Sunday, 4 June 2023

Edmund Tanner, Bishop of Cork


On June 4 1579, the sufferings of Edmund Tanner, Bishop of Cork and Cloyne came to an end. He had entered the Society of Jesus in 1565 but left in 1571 due to health problems. Concerned by the dire state of Catholicism in Ireland as persecution began to bite, he then offered to return from his long exile on the Continent, even though this meant risking arrest, imprisonment, torture or even death. Bishop Tanner appears to have been an extremely able man who enjoyed the friendship of Saint Charles Borromeo and who realized the importance of mounting a challenge to the Reformation. One particularly interesting detail of Bishop Tanner's imprisonment was his re-conversion to Catholicism of the Protestant Bishop of Waterford, I would also be interested to know more of his escape from custody.  Irish martyrologist, Anthony Bruodin O.F.M. (1625-1680), featured Bishop Tanner in his 1669 work Propugnaculum Catholicæ Veritatis. Friar Bruodin's short account below describes Bishop Tanner as a native of Cork, but other sources describe him as as a native of Dublin, where he was born around the year 1526:

Anno 1578.

" He was a native of Cork, and for many years a member of the Society of Jesus, and noted for his virtues; at length he was obliged, by illness, to leave the society, with the good will of the fathers. He was soon after appointed Bishop of Cork, but had hardly taken on him the burden of the episcopate, when he was arrested for having opposed the queen's supremacy, and carried to Dublin. In prison he was tortured in divers ways, and was more than once hung up for two hours by his hands, tied together behind his back. Broken with these and other sufferings, after an imprisonment of eighteen months, he went to receive his reward, the 4th of June, 1578." — Bruodin, lib. iii. cap. xx. 

M. O'Reilly, Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, (New York 1869), 54.

Father Myles Ronan provided a more detailed account of Bishop Tanner in his pioneering 1930 work The Reformation in Ireland Under Elizabeth, making it clear that the Bishop's motivation in returning to Ireland was the desire to be actively involved in the work of counter-Reformation:


Edmund Tanner, a native of the diocese of Dublin, and afterwards Bishop of Cork wrote in his Book of Novices: "Edmund Tanner, Irishman, 39 years of age, entered the Society [of Jesus], 14 June, 1565. For many years, said Bruodin, he made singular progress in virtue in the Society, yet constrained by ill health and with with the goodwill of the Fathers, he left the Society. Having left the Jesuit house in Rome,  he wrote from that city a letter, 26 October, 1571, to John, Cardinal Moroni, Protector of Ireland, in which he tells him of his story and his desire.

An exile for religion's sake, he says, for more than twelve years from his native country Ireland, he has lived, the sport of fortune, among Spaniards, Italians, and Germans, during which time Ireland has been sorely afflicted by the tyranny of the heretics, and other calamities. Now, if he might be of any service to his country, he would fain return thither, but submits himself to the direction of the Protector. He is assured by grave men that during all this time not a hundred Irishmen in all Ireland have been infected with heresy, though not a few, for fear of penalties and confiscation of goods, attended the profane rites of the heretics, and the demoralisation of the people is such that a pious Catholic is hardly to be found: and no wonder since the clergy are the most depraved of all. Moreover, there is so little instruction to be had in the Christian faith that few can so much as repeat the Lord's Prayer, the articles of the faith, or the commandments, and still fewer understand them. Sermons are so uncommon that there are many that have never so much as heard one; the sacraments are so rarely administered, so much more rarely understood, that the ignorant people know not whether they were appointed by God or by men. In fine, so gross is the ignorance of the people that there are many who, passing all their lives in the grossest sin, have grown so accustomed thereto that they dare to say that it is just as lawful for them to live by theft or rapine as for him that worthily serves the altar to live by the altar. And nevertheless, so well inclined are they, or rather prompted by the Holy Spirit, to a good life, that it needs but the admonition or reproof of a good man and forthwith they are dissolved in tears, lamenting that they knew not that such things were sins, or contrary to the commandments of God. 

Touched by a sense of their woeful plight, Tanner says, he has come from Louvain to Rome to offer his services, such as they are, in that deserted field.......Tanner's letter did not produce the result he expected, to return to his own country, for, 5 January, 1573, that is, more than a year after his previous letter, he again wrote to Cardinal Moroni from Milan stating that though provided by Cardinal (St. Charles) Borromeo with a Canonry at Milan, he yearned to return to Ireland to minister to the souls that there "sit in darkness and the shadow of death" and encouraged by Moroni's previous kindness, he craved his good offices to that end. Doubtless, he was a sincere lover of Ireland and most anxious to minister to the people, whether as priest or perhaps bishop, undeterred by poverty of persecution.


The next reference to Tanner is in a Brief on 5 November,  1574, nearly two years after his letter to Cardinal Moroni, during most of which time he, presumably, remained as Canon at Milan enjoying the friendship of the saintly Charles Borromeo. The Brief describes him as "Master in Theology", priest,  in the fiftieth year of his age, and as having 'made profession of the Catholic faith in accordance with articles recently drawn up by the Apostolic See." It then describes him as having the usual virtues required in a bishop. The Brief continues with an address to the clergy and faithful to accept him as their pastor and father and to obey his monitions and commands.

It continues with an important clause: "We desire all occasion and reason of wandering outside the cities and dioceses of Cork and Cloyne be taken from you and you do not exercise the pontifical office [outside these dioceses] even with the permission of the Ordinaries of the dioceses, as in those cases we decree such functions to be null and void." This latter clause was subsequently modified.

Tanner, although appointed Bishop of Cork and Cloyne, 5 November, 1574, was not consecrated until 6 February, 1575... On 10 April 1575, special faculties were granted to him, and, notwithstanding the clause in the above Brief of his appointment, he was empowered to exercise them not only in his own united dioceses of Cork and Cloyne but also "throughout the whole province of Dublin, of which he was a native (universae provinciae Dublinensis ex qua exoriundus), as well as throughout the whole province of Munster, so long as the various Archbishops and Bishops were obliged by the fury if the persecution to be absent from their respective Sees."

On 12 May Gregory XIII gave him a letter, as he was on his way to Ireland, recommending him heartily to all Bishops and other Prelates who might be able to render him assistance.

Tanner made his way to Madrid, where evidently he made some delay or was delayed on his voyage from Rome to Spain. At all events he was in Portugal a sick man, 23 November, on which date the Nuncio wrote to the Cardinal Secretary of State:

The Irish Bishop of Cork was earnestly commended to me by the Nuncio of Madrid. I have done him every service in my power that a sick man requires: inter alia, I have procured him safe passage for England on one of the Venetian ships, whence he will readily make his way to Ireland; he has departed with a good wind and a good purpose to do his duty in his church to the honour of God and the weal of those souls, who are in the utmost need thereof. I cannot but bear good testimony to his virtue and zeal for the service of God. All this, I believe, will be gratifying to the Pope. 

..Between November, 1575, and June, 1576, we have no information about Tanner. What precise difficulties he encountered on his landing in England we do not know, but he succeeded in taking another ship to Galway where he landed, 21 June, and evidently remained a few months...

