Sunday 7 November 2021

'United by the Crown of Martyrdom to the Saints for whom he Laboured': Patrick Fleming, O.F.M.

On November 7, 1631 the murder of an Irish Franciscan near the village of Benešov in the Czech Republic deprived us of one of the leading hagiological scholars of his time. For prior to becoming the first Guardian of the Irish College at Prague earlier that year, Father Patrick Fleming was one of the team of scholars at Louvain who applied themselves to the task of researching and recording the Lives of the Irish saints. Thankfully, before setting out for Prague Father Fleming had left the manuscript containing the fruits of his labours with a publisher at Antwerp and in 1667 it was printed under the title of Collectanea sacra. Irish writer Richard J. Kelly (1856–1931), who was made a freeman of the city of Prague in 1919, summarized the life and work of Father Fleming in a paper delivered to the Royal Irish Academy in 1922:

Father Fleming...was born in 1599, at Lagan, in the parish of Cloondaleen, County Louth, and was the son of Gerald Fleming, of the family of the barons of Slane. He was educated at Douai, then under the care of his uncle, Christopher Cusack, founder and promoter of the Irish Colleges or pensionates at Lille, St. Omer, Antwerp, Douai, and Tournai. Later he was in several colleges, where he occupied himself in copying the lives and works of Irish saints which he had discovered. On the foundation, in 1625, of the College of St. Isidore, in Rome, Fleming was appointed to the Chair of Philosophy. Three years later he was at Louvain, and there prepared for the Press the Life and Works of St. Columbanus. To this he added the "Interpretation Mystica Progenitorum D. Jesus" of St. Aileