Monday 22 June 2020

Our Martyrs - II

We continue with Father Denis Murphy's analysis of the canonisation process in the second of his papers on the subject, published in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record of 1892. He gives a comprehensive overview of the legal procedure by which the cause of the martyrs is judged, involving the summoning of witnesses and the recording of evidence. He compares this stage of the process to that of a grand jury and makes the point that in the case of our Irish martyrs some of the strongest evidence in their favour comes from hostile, Protestant witnesses:


IN the last number of the I. E. Record we gave a short account of what might be called the remote preparation for the inquiry to be held by the bishop, which precedes the examination of the case before the Roman tribunal. We are speaking here only of the ordinary course of procedure, the object of which is to obtain information in reference to the repute of martyrdom and the report of the miracles wrought, to be transmitted in due time to the Holy See. We shall now treat briefly of the Court itself, of its constitution, and of its mode of procedure.

By law and by custom, the bishop of the diocese, in virtue of his office, presides in the Court. But it may happen that other more urgent duties prevent him from undertaking what is often an inquiry that will extend over a considerable time. Then he may depute another bishop to take his place, or his vicar-general, or another ecclesiastical dignitary; but in the two last cases, two others must be joined with him, one of whom should be a master of sacred theology, the other a graduate in canon law. Before entering on his duty, the judge is to take oath that he will perform his duty faithfully, and keep the secrets which are made known to him in his official capacity; and as for the form of the oath, if he is a bishop, standing before the book of the Gospels, he lays his band on his breast, and pronounces the oath; if he is a priest, he takes the oath kneeling. This is the manner in which the oath is taken by all the officials of the Court and by the witnesses that appear before it. A censure attaches to the violation of it, ipso facto, absolution from which is reserved to the Pope.

The place where the Court is to be held must be a locus sacer, a public church, a public oratory, the chapel in a bishop's house, or the oratory in a private house in which mass is said. In the case of a cathedral or large church, the special part of it where the Court sits must be mentioned as the chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary or to a saint; and this is styled technically the locus loci.

We have already spoken of the Postulator, and of the duties which he has to perform. A few words about each of the other officials.

A very important office is that of the Promotor Fidei, vulgarly styled the devil's advocate, though this title can hardly be claimed in its full extent by the Promotor in the preliminary inquiry; it belongs in its plenitude to him who discharges the duties of Promotor when the case is brought before the Holy See for final examination. His duty is to see that everything is done in a strictly legal way, and in case of omission or commission to enter a formal protest against what has been done improperly. No Session of the Court can be held validly unless he is present, and his presence duly registered in the Acts of the Session. He gives in the questions that are to be put to the witnesses, both of a general kind and also such as are suggested by the articles which the Procurator lays before the Court, and which he means to prove in a way that we shall speak of later. These questions are kept sealed by the Judge, and are not to be opened unless when the witness is going to be examined and in the Promotor's presence. At the end of each Session they are closed up and sealed, with the answers of the witnesses, until the whole process is ended. When a copy is made of the Acts, to be transmitted to the Holy See, it is his duty to take care that this copy is an exact transcript of the process in all its parts; and when the copy has been made and duly collated, he must take care that the original, and all the documents connected with it, are sealed up and placed securely in the diocesan archives. There may be more than one Promotor Fidei, if the case is such as to require the aid of a second. But only one need be present during each Session.

The next official is the Notary, who will set down fully and exactly all that takes place during each Session, and takes charge of all documents brought before the Court. When the Court is being constituted he must produce the Letters Patent by which he is appointed, which are to be duly registered in the Acts. As he cannot give testimony on his own behalf, being an interested person, another Notary is called in at the beginning of the first Session, to prove on oath that this official has been duly deputed to act as Notary specially in this case, and that he took the oath, such as the other officials take, to perform the duties of his office faithfully. At the end of each Session he must see that the Acts are signed by the Judge, by the Promotor Fidei, and by the witnesses, if any have been examined, and he attaches to the whole his signature and the seal of his office. After this he closes up the questions of the Promotor and the answers of the witnesses, and keeps them under seal, and so at the end of each Session until the process is complete. When the inquiry is in reference to the repute of sanctity of anyone belonging to a religious Order, a member of the same Order cannot act as Notary of the Court, even though he may have all the powers necessary to act in other matters concerning that Order. And this under pain of nullity of the Acts, incurred by the very fact.

The officials may not change places, nor can one of them take the place of another who has withdrawn from the case. The purpose of this law is to prevent all fraud or deceit, or even the slightest semblance of either. If, for instance, the Notary could become Postulator in the case, knowing, by reason of his previous office, what are the weak points of the case, what witnesses would support his statements, and who would oppose them, he would be tempted to pass over certain matters slightly, and to have only such witnesses summoned as would support him.