He probably took another ship to some of the Munster ports, but was taken prisoner with his chaplain at Clonmel. In a letter of 11 October, 1577, written at Ross, he tells the General of the Jesuits that in the midst of persecutions from heretics he was taken prisoner, but by the grace of God and the help of a nobleman, he escaped, eluding twelve warders. Every day they diligently seeks his death. "In those straits," he adds, "aided by the grace of God, we have reconciled many of the nobles of the kingdom, many of the citizens of various cities and nobles we have received back from the cesspool of Schism into the bosom of the Church, and receive them from day to day, and many more we should receive if the present persecution, and privation of goods, life and liberty did not prevent us. By that means a very great number, otherwise well disposed, are kept back from us; but I hope in Christ that ultimately the cord shall be cut and that we shall be freed..."

Other particulars of his activities are mentioned in a letter, of 24 November, from the Commissary in Portugal, to the Cardinal Secretary of State:

I have received another letter, to wit, of the the 25th of September, from the Bishop of Cork in Ireland, who likewise writes the enclosed to Cardinal Alciati; and apprises me that he has not been able to avoid the nets of the heretics; they were not, however, treating him harshly, but had committed him to the custody of the heretic Bishop of Waterford pending the Queen of England's answer to their request to know what was to be done with him; and the bishop says that, propagating the Gospel even in prison, he had converted the said bishop, his keeper, and induced him to abjure all heresies with many a tear and token of penitence.

The tears and tokens did not last long. 

Tanner, as Papal Commissary, travelled almost the whole of Ireland, administering the Sacraments,, "but secretly on account of persecution. In spite of ill-health he persevered until at last, worn out, he died 4 June, 1579, in the diocese of Ossory."

Rev. Myles V. Ronan, The Reformation in Ireland Under Elizabeth, (Longman, Green and Co, 1930), 540-547.

The case of Bishop Edmund Tanner was also featured by the original promoter of the cause of the Irish martyrs, Father Denis Murphy S.J., in his 1896 work Our Martyrs, but his name was not included on the 1918 Official List of Irish Martyrs which was submitted to Rome for formal consideration. Bishop Tanner is representative of all those clergy who were prepared to risk their lives and return from the safety of exile in Europe to further the cause of promoting and preserving the faith at home.

Content Copyright © De Processu Martyriali 2020-2023. All rights reserved

Saturday, 25 March 2023

Brother Peter of the Mother of God, O.D.C

On March 25, 1643, Brother Peter of the Mother of God, the last of the three Irish Carmelite martyrs, was hanged in Dublin, the city of his birth. The account below has been taken from the 1897 book Carmel in Ireland by Father James P Rushe, the Order's official historian. Like his fellow martyrs, Father Thomas Aquinas of Saint Teresa and Brother Angelus of Saint Joseph, who had been martyred at Drogheda in the previous year, Brother Peter was always regarded as a martyr by his confreres who recorded an account of his sufferings and had a portrait of him hung at the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites at Piacenza. The narrative of his martyrdom presents a picture of a man of simple yet profound faith who, when faced with the prospect of death, found a courage he had not hitherto possessed. It demonstrates how fitting was his name in religion as Brother Peter of the Mother of God (we do not know his family name), for at his execution on the Feast of the Annunciation he drew strength from the Rosary and confounded the Protestant preachers sent to harangue him by quoting the Magnificat: 

III. Brother Peter of the Mother of God.  

The lay-brother, the third of our Confessors, was Peter of the Mother of God. He was received into the Order at Dublin, his native place. It was his vocation to sanctify himself by solely attending to the domestic affairs of the monastery, never ambitioning the state of his brethren who had been called to undertake the duties of the priesthood. He knew it was not necessary to pass through the schools in order to acquire the science of the Saints: the study of his crucifix and rosary-beads was sufficient for him throughout life. And we shall see that with the knowledge thus obtained he was able to refute the sophistries of those who tried to rob him of his faith. He was most zealous in the discharge of his various offices; prudent and pious; and always cherished a very tender devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

After the Teresian Friary in Cook Street had been suppressed, Brother Peter gladly remained in the city to provide for the temporal wants of the Fathers who were daily exposed to the horrors of the persecution. Having rendered them invaluable service in their perilous mission, his reward was the martyr's crown. He was captured by the Puritans early in March of the year 1643. Almost worn out by past toils and privations, his health gave way completely under the cruel treatment he received in prison, so that it was only a relief to him when told his sufferings should cease on the Feast of the Annunciation, the day assigned for his death. Before the end, however, he was haunted by a dread of that shameful doom. It was the conflict between nature and grace, and very fierce while it lasted, but, through the intercession of his patroness, the Queen of Carmel, he gained the victory. His heart was now filled with peace; he gloried in the thought of his approaching struggle. This marvellous change was brought about by the special grace mercifully granted to the weak when their burden is heavy to bear. Hitherto Brother Peter had been timorous and despondent, now he possessed the martyr's confidence and strength. Those who had seen him in affliction wanted him to appeal to the pity of his persecutors, but he begged them to spare him their kindly remonstrances, as he was himself most eager to die. There were some Catholics among the prisoners, and these he implored to unite with him in praying God to pardon his cowardice, and grant him the needful courage to persevere. He had but one desire, he told them, to prove himself a loyal son of Holy Church — worthy of the habit which he wore. Accordingly, the whole night preceding his execution was passed by him and his friends in the recital of the Litany, Rosary, and other prayers.
He seemed very happy in the morning as the appointed time drew near. He continued still more earnestly to call upon the Mother of God, thanking Her, in the name of all men, for having been so humbly obedient to the Divine Will at the Annunciation. On hearing him speak thus one of the heretical ministers — several had come to try to pervert the heroic Confessor — rebuked him for attributing such honour to Our Blessed Lady. Brother Peter reminded his tormentor how Mary had been praised by the Holy Ghost in her own inspired words of the “Magnificat”; and this answer gave the Puritan a subject for serious reflection until they arrived at the scaffold, which had been set up in a most frequented part of Dublin to intimidate and mortify the Faithful. But the pious people regarded this as the “shame of the Cross in which Christians glory”; instead of producing fear it afforded them new constancy and hope, recalling to their minds the reward of those who die in the cause of religion. When about to ascend the steps, Brother Peter prostrated himself to the ground in sign of his unworthiness to rank with the Confessors of the faith; he also kissed the halter with great reverence, making in the meantime fervent acts of contrition, and renewing his religious profession. The Puritans still persisted in telling him that it was folly to sacrifice himself for such convictions; he replied that there was a wisdom which the world could not understand. And in the thirty-third year of his age, on the 25th of March 1643, he suffered a violent death — the last proof of the firmness of his own belief.
Braving the wrath of their persecutors, the Catholics took possession of the Confessor’s remains, and bore them with all honour to the grave. In fact, they seemed to ambition that Teresian lay-brother’s terrible fate; but the Puritans were satisfied, for the time being, with the revenge which they had taken on one whom the Faithful had long revered for his spirit of self-sacrificing zeal.
 Rev James P Rushe O.D.C., Carmel in Ireland,  (London, 1897), 100-103.

Brother Peter of the Mother of God is number 150 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918) whose causes were submitted for official consideration. No further progress has been made to date.


