Sunday 21 June 2020

Our Martyrs

Below is the first in a series of four short papers published in 1892 by Father Denis Murphy, S.J. (1833-1896), in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record  in which he introduces the background to the cause of the Irish martyrs. It was a task for which he was supremely qualified, having been appointed as Postulator of the cause six years earlier. In this opening paper Father Murphy attempts to explain not only the highly technical process of canonization but also to clarify some general questions on the definition of martyrdom, the seven hundred year hiatus in Irish canonizations and the greater success in official recognition of the English martyrs. Sadly, just four years after these papers were published, having corrected the final proofs of the book Our Martyrs, in which he recorded the lives of nearly two hundred individuals who gave their lives for the faith in the period 1537-1691, Father Murphy died suddenly. His unexpected death was a huge loss to the cause of the Irish martyrs, but thankfully Archbishop William Walsh was able to take Father Murphy's work on to the next stage in the opening decade of the twentieth century.


THE question is sometimes asked: How comes it that Ireland, the Island of Saints, has had no canonized saints for the last seven hundred years? Holy men and holy women in every calling of life surely she has produced in vast numbers—martyrs, confessors, holy virgins. And yet during that time other countries have seen some of their children honoured on their altars; not only Catholic nations, as France, Italy, and Spain, but even Protestant Holland has had her martyrs of Gorcum, and in our own times Protestant England has seen several of those who were put to death during the reigns of Henry VIII. and Elizabeth enrolled in the ranks of the beatified by a solemn decree of the Church.

To such a question we may, perhaps, say an answer will be found in the last instance brought forward, in the history of the process of the English martyrs. Some fifty years ago the English bishops brought the matter under the notice of the Holy See. They asked whether it would not be well to enter then on the preliminary inquiry which, as we shall see, is of absolute necessity before the case can be introduced to the Congregation of Rites. They were told that such action would be just then premature, and that at a future time, perhaps not far off, the case could better be commenced. In 1860, Cardinal Wiseman and the other English bishops petitioned Pius IX. to institute for the whole of England a festival in honour of all the holy martyrs, that would include even those who, though not yet declared to be such, have in latter times for the defence of the Catholic religion, and especially for asserting the authority of the Holy See, fallen by the hands of wicked men, and resisted unto blood. But the petition was not granted, the practice of the Congregation of Rites being that a festival can be instituted in "regard only to those servants of God to whom ecclesiastical honour (cultus) had been already sanctioned by the Holy See." "In these last years "—I quote from the Decree of Beatification of Cardinal Fisher and the others—"a new petition was presented to our Holy Father, the Sovereign Pontiff Leo XIII., by his Eminence Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, the present Archbishop of Westminster, and the other bishops of England, together with the ordinary process which had been there completed, and other authentic documents in which were contained proofs of the martyrdom of those who suffered from the year 1535 to 1683, as also certain concessions of the Roman Pontiffs in regard to some of them;" and as a result the beatification of a considerable number of the English martyrs took place some four years ago.

Here we see an example of what we may call an oeconomicum silentium on the part of the Head of the Church. The wisdom of such a course it is not for us to discuss, much less to censure. We know what a cry of "papal aggression" the appointment of bishops in England caused; what a commotion, ill-grounded indeed, yet real, the pronouncement of the Pope's infallibility raised in our time. By the enemies of the Catholic religion and of the Holy See the beatification of the English martyrs might have been used as a favourable opportunity of raising a clamour of sectarians and unbelievers, to the serious harm of the Church as a whole, and of many of its members. All this holds good in a degree which some will think greater, others perhaps less, in reference to our Irish martyrs. The cases are in very many respects similar; and in dealing with them and their surroundings, prudence and foresight were equally needed in both. If there is anyone whom this explanation of the causes of delay does not satisfy, to him we would address the brief argument—better late than never. More peaceful times have come round: whether owing to increased reverence for the Catholic Church or to less concern about religion of any kind, let others determine; and much may be done safely to-day which the past generation would fear to attempt openly. Yet our martyrs have not been forgotten. Fully two centuries ago a beginning was made in the causes of several of them; and documents duly authenticated, describing their heroic death, were drawn up in Ireland, some by bishops, others by the superiors of religious Orders, to be transmitted in due course to Rome. Some of them would seem to have been lost on the way. Others are in the archives of these Orders or of our colleges in Spain and elsewhere. Some years ago one of our bishops, who had very special facilities for completing such a task, began the preparation of a history of our martyrs, with the ulterior object of bringing their cause before the tribunal of the Holy See. Other duties, however, called him away; not, however, before he left us a most valuable history of three of them, and republished a work hitherto exceedingly rare, containing the best history of the martyrs up to the time when its author wrote—the early years of the seventeenth century. A few years ago the work was resumed. The documents bearing on the cases have been collected together, the list of martyrs duly made out, and the preliminary court of inquiry will be held here immediately.

To come to our subject. What is a martyr? A martyr is primarily a witness; and martyrdom is the testimony offered to divine faith by suffering death voluntarily for the faith, or for some other virtue having relation to God. As baptism in the case of adults, so, too, martyrdom requires the consent of the will. "Martyr quisque esse potest sine voluntate, sed non contra voluntatem," says St. Bernard ; meaning, of course, that an actual intention is not necessary. The Congregation of Rites would not allow the title of martyr to be given to one who had unwittingly drunk a poisoned draught that was given to him "in odium fidei." So, too, he who suffers death while resisting violence by violence, or who takes up arms in self-defence and is slain, or who falls fighting against the infidel, is not reckoned a martyr. Of her martyrs the Church sings ;—

Caeduntur gladiis more bidentium,
Non murmur resonat, non querimonia,
Sed corde impavido mens bene conscia
Conservat patientiam.

