but I think I will take this bit of piety reverently on human faith.
Ecclesia Anglicana libera sit. “May the English Church be free.” Indeed. In Saint Dunstan’s along with this inscription and the stained glass of St. Thomas, we found a liturgical banner with the last words of the martyr: “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” I must confess that I see but certainly do not understand the irony of finding all this in an Anglican church.
Religious liberty is a precious thing and it is always in peril these days. In England there are hate laws limiting speech on matter of unnatural vice and it is yet to be made clear how that effects the preaching of the Church.
There is a curious thing going on in England. Recent studies show that Catholicism is receding statistically, but the situation, apparently is even worse for the Church of England. The saving grace for Catholics is that immigration is keeping it alive in the UK. In fact, among the over-thousand people in Westminster Cathedral on Sunday, a grossly disproportionate number of people were not native-born English.
When I go home to America, I will go to a place where the numbers of Catholics per capita is quite high, and yet it is New England that has become the center for the activities of the partisans of sodomy, and now they want to pay the Church back for the opposition that it has presented. Quite frankly, that opposition officially has been sporadic and careful. It certainly has not been successful. So what now?
For years now I have been calling men to their duty, while trying to be steadfast in my own. I know the difficulties involved, but what will we say to ourselves when our religious liberties are gone? That we did everything that we could to prevent it? Have we? Really? I don’t think so. In a country of where men did everything honorable that they could, Andrew McDonald and Michael Lawler would lose their seats at the Connecticut state house. I have been to the public hearings and have heard these two speak on the floor of the legislative chambers. It is clear what their intentions are in regard to the Church. If we sit back and watch there will come a day when they enter our sanctuaries and tell us what we can and cannot do. In effect, the sanctuaries will belong to them. And that would be an abomination. If we don’t see the line in the sand now, we probably never will.
The secular and religious intolerance of our day needs to be confronted regularly and publicly. Believers need to call the bluff of what is, even in most parts of Europe, a small minority with disproportionate influence in the media. This is one of the crucial tasks for Christians in the twenty-first century.
God forbid that in some future date, in a lonely and darkened Church, a memorial stone will read: ECCLESIA AMERICANA LIBERA SIT. That may come to pass no matter what we do, but if we fight at least we will have our honor.