Content Copyright © De Processu Martyriali 2020-2023. All rights reserved

Monday, 20 March 2023

Friar O'Dowd's Victory: A True Story of the Seal Inviolate

March 20 1393 marks the death of Saint John Nepomucene, who is regarded as the first martyr of the seal of the confessional. Nearly two hundred years later one of our native martyrs, County Mayo Friar John O'Dowd O.F.M., was hailed as the John Nepomucene of Ireland for making a similar sacrifice. I have previously posted an account of Friar John based on the surviving sources here, but below is an account which was published in The Rosary Magazine in 1903. Although presented in the form of an historical novel, writer P.G. Smyth ably describes the story of Father O'Dowd's heroic sacrifice and references Saint John Nepomucene towards the end:

Friar O'Dowd’s Victory 



ONE day in the reign of Queen Elizabeth of England — it was the 9th of June, 1579 — in the full heat of the persecution of the Catholic Church in Ireland, a small party of horsemen rode towards the monastery of Moyne, in the far west of that racked and war-wasted island.

The pleasant landscape was bathed in sunshine, save where over mead and woodland flitted the shadows of the white clouds sailing aloft in the blue. Solemn and venerable, even in its pathetic semi-dilapidation, lay the stately old Franciscan house, with all its picturesque grey gables and gothic windows, and the tall square campanile, or bell tower, soaring over all. To the right, as the party rode onward, shone the bright estuary of the river Moy, with beyond it the yellow sand dunes of Bartra, and beyond them the dark blue ocean, flecked with foam. To the left lay billowy green upland and sweeping woods, with stretches of pasture and tillage. The wholesome breath of the brine came mingling with the sweet fragrance of the clover blossoms. There was a winsome summer smile on the face of nature. 

 But there was an oppressive sense of dread in the air, a panic of terror on the land. People were abandoning their homes and fleeing into the woods for safety. Men and boys with loud shouts were driving off their cattle — the black, shaggy, long-horned Irish cattle that ran like buffaloes. White-capped mothers hurried along with infants clasped in their trembling arms. Girls with the snood or ribbon of maidenhood binding their tresses dragged along their little brothers and sisters. It was a general frantic run for shelter and safety — a stampede which was of but too frequent occurrence in most parts of Ireland in these unhappy days — for from the south was rolling a terrible dark cloud charged with the lightning of rapine, ruin and death. 

Straight to the monastery the horsemen galloped, and at the church door, which was round-headed and surmounted by a winged angel carved in stone, the leader dismounted, his armor and weapons clanging as he leaped on the sward. He was a stalwart man, with a huge commeal or mustache, and his hair fell in masses, native Irish fashion, on his shoulders. He entered the church, reverently doffed his helmet and genuflected. 

 “Ho, Father John, Father John,” he called. 

As his voice rolled and echoed through the spacious interior he felt abashed at his boldness in breaking the pervading solemn hush of sanctity. The place was deserted, a vast stony solitude. To the left a sheer wall hung with sacred pictures that showed the marks and tears of malicious usage. To the right three huge round arches joining the nave with a still wider space provided for lay worshippers. In front of the arch under the bell tower, crossed with a screen of metal trellis work, through which were seen the chancel, with the oaken stalls of the friars, the high altar and the noble orient window. The metal screen was bent and twisted in places, many of the windows were broken, the wooden stalls were chopped and gashed, and there were other marring tokens of visits of the Reformers. 

“The wanton, sinful ruffians!” commented the visitor. “I wonder what mischief they’ll do the grand old place this turn.” And again he called : “Ho, Father John, are you here?” 

 Receiving no reply he walked with jingling spurs up the nave and entered the chancel through a low archway in the thickness of the tower wall. Then he opened the door leading to the cloisters. Some years previously no Catholic layman would have attempted or even dreamed of such an intrusion, but the confusion of the times, the stress of danger, the great passing away of the friars made havoc of strict monastic rules. The visitor found himself in a covered walk extending around a perfect square of handsomely carved small arches, enclosing a sun-lighted open space where now rank weeds and grass covered where once lay flower beds and beds of medicinal herbs used by the monks in their province as physicians. Upon this walk opened the doors of many arched cells, and around it the dark-robed sons of St. Francis had paced, read and meditated for more than one hundred years. 

A famous place, by the way, was in its heyday this fine old monastery of Moyne. Founded in 1460 by Thomas Oge (or the young) Bourke, high chief of this western territory, at the instance of Provincial General Nehemias O’Donohoe (sent by Pope Nicholas V. to introduce into Ireland the reformed Franciscan rule known as the “strict observance”), it took two years in the building, and was consecrated by Bishop Donat O’Connor of Killala exactly thirty years before Columbus sailed with his caravels into the mysterious West. The consecrating prelate was a member of the Order of St. Dominic, whose sons had established themselves in this district two centuries previously. Five provincial chapters were held here, and here was the place of novitiate for the Franciscan Order in the western province of Ireland. The fame of the monastery traveled to foreign lands; the sweet- toned bell that swung in the lofty campanile was a present from the Queen of Spain. Among the novices that in later years paced the cloister walk was a tall, red-haired one, namely Florence Conroy, afterwards Archbishop of Tuam, and founder of the celebrated Franciscan monastery of Louvain, where the flowers of Irish religion and learning, trampled upon with iron bigot heel at home, were triumphantly preserved and propagated abroad. 

Sad, yet sublime, telling of the struggles of an oppressed, indomitable race for light, liberty and freedom of worship, are the memories that breathe around that cloister square of Moyne. 

 “Ho, Father John, Father Cathal,” again called the visitor. 

In response the tall figure of a friar issued from one of the cells. He was in stature over six feet and a half and built in proportion, noble, kindly and benevolent of mien. For Father John O'Dowd was a typical member of his race, the ancient native family that once gave kings and princes to this western territory that extended long league upon league from the green banks of the river Robe to the grey round tower of Drumcliff. 

 “Well, Tibbot Bourke, my son, God bless you," he said cheerily. 

“Make haste, father, there is no time to lose,” said the cavalier. “The English Queen's soldiers have crossed the Moy at Ballina and are coming this way. They have taken us by surprise and they are too strong for us, so we can do nothing but alarm the country. Come — we have horses at the door for yourself and Father Cathal.” 

“Father Cathal has been called to a sick bed two miles hence,” said Father O'Dowd, “and for me, surely I am not going to run away and abandon this holy place to desecration. “You know,” he said, with a sad smile, “of the whole community there are now but two of us left, but we must not be false to our trust.” 

“But what good can you do by remaining?” protested Tibbot Bourke. “To stay here means outrage or death at the hands of these fiends. Remember their last raid and the fate of poor Brother Felix.” 

He alluded to a tragedy of the previous year. On the approach of a party of English raiders the monks then in the monastery took to their fishing boats and rowed for safety out into the bay — all but one, the venerable lay brother ( Felix O'Hara, brother of the lord of Leyney, who insisted on staying behind, urging that the soldiers would not harm one so aged as he and that his presence might induce them to respect the sacred place. On their return, after the departure of the plundering troopers, the friars found the old lay brother lying in his gore on the steps of the grand altar, where the marauders had wantonly murdered him. 