Nor are they reckoned martyrs who die of disease—of the plague, for instance —contracted while serving those affected with it, voluntarily and without any other motive than the love of God. F. Theophilus Raynaud, indeed, styled them so; but the S. Congregation of the Index bade him expunge the word, or at least show by an addition to the context that he attached to it a meaning different from that in which it is commonly used.

But death need not follow immediately from the sufferings inflicted; it is enough if death takes place before the cause of suffering is removed. The reason is, that though this suffering does not of itself bring about death, yet when it could be put an end to by denying Christ, he who continues to endure it in order that he may not deny Christ, completes and consummates his testimony by his death. "The constancy of those,"says St. Cyprian,"who, though not put to the torture, yet die a glorious death in prison, is not the less, nor should the honour due to them be diminished, nor should they not be reckoned among the martyrs." And having set forth at some length the proofs of his statement, he concludes: "When to the will and to confession in prison, the end of life is added, the glory of martyrdom is complete."

The number of those who, in consequence of such sufferings as I have described ending in or continued to death, are styled martyrs in the Roman Martyrology, is very great. Instances will be found on January 3rd, of St. Florence, Bishop of Vienne; February 11th, of St. Lucius and his companions; March 6th, of SS. Claudian and Bassa, who died in prison, after being confined there for three years; of St. Felix, who, having confessed Christ, and his torture being deferred, as St. Augustine testifies when addressing the people on the day of his feast, was the following day found dead in prison; and of St. Leocadia, whom Dacian detained for a long time in a cruel prison, where hearing of the frightful torments of St. Eulalia and many other martyrs, she knelt down to pray, and surrendered her pure soul to Christ. Many other instances of the same kind might be found in the Martyrology.

Lastly, it is the cause for which he dies that properly constitutes a martyr, according to the saying of St. Augustine —" Martyrem non poena facit sed causa." It is not suffering death that makes the martyr, but the cause for which he dies. The end or purpose of his death must be to bear testimony to the faith of Christ, either in itself formally, or implicitly as contained in some good work approved by faith. "All good works," St. Thomas tells us, "in so far as they are directed to God, are protestations of faith by which it is made known to us, and in so far they can be the cause of martyrdom." Instances from the Roman Martyrology will occur readily to any one. St. John Nepomucene was a martyr, because he suffered death rather than violate the sacramental seal; St. Alban, who gave himself up rather than surrender the priest whom he had sheltered; St. Thomas Beckett, because he defended the immunity of the Church; and so others too, almost without number.

Many other questions of interest in reference to martyrdom will occur to the reader's mind. The discussion of them would be out of place here. We will confine ourselves to practical matters, such as the mode of procedure necessary for canonization, say, in a case like that of Dermot O'Hurley, Archbishop of Cashel, who was martyred in Dublin, June 19th, 1584. In ancient times the canonization of such a one would be a very short proceeding indeed. No long judicial process would be needed; no tedious delays, extending possibly over centuries. The popular voice would proclaim his virtues, the manner of his death. The bishop would intervene by right of his office and decide the case. But for many centuries past the Holy See has reserved to itself exclusively the right of canonizing saints, and by so doing has given a far higher degree of assurance to the faithful that such persons are the fitting objects of their devotion. The initial stages of the process are now what they were then. The first action comes from the body of the faithful among whom the martyr has suffered death. Some of them were witnesses of his heroism. They will naturally make such an important event as this the subject of their conversation, and so the facts will pass on from one to the other, until they become a matter of public notoriety. Among some of them, at least, there will spring up a reverence for the martyr; this will give rise to a desire to pray to one who has shown his love to God in a way "greater than which no one can show it." Each one will wish that this "cultus" should not be confined to himself and to his private devotions, but he will desire that others should take part in it, and that some public acts of reverence should be shown at certain times, at least—say, on the anniversary of his death—to one who professed his faith so openly before men. Now, here, in virtue of his office, the bishop intervenes; and, as a rule, the bishop of the place where the martyr has suffered death. This will explain what seems at first sight some what paradoxical; why it is, for instance, that Oliver Plunkett and Richard Creagh, both Archbishops of Armagh; John Travers, the Augustinian; Charles Mahony, the Franciscan —all of them Irish, as their names tell plainly—should be placed on the list of English martyrs. The reasonableness of this will appear still clearer as we go on. But the bishop has other duties to perform in his diocese, and he cannot devote his undivided attention to this work alone. He will seek help; and the first he will call in is the Postulator or Procurator of the cause. His appointment is by a formal document, duly signed and sealed by the bishop. It runs somewhat after this fashion :—

" The bishop of ... to our well-beloved in Christ, N.N.—The report of the holiness of the servant of God, A.B., growing day by day, we have thought it right to assent to the wishes of the faithful of Christ, who earnestly desire the beatification and canonization of the aforesaid servant of God, for the greater glory of God and the good of the Church; wherefore we choose and name you, of whose science, and virtue, and skill too, in the management of business, we are assured, to the office of Postulator in the processes belonging to the said cause; giving you all the legal faculties necessary and suitable to enable you to carry on said process, even by another ecclesiastic lawfully substituted by you before judges to be appointed in any ecclesiastical court in the city or elsewhere, to tender any lawful and true oath, call witnesses, and do anything else necessary and suitable for this business until the cause itself, by God's aid, is brought to an issue. Given, &c."

D. Murphy, S.J.
(To be continued.)

Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol XIII (1892), 42-47.

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