The cursor or messenger is appointed by the bishop. His chief duty is to notify to the judge and the other officials the day and hour appointed for each session, and to summon the witnesses whom the judge cites to appear at the demand of the Procurator or of the Promoter. Clerics or nobles are usually chosen for this office.

The witnesses are cited to appear by the messenger; no "lestis ultroneus," i.e., who appears without being cited, is admitted to give testimony. They take an oath on the Gospels to speak the truth on the interrogatories and articles upon which they will be examined, and to keep the secret, and not to reveal to anyone what is contained in their interrogatories or the depositions which they will make in respect of them or the articles, and not to speak about them except to the judge, the Promotor Fidei, and the notary. The postulator may show them beforehand the articles on which they are to be examined, in order that they may prepare their answers so as to give them more fully and exactly; but he may not suggest to them the answers which they are to give. If they omit anything of importance, or find on further consideration that some statement made in the course of their examination was incorrect, they can amend it at a sitting of the court. Each of them need not give evidence on all the articles; he gives it on such only as he is competent to deal with. A mere "yes" or "no" is not taken as an answer. Nor will an answer in writing be accepted; but a witness can read from his own writing an answer which he wishes to give, especially when the answer is a long one, and deals with facts or dates which he has set down on paper for the sake of greater accuracy. When an interpreter is needed, he is sworn to perform his duty faithfully. The four questions put to each of the witnesses relates to his fitness to appear before such a tribunal, and in such a matter; viz., whether he is under any kind of ecclesiastical censure; whether he has received the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist lately; whether he is aware of the penalties attaching by ecclesiastical law to perjury, violation of secrecy, &c, in this case. The examination is continued on the articles. To these the witness answers as fully as he can, either from what he has seen himself or what he has heard by public repute, giving at the same time in each case the source from which he has derived his knowledge. Each of the questions will be put by the Promotor Fidei, as he may think fit. The Notary takes down the evidence in the very words of the witness.

When the witnesses are all examined, and the case formally ended, a copy is taken of the whole process by a sworn copyist. This, when duly collated with the original, is signed and sealed by the judge and the notary. The original is kept in the diocesan archives, and the copy is transmitted to Rome by a person chosen for the purpose; he, too, is sworn to perform his duty faithfully. The judge gives him a letter, signed and sealed, directed to the cardinals of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, informing them that he is the bearer of the process duly carried out, and that on a certain day to be fixed by them he will hand it over to them. This is in brief the mode of procedure in the preliminary inquiry held in the place where the martyrdom took place.

As will be seen at a glance, the nature of this tribunal is analogous to that of a grand jury in English law. What is wanted is that the repute of martyrdom and the nature of the cause for which death was endured should be proved by evidence. It may be asked, how can witnesses depose to facts that happened long before they were born? The answer is, the Church has in view here to establish the public repute of martyrdom by oral testimony. Witnesses can speak as to the traditions of a locality, of a family, of a religious order. To this oral tradition is added the knowledge that is derived from books written at different times and by different persons. Indeed, some of the most valuable testimonies on behalf of our martyrs are found in the works of Protestant writers.

From these two sources of knowledge it cannot be a difficult matter to prove the following propositions—that an Act of Parliament was passed at the instigation of Henry VIII., declaring him supreme head of the Church, and punishing with the penalty of high treason any attempt to deprive him of this title; that the persecution begun under Henry VIII., became more cruel and fierce under Elizabeth; that these laws continued in force, and others also were made, in the reign of James I. and of later sovereigns; in virtue of which laws many Catholics were during the reigns of these sovereigns despoiled of their goods, cast into prison, tortured, and put to a cruel and shameful death; that the servants of God freely accepted death in defence of the Catholic faith, and specially of the supreme authority of the Holy See; that many of them had the option given them of escaping death if they would abandon the Catholic faith and conform to the Protestant religion, but that they persevered to their deaths in the profession of the true faith; that these servants of God have at all times been reputed to have suffered death from hatred of the Catholic faith, and that they have been regarded as true martyrs by the Catholic people and by Catholic writers, and that Catholics have shown their veneration for them in various ways, as by collecting their relics and keeping them with reverence as those of martyrs, and by desiring that their public cultus should be sanctioned by the Church.

In a future number we purpose to give a brief account of the most important books that are the principal sources of the knowledge of our martyrs in detail, which were published at home and abroad in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

D. Murphy, S.J.

Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol XIII (1892), 125-130.

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