 “Brother Felix nobly won a martyr's crown,” said Father John. “An O'Hara would not shrink his duty in the hour of peril; neither shall an O'Dowd. I have no fear of the Sassenach, so try not further to persuade me, Tibbot, my son. Go now, and Dominius vobiscum.” 

In vain the cavalier sought to break the friar's determination. He had to depart reluctant and despondent. There was a sound of horses' hoofs and jingling of bridle chains as he and his party rode away, and then the silence of brooding death settled over Moyne. 

 Father O’Dowd hastily removed the sacred vessels of the altar and concealed them in a secret recess. Missals and documents he similarly disposed of, and then, entering his broken stall, he knelt before the high altar in the silence of the chancel and drew over his spirit the strengthening armor of prayer. The last, lone monk in the great deserted monastery! To him a solemn, bitter, Gethsemane-like hour was that in the church of Moyne. The old race crushed and humbled, the old creed banned, the alien powers of persecution and death turned loose. There, beneath his sculptured slab on the gospel side of the altar, showing the De Burgo lion and hand, with the crescent which symbolized a second son, lay the dust of  the founder of the monastery, the pious young Lord Thomas Bourke, head of the tribe, recalling the prosperous old days when he and his warriors, bards and brehons assembled to lay the foundation stone of the sacred edifice. And there, opening off the epistle side, extended the Lady chapel, where in rows along the opposite walls lay the remains of generations of the Bourkes and their kinsmen by marriage  the O'Dowds. There was buried Owen O'Dowd, thirty years chief of his tribe, who died in the Franciscan habit in Moyne in 1538, and there also lay his son and successor Owen, lord of Fireragh, and his wife, the lady Sabia Bourke. Great and appalling the change, all in a few years, from the days when the chant of psalmody rose from a full choir of monks, and the altar, bright with flowers, blazed with lights and the bell tinkled, and the incense floated over the devout thronged congregation of farmer clansmen and their wives and children. 

 “Poor old abbey !" thought the lonely friar, “your halcyon days are indeed gone." 

 “Many a bitter storm and tempest 
Has your roof-tree turned away 
Since you first were formed a temple 
To the Lord of night and day. 
 “Holy house of ivied gables 
That were once the country’s pride, 
Houseless now in weary wandering 
Roam your inmates far and wide. 
“Refectory cold and empty, 
Dormitory bleak and bare, 
Where are now your pious uses, 
Simple bed and frugal fare?" 

The church door was dashed rudely open and a number of armed men came pouring in. Some of them rushed upon the friar and seized him with shouts and curses. Others hurried away through the building in quest of plunder. Others commenced their usual iconoclastic work of slashing pictures, hacking statues and discharging bullets at the altar. Father John was roughly hauled before the English commander, who regarded him with a frown, which soon turned into a laugh of derision. 

 “You are the very man we need, sir friar," he said. “Ho, there, bring hither the prisoner." 

A bound captive was thrust forward. His attire was disheveled, his face and clothing streaked with blood. The friar recognized in him a chief man of the Bourkes. 

“Shrive this arch traitor and rebel," commanded the officer. “No doubt he has some very interesting secrets for your ear, and he may like to unload him- self of them before he makes reparation on the gallows tree for having dared to bear arms against her highness." 

Father O'Dowd and the condemned man were allowed to retire apart, and the latter, pale but manful in that terrible hour, murmured his confession and gave the friar some last messages for his wife and children. The soldiery, their steel morions and breastplates shining in the rays that streamed through the broken windows, looked on with scowling con- tempt and impatience, at intervals uttering a profane command to make haste. At length, hardly giving time for the words of absolution, they seized the doomed captive and dragged him away. With anguish in his heart and tears in his eyes the friar knelt at the altar to pray for the parting soul. After a time a hand shook him rudely by the shoulder and a finger pointed to the window. Swaying beneath the masses of shimmering light and shade made by the foliage of a large ash was the body of the unfortunate Bourke. 

“Now, friar, for your turn," said the English commander. “That must have been a very interesting story yon swinging rebel told you. Its secrets will suit the service of her highness. Tell it to me." 

Friar John arose and gazed down with calm surprise and scorn on the insolent face of his interlocutor, who was a full foot beneath him in stature. 

 “Mean you,” he inquired with dignity, “that I shall break the seal of the confessional ?” 

 “I mean,” said the officer, nervously twitching his ruff and fingering his sword hilt, “that for the service of our gracious Queen you shall reveal to me the secrets which the traitor confided to you or else share his fate. Come, sirrah, give me at once a clear account of all he told you.” 

“That I may not and shall not do.” “No trifling, shaveling!” thundered the officer. “Refuse to reveal all and this minute you shall hang.” 

 “Sir, I refuse,” said the intrepid friar, with quiet dignity and resolution. 

“Take him out and hang him,” commanded the Queen’s man with a volley of oaths. Then, reconsidering, he said : “Hold, he shall tell in spite of himself; I know a sure way of loosening the tongues of such as he.” 

Then in the sacred precincts of Moyne, before the altar of God, occurred a dread scene of excruciating human torture. The friar was seized, his hands were tied behind his back, the cord of St. Francis was taken from his waist and bound around his temples, with a turning lever behind by which it could be tightened at will. A torturer seized the lever and gave it a sudden wrench. The victim’s face quivered with agony. 

 “The confession?” 


 The Divine Spirit that strengthened St. John Nepomucene in his hour of trial also strengthened John O’Dowd. Before him was the altar, which, although now its broken and desecrated tabernacle no longer contained the Holy of Holies, its crucifix was torn down and the sanctuary lamp extinguished, served to raise his mind to the glorious crown of martyrdom so near his grasp. And there lay the tombs of his kindred, noble saints and warriors whose memories would be sullied did he dare to violate his sacred duty or be false to the grand old faith that his ancestors received from Saint Patrick. Undismayed by the crowd of pitiless faces and steel-clad forms that surrounded them he resolutely ignored them and turned his thoughts to heaven. 

 “Another turn or two. Come, the confession.” 

The sweat of agony covered his compressed temples. His eyes protruded as if in horror from their sockets, but his lips moved in prayer. 

 “The obstinate fool!” cried the chief of the miscreants, fuming with baffled rage. “Turn harder and harder.” 

The victim slipped through the hands of the torturers and lay motionless on the floor. 

 “Take off that cord and pick him up. He is only in a faint or shamming. We shall soon make him speak.” 

But no; the saintly John O’Dowd, constant to the death, had in mercy been taken out of the cruel hands of his persecutors, wreak what ignominy they might on the lifeless remains of the brave martyr. Triumphant in death he had passed away, bearing the palm of victory, to join the white-robed host that follows the Lamb.

P. G. Smyth,  'Friar O'Dowd's Victory', The Rosary Magazine, Vol 23, (July-December, 1903), 218-222.

Content Copyright © De Processu Martyriali 2020-2023. All rights reserved

Saturday, 4 February 2023

Thomas Leverous, Bishop of Kildare: 'an example of fidelity to God and man worthy both of honour and of imitation.'


Although his name is not to be found on the Official List of Irish Martyrs, the courageous witness of Thomas Leverous, Bishop of Kildare (d. 1577), is among those cases documented by the martyrologists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of the works in which he features is the De Processu Martyriali published in 1619 by David Rothe, Bishop of Ossory. The exact year of Thomas Leverous's birth has not been preserved but he was, as we shall see, a close contemporary of Gerald Fitzgerald, ninth Earl of Kildare (1487-1534), with whom he was raised as a foster-brother. The future bishop was thus closely involved in the political machinations surrounding the Fitzgeralds and eventually accompanied his foster-brother's heir into exile in France in 1540. There Father Leverous enjoyed the patronage of the English Cardinal Pole until he returned to Ireland and received a royal pardon in 1549. With the accession of Queen Mary in 1553, Cardinal Pole was in a position to reward those Irish Catholics who had not compromised with the new state religion. In 1555 Leverous was offered the vacant bishopric of Kildare and appointed Dean of the restored cathedral chapter of St Patrick in Dublin. With his former young charge returned from exile and confirmed as eleventh earl of Kildare, Leverous acted as one of his senior advisors and at that point the future must have seemed very bright indeed. All was overturned, however, with the accession of Queen Mary's half-sister Elizabeth in 1558 and Bishop Leverous quickly became a thorn in the side of the authorities. In the Irish parliament of 1560 he spoke out against the plans to introduce the royal supremacy over the church and courageously followed through on his words by refusing to take the oath of supremacy when it was tendered to him on February 4. Although the concept of any monarch exercising spiritual authority over the Church was anathema to a Catholic, the fact that the new monarch was female presented Bishop Leverous with particular grounds on which to base his opposition. For did not the historic witness of the Church, from the Scriptures to the Church Fathers, preclude a woman from exercising such authority? Having been swiftly removed from his episcopal office as a result of his refusal to take the oath, the former Bishop Leverous earned his livelihood by keeping a grammar school in the village of Adare, about ten miles from Limerick. As a schoolmaster he continued to witness for the Catholic faith until his death in 1577.  Below is the account of Bishop Leverous from De Processu Martyriali, as translated by Myles O'Reilly:

Anno 1577


I GIVE his life, translated from the work of Dr. Roothe, Bishop of Ossory.

"The memory of those deserves to be preserved who have left to posterity an example of fidelity to God and man worthy both of honour and of imitation. Such was the Right Rev. Thomas Leverous, who was born in a village of the county Kildare, of a family bound by old ties of clientship to the illustrious family of Kildare in the same county.

"In the reign of Henry VIII., when schism was already impending over England, Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare and Viceroy of Ireland, was summoned to England at the instigation of his enemies and by the advice of Cardinal Wolsey, who was then all-powerful and not at all favourable to the Geraldines. The earl was accused of being unfaithful to the king, and of having in his office of viceroy connived at rebels and disturbers. He was thrown into prison, and the news inflamed the youthful mind of his eldest son, Thomas Geraldine, who had been left by his father to exercise his power in his absence. When he received the news of his father's arrest, he handed back the sword of state to the chancellor and privy council, and, with courage worthy of a man, but the folly of a child, took up arms against the king, (A.D. 1534.) But this furious outburst was soon quelled with the death of its author and five of his uncles, the only one of the family who was saved being Gerald Geraldine, the youngest son, who was hidden by a faithful nurse from the rage of his enemies. But as it was said that this escape was favoured by Leonard, Lord Gray, he afterward paid the penalty of this connivance with his head. But how could so young a boy take to flight, or, if he did, how could he effect it successfully, at so young an age and surrounded by so many dangers? Nor could any common man give a shelter to a youth of so noble a race without it being remarked. But the affectionate care of his nurse shone forth in this emergency, and she had as a partner in her trouble, and the guide of her flight, the Thomas Leverous of whom I now write.

"He was as a father to the youth while he grew up, and by constant flight eluded the snares of his enemies; and a guide and counsellor when he grew up and travelled in foreign lands. When he was named to the bishopric of Kildare, he lost nothing of his humility, gentleness of mind, piety, and Christian charity; yea, rather, his lowliness of spirit and contempt of worldly honors and riches increased as he was elevated in dignity and wealth.

"When, after the death of Henry VIII. and Edward VI., Queen Mary, the daughter of the former and sister of the latter, restored the exiled Gerald to his rank and title, his faithful friend and guardian, Thomas Leverous, was established in the bishopric of Kildare.

"That diocese is ample and honorable, the land thereof is rich, the inhabitants numerous, and embrace many noble families; but of these by far the most numerous and most honorable is that of the Geraldines. His bishopric Thomas enjoyed during the reign of Queen Mary, but at her death, when her sister Elizabeth succeeded to the crown by the will of her father, she gave instructions to the viceroy, the Earl of Sussex, to tender the oath of the queen's ecclesiastical supremacy to the bishops of Ireland, and to drive from their sees whoever should refuse to take it.

"When Bishop Leverous was summoned by Sussex to take the oath, and he refused to take it, as being against his conscience, the earl asked him for what reason he denied that the queen was the head of the church, since so many illustrious men, and so many doctors and bishops, both in. England and Ireland, had acknowledged her as such. But he gave for answer only such a simple reason as any common man might understand, namely, that all true ecclesiastical jurisdiction must come from Christ our Lord; and, since he had not given even the smallest share of ecclesiastical power to his Mother, so glorious and so dear, so adorned with virtues and honors, how much less could such supreme jurisdiction be given to anyone of the same sex! St. Paul would not allow any woman even to speak in church: how much more are all excluded from judging, ruling, and presiding! St. John Chrysostom well expressed the mind of our Lord (lib. ii., De Sacerdotio) when he thus spoke of all persons of that weaker sex: 'When the question is of the headship of the church, and of entrusting to one the care of so many souls, the whole feminine sex must, by its nature, be excluded from a task of such weight.' So also Tertullian: 'It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church, nor to teach, nor to offer, nor to claim a share in such offices reserved to men, much less in that of the priesthood.'
"And were it not that they are unfitted by nature and the condition of their sex from such exercise of authority, he who on earth raised his Mother to a dignity above all others, and above all women, and in heaven has placed her on a throne next to himself, would not have lowered her by refusing her an honor fitted to her sex, and which others of that sex might enjoy. But since by nature it was not fitting that women should share in it, it was no dishonor to his Mother not to participate in the jurisdiction which her Son conferred. Hence it followed that Elizabeth could not lawfully take, nor her father Henry give, nor any parliament bestow on women that authority which Christ gave, and which was, as the Scripture says, 'a fountain sealed up ' to those men to whom he assigned it who bears on his shoulder the key of the house of David, and who gave to Peter his keys, by which the gate of heaven is shut and opened.

"The answer of the bishop pleased not the viceroy, who drove him from his bishopric as unworthy of the honor who thus dishonored his queen; yet he, with a sincere mind, sought not to deprive her of any just honor, but only refused her an unlawful title and a vain figment of honor devised by flatterers, and which became not her head, adorned with an earthly crown." Driven thus from his cathedral see, and deprived of its revenues humble and poor like Christ, he sought a strange and distant shelter in a distant district, rejoicing to suffer contumely for the name of Christ. As he had answered the viceroy when he threatened him with deprivation of all his goods and expulsion from his see unless he bowed him to the queen's will, 'What,' said he, 'will it avail a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul' ? Thus he esteemed all things as dirt that he might gain Christ. O generous champion of Christ! who to prepare for the fight threw away all burdens, great was thy faith, great thy zeal for the faith, and great the reward laid up for thee in heaven! Thus was this aged man, of venerable appearance, unfitted for any business save the care of souls and the upholding of ecclesiastical discipline, compelled to turn his aged limbs to tasks fitted only for the youthful;— the labors of a toilsome journey and a distant flight. When he was young, he went into voluntary exile for the sake of another; now, aged, he was compelled to seek his own living in exile. But he could console himself with the wise words of the great St. Leo (Serm, 9, De Quad.): "As it is the occupation of the whole body to live piously, so it is the occupation of all time to bear the cross." No age, no time, no place, no state in this our mortal life, can insure the servants of Christ from bearing the cross; and there is often more danger from a concealed adversary than from an open enemy.

"In order, therefore, that he might secure his own safety, and be of service also to others, he went to Gerald, Earl of Desmond, and the Countess Joan, his wife, and the mother of Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond, a wise and prudent heroine; and, being hospitably received by them, he kept himself with all prudence and peacefulness, lest he should bring any trouble on those who sheltered him.
"By his assiduity in his sacred ministry, he abundantly compensated the generosity of his host, and his piety, modesty sobriety of life and fervor in promoting the divine honor made him acceptable to the neighboring nobles and the inhabitants, among whom he sedulously labored to preserve them from the novelties of heresy. He was constant in admonishing and exhorting in all fitting time and place, and performing the work of a bishop; and labored like a simple priest in administering the sacraments, and found such labors sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.
"When, however, prudence required him to abstain from these exercises in places where he was well known or which were near his ordinary residence, his charity could not endure to be idle, but he cheerfully removed to more remote districts, and, like the busy bee, ever sought new fields of work.

"He travelled through various districts, instructing all, both old and young, with the same zeal, with teachings adapted to the age and intelligence of each; and the venerable bishop, in these labors, never thought of his rank or age, and even taught boys, like a common pedagogue, not only the elements of rhetoric and grammar, but even to read; and this not only in country villages, as in the village of Adare, in the territory of Connaught, but in municipal towns and noted places, as in Limerick, where he opened a school, and had for teacher under him Richard Creagh, then young, but who was afterward Archbishop of Armagh and Primate, of whom we have written more at length in the beginning of these notes.

"How noble a school, in which the teachers were so distinguished! how well cultivated the field, in which the laborers were so skilled ! how fruitful the seminary, planted by such noble founders ! how glorious the lecture-hall, in which such great doctors taught! Would that I might enter that school to hear you, Leverous and Creagh, teaching even the rudiments of philology to the tender minds of youth, as a preparation for the higher mysteries of the faith, and forming their souls at once in learning and virtue! I may well address you in the words which St. Augustine uses of Saints Peter and Andrew when called by our Lord: 'Leaving their fishing, they adhered to him, or if they left him for a time, to return again they did as is written: "Let thy foot wear the doorstep of his house; arise and come to him assiduously and learn his precepts." He showed them where he dwelt, and they came and dwelt with him. What a happy day and night did they pass! Who may tell us what they heard from Christ? Let us also build up in our hearts a dwelling for him, that he may come and teach us and dwell with us.'

"Our Lord taught Peter and Andrew, and they taught the world: the same Lord taught Richard and Thomas, and they, by their teaching, made wise unto salvation the little world of Ireland. From their school came forth worthy disciples, zealous laborers, who gathered an abundant harvest into the granary of the Lord: the one labored in the north, the other in the south. Were there no other monument of their piety, their labors in teaching youth were deserving of commemoration. Well hath Plutarch said: 'As the limbs of new-born children should be laid straight, that they may so grow up, so also their minds should be trained to virtue; for that early age is easily moulded, and discipline is better implanted in their minds, which are yet impressionable, while when age has hardened them they are more difficult to change.' What I before said of his colleague [Richard Creagh] is yet more applicable to Leverous, who the more deserves our admiration in that he was a bishop when he thus devoted himself to the labor of teaching youth. Thus did he ever strive to preserve the faith in his country and hand it over to posterity, and after having thus labored to the end, he went to receive at the hand of his Lord and God the crown he had earned by his labors. He died at the age of eighty, and was buried in the town of Naas, which, after the cathedral city, is the principal town in the diocese of Kildare. The towns-people unanimously assert that he has been honored by miracles. He died about the year 1577." — Roothe, De Processu Martyriali.

 M. O'Reilly, Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, (New York 1869), 44-51.

Content Copyright © De Processu Martyriali 2020-2023. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, 31 January 2023

'One who was a an example to future generations': Blessed Francis Taylor


At the end of January 1621, a long period of imprisonment, impoverishment and humiliation finally came to an end for Francis Taylor (Tayler, Tailler), a once-prominent citizen of Dublin who had been involved in the capital city's civic, commercial and political life at the highest level.  Born around the year 1550 into a wealthy merchant family in Swords, County Dublin, the Taylors were one of the 'Old English' families of the Pale who remained loyal to the Catholic faith, a loyalty which would ultimately cost Francis his life. Although it would be another three and a half centuries before he would be officially beatified, the cause of Francis Taylor's martyrdom was first promoted a few years after his death by Cork martyrologist John Mullan (Joannes Molanus) in his Idea togatae constantiae published from exile in Paris in 1629. Sadly, he does not provide much biographical detail but does provide the testimony of contemporary witnesses to the character of the martyred man. Mullan's account was translated by Father Denis Murphy in his 1896 work Our Martyrs:

1621. Francis Tailler.

(From Molanus' Idea, p.96)

He passed several years in prison in Dublin, and endured in it all the hardships of cold and confinement. Broken down by sufferings, he exchanged this brief life for eternity, in the year 1621. We have the following testimony borne to his merits by the Archbishop and several of the leading clergy of the city: -

We, the undersigned, having been asked to declare what we know with certainty of the manner of life and of the death of Francis Tailler, senator of Dublin, and resolved to give to virtue the praise it deserves, and to all good men the honour due to them even after death, testify and declare from certain knowledge that the aforesaid Francis Tailler, senator of the City of Dublin, was by far the most respected of the senators of Dublin, and not only that he was of good repute and much honoured by all good men, but so faithful to God that though advanced in years, and respected for his virtue and constancy which was tested by various persecutions and imprisonment at the hands of the enemies of the Catholic Church, yet he could never be induced to swerve by a hair's breadth from the profession of the Catholic faith and obedience to the Church of Rome.  Wherefore, after an imprisonment of seven years, worn out by old age and the hardships of the prison, he died in the Castle of Dublin on January 30th, 1621. So we testify, and in proof of our good faith, we gladly subscribe our names and set our seals to the same.

Given in Dublin, in Ireland, August 17th, 1630.

Thomas Fleming, Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland.

Luke Rochfort, P.P. of St Audeon's.

 Patrick Cahill, Rector of St. Mary's Galtrim.

Fr. Dominic Nugent, of the Order of Preachers.

Henry Cusack, Superior of the Residence S.J., Dublin.

The second testimonial Mullan solicited mentions the various public offices once held by the martyr:

I wish to add my testimony to what is know by public report and spread abroad by the abundant testimony of many persons, and to show my respect for one who was an example to future generations, and whose memory we can never sufficiently commend. Francis Tayler was sprung from an ancient noble family both on the father's and the mother's side, and filled several public offices with great credit, as that of Mayor, Treasurer, and Senator, in fine, in the City of Dublin, the metropolis of Ireland.  But he was far more illustrious by his profession of the Catholic faith, to which he was very much attached all his life. He put the crown to this constancy and to his other great virtues by a glorious death after an imprisonment of seven years in the Castle of Dublin, on the 20th of January, 1621.

In testimony whereof I have set my name and seal to these presents.

Given in Paris, May 4th, 1631.

Thomas Mede, Protonotary of the Holy Roman Church, formerly Almoner of the Most Illustrious Cardinal de BĂ©rulle.

Rev. Denis Murphy, S.J. , Our Martyrs, (Dublin, 1896), pp. 260-261.

The surviving records confirm that Francis Taylor was indeed an active member of the local government of Dublin City, acting not only as Mayor and Treasurer but as an agent, presenting the city's concerns directly at the court of Queen Elizabeth:

 1st April, 1597.

Francis Taylor and William Gough, alderman, to be the city agents for exhibiting suits to the Queen, they to be ready to take shipping for England by 10th April.

Berry, Henry F. “Minute Book of the Corporation of Dublin, Known as the ‘Friday Book,' 1567-1611.” PRIA, vol. 30, 1912, pp. 477–514.

What Mullen's account, however, does not explain are the circumstances in which this highly-regarded city father ended his days in prison. The imprisonment of Blessed Francis Taylor took place in the context of a deteriorating political situation for Dublin's Old English Catholic elite. As we have seen above, by the end of the sixteenth century Francis Taylor was acting as the city agent, representing the Irish capital in person at the court of Elizabeth I. His Catholicism then was clearly not a barrier to his moving in political circles at the highest level. He was not associated with violent resistance to the English crown, but was rather its loyal servant. Yet his ability to navigate the swiftly-turning tide of intolerance towards those who refused to conform to the new state religion was becoming increasingly compromised. The death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 initially led Catholics to believe that the reign of the new monarch, James I, son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, would herald a new era of toleration. Ten years later it was apparent that these hopes were futile. The government made clear its determination to quash Catholic resistance by holding a parliament which would introduce anti-Catholic measures and ensure that the Irish capital would reflect the Protestant religious ethos the state had embraced, even if so many of its leading Old English citizens had not. In 1612 it reinforced the message with the public execution of Bishop Conor O'Devany O.F.M. along with secular priest Father Patrick O'Loughran on charges of treason. This brutal event and the show trial which had preceded it were intended to send a message to the city's Catholic elite: the days of the authorities tolerating their unwillingness to accept the religious settlement were over.  From now on recusancy would have consequences.  However, this strategy backfired spectacularly and rather than being cowed into submission by the executions, the resolve of Dublin's Catholics was strengthened. Contemporary observers noted that the streets of the capital were lined with people watching as the priest and the bishop were being dragged off to the scaffold, but this was no common mob, for we are told that the crowds included many of the leading families of the Pale. It is more than likely that respected city father, Francis Taylor, was among them. 

The executions of Bishop O'Devany and Father O'Loughran marked a turning point for the Dublin Catholic elite. I am sure that a politician as experienced and skilful as Francis Taylor would have recognized that he was running out of room to manoeuvre. The community, however, made one last show of defiance. The Dublin Catholics took advantage of the absence of the Mayor of the city on April 20, 1613 to call the election of two members to represent the city and chose Francis Taylor and fellow-Catholic Thomas Allen. Mayor Sir James Carroll returned the next day and was not amused by this fait accompli, knowing that it would incur the wrath of his political masters who were determined to secure a Protestant majority in the new parliament. They had already created new boroughs, dominated not by the Old English but by the New, Protestant incomers who had been granted confiscated Irish lands. He therefore ordered the election to be re-run, but this time with the electorate widened to include residents of the borough who were not native-born. One contemporary English observer recorded that this decision sparked a riot, as the Dublin Catholics forcibly ejected all Englishmen from the city hall and would not allow anyone who did not represent their community to speak. The proceedings had to be abandoned and Mayor Carroll faced the ire of Lord Deputy Chichester, who ordered him to reconvene at an open-air venue at Hoggen Green and invite all the citizens resident in the borough, whatever their origins, to attend. Despite the protests of the Catholic electors that their earlier election of Francis Taylor and Thomas Allen had been valid, the outcome was that two Protestant candidates were chosen to replace them. Subsequent legal challenges to this result were ignored and Francis Taylor was thus denied the opportunity to represent Dublin in the new parliament.

The clock was now ticking for Blessed Francis and for his ability to continue to operate in the world of politics. As Doctor Colm Lennon, who authored the official report on Francis Taylor, submitted as part of the beatification process, notes:

Francis Taylor's Catholicism was not mentioned in any official record until the time of his election when he was referred to by Sir Robert Jacob on 26 May [1613] as a 'most Spanish and seditious schismatique'. 

C. Lennon, The Lords of Dublin in the Age of Reformation (Irish Academic Press, 1989), 202.

This description seems very wide of the mark. Francis Taylor was a conservative figure who was not involved in any kind of armed insurrection of the type that the adjective 'Spanish' would appear to imply. There is no evidence that he was intriguing with members of the Spanish court or asking for an invasion force to be sent to Ireland to restore him and his community to their traditional place in society. His real crime was not 'sedition' but recusancy. 

The exact sequence of events which followed is difficult to reconstruct, thanks to gaps in the historical record. Colm Lennon speculates that the government may have moved against him in 1614, possibly meting out a large fine. What is known from the records is that Francis Taylor was elected as treasurer for the last time in 1615.  Two years later he was petitioning to be excused certain debts and arrears because of his 'present troubles', 'weake habillitye' and 'distressed estate'. He makes no reference to his former lands and properties in his will dated January 4, 1621 and indicates that his wife was now residing in their son's house in High Street. His stand for Catholicism had cost him not just his career as a politician but also his former status as a man of substance. By the end of January 1621 it would also cost him his life. 

It is not known exactly when the arrest of Francis Taylor took place and surviving accounts suggest a number of different dates. Whilst the government wished to be rid of this able opponent, they had learnt the lessons from the 1612 public execution of Bishop O'Devany. It was therefore more expedient to remove the threat of Francis Taylor by imprisoning rather than killing him. By the start of 1621, when he drew up his will, he was dying and his life came to an end either on the 29th or on the 30th of January. He had requested in his will that he be buried in Saint Audoen's church in Dublin, the city he had served so faithfully and capably for many years.

It is clear from the witness testimony gathered by Mullan that the sacrifices Francis Taylor made for the sake of his faith were not forgotten by those who had known him. He was a man who preferred to lose everything - career, social position, wealth, liberty and life itself- for the sake of conscience.

Francis Taylor is Number 122 on the 1918 Official List of Irish Martyrs whose names were submitted to Rome for official consideration. On September 27, 1992 he was one of the seventeen Irish martyrs beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II.


Content Copyright © De Processu Martyriali 2020-2023. All rights reserved.

Saturday, 24 December 2022

The Most Important Christmas Custom

We conclude the series on how Mass in the Penal Era in Ireland was presented to an Irish-American audience at Christmas time with a final offering from the Boston-based newspaper The Sacred Heart Review. In 'The Most Important Christmas Custom' the writer examines why the Christmas Midnight Mass was of such importance to the people of Ireland and suggests that it was because people were forced to gather before dawn during the penal era. He then goes on to draw a parallel between Our Lady and Saint Joseph being forced to retire to 'a cavern in the rock' when there was no room at the inn and the Irish people being forced by the penal laws to retire to underground caverns to celebrate the Mass. Thus once again we see it suggested that despite the harsh physical conditions in which the Christmas Mass was celebrated in Ireland at this time, the spiritual quality of the worship was something special:



"Of the Christmas customs of Catholic Ireland in its glory," wrote O. B. M. in the Catholic Columbian, a few years ago, "we have not even the records nor the traditions. All was destroyed. We have but the English records of laws that proscribed them, that intended to destroy the faith itself, and whose authors vainly thought they had succeeded. 

"But the faith survived in Ireland and Christmas in its essence survived with it. The laws of the persecutor aimed at the destruction of all things Catholic; but it singled out for special proscription the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Catholic religion was for the time banished, outlawed. The celebration of the Mass was especially penalised. For 276 years the Mass was proscribed and yet the Mass never ceased to be offered. The people retired to the hillsides, to the glens, and to underground caverns and there often before the dawn assembled around the altar whereon the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered. 

"In those years the Christmas Midnight Mass was, therefore, the great central observance; and it remains so to-day in Ireland as it does not in any other country. Some readers may remember the picture which Carleton in his 'Willy Reilly' draws of a Mass in the penal days celebrated in an underground cavern. How could a Christmas come nearer to the literal repetition of Bethlehem than a Midnight Mass in Ireland under such conditions? The central fact of Christmas is the presence of God the Saviour in the flesh. Here the people had Him present upon the altar. It was to a cavern in the rock that the Blessed Mother and Joseph retired, 'because there was no room for them in the Inn.' Here the Catholic people retired because they were hunted from the towns and even from the face of the earth but they had the Saviour present with them all, visible to the eyes of faith. The shepherds did not see the Godhead but believed the word that was given them from heaven and adored Him present on the Altar. 

"It is not strange, therefore, that in Ireland the early Mass on Christmas day is the great central fact of the celebration. Three hundred years during which it was their only consolation have trained the people to this. In the country districts it is now celebrated not at midnight but in the very early morning. But to the young, especially in this northern latitude, five o'clock on Dec. 25 is equivalent to midnight."

The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 54, Number 26, 11 December 1915.

 Content Copyright © De Processu Martyriali 2020-2022. All rights reserved

Friday, 23 December 2022

Mass in the Penal Days

We turn away today from accounts in the popular religious press on the theme of Christmas Mass in Penal Era Ireland to a sermon given by Archbishop John Joseph Glennon (1862–1946), a native of County Westmeath who served as Archbishop of St. Louis from 1903 until his death in 1946. Below is an extract from a 1910 sermon he delivered in Saint Patrick's Church in Montreal during the Eucharistic Congress. Although the Archbishop is not directly addressing the specifically seasonal aspects of Mass at the Penal Rock, nevertheless he alludes to many of the features we associate with it, from the 'sad-visaged' priest to the necessity for lookouts and the potentially dire consequences of discovery. Indeed, it is because both celebrant and congregation are so intently focused on the most solemn part of the liturgy that the authorities are able to close in. I note too that like other commentators Archbishop Glennon favourably compares the natural outdoor setting of Mass in the Penal Days with anything a gilded cathedral had to offer:

Mass in the Penal Days
From Sermon of His Grace, Archbishop Glennon at Montreal.
September 10th, 1910 

Extract from Sermon delivered by His Grace, Archbishop Glennon, of St. Louis, in St. Patrick's Church, Montreal, on September 10th, 1910, during the Eucharistic Congress

"IT is not inopportune that in this Eucharistic Congress, this litany of nations in the praise of their King, that I should speak a word, that I should strike a chord, though it be in a minor key,  for the nation whose apostle is patron of this sacred edifice, and whose exiled sons have made possible its building. I would pass by the days of the schoolmen, and come to those latter days, namely the penal times in Ireland, the long weary years when the Catholic Church was persecuted, when a price was set on every 'Mass priest', when the churches were alienated, desecrated, burned; and the entire country pillaged and its people driven to the mountains or into the sea. And this dread visitation, unlike the storm that passes, unlike the plague that eats its lethal way, not for a season, but for over three hundred years, brooded over the land, its darkness lighted only by the ascending fires of burning homes, or the gleaming swords of the brutal soldiers. It is easy to serve in fair weather: the test of devotion comes when human life is the forfeit. The Irish people stood the test, their land to-day is hallowed by the ashes of a hundred thousand martyrs of the Blessed Sacrament, while the survivors, praying their 'De profundis' for the dead, cling still to the 'Mass priest', and their fealty tried by fire is all the truer to their King. 

It was during the burning days that the 'Mass priest', sad-visaged and hunted, gathered his flock out in the mountain fastness, or in the shaded valleys. Knowing that the enemy was near, outposts were set so as to guard the approach, and give the signal of threatening danger. The candles were lighted, the priest puts on the sacred vestments. It is not a scene to attract the eye of the worldling; there are no marble columns, no tabernacle of gold, no fretted roof, no dim visted aisle, no organ pealing, no glorious chant, no censer swinging. But for people such as these around, love crowns all, love transforms all. For them the censor swings, for, is there not the perfume of the wild flowers that bloom there, of purple heath, of fragment hawthorn; vistas, there are, too, just as nature made them in rich nature's temple, for down the valley are the dim aisles of the forest trees. And for a sacrificial chant, they have the song of birds, and the murmur of their own heart's love, the love of Irish hearts for their faith and their Lord; of all others on this earth that we know of, the tenderest, the truest, the best.

Yet little time have they now to think of those things. The Mass is commenced. The priest has invoked the mercy of God— 'Lord have mercy on us'; he prays for the living and the dead. He reaches the solemn act that brings the Saviour down to His poor people. With bowed heads and reverent, the people murmur words of welcome, satisfied that, though by all the world forgotten, yet will He not forget them.

But why the alarm? Alas, these moments absorbed in worship are taken advantage of; the enemy, the soldiers of the King, are around them. The cry, repeated in the long ago, is heard again, We have no king but Caesar.' 'Down with the Mass'— 'Death to the Mass priest'— it is the tragedy of Calvary again, only to the tragedy is added the desecration. The blood of the Saviour and his priest flow together, and the dying lips of the priest whisper their last words on earth, 'Go, the sacrifice is over.' Quite true it is that the penal days in Ireland have ended long ago, and if the memory of them remain, it is not in bitterness nor revenge. No, they are thinking now, not of their persecutors, but how best they may honor and serve in the days of their religious freedom the King they followed during the long night of their persecution. Now they will restore him to the churches they build, churches to take the place of their older temples, from which He has been driven, and they have been despoiled. They will cross the seas bearing the standard of their King."


Content Copyright © De Processu Martyriali 2020-2022. All rights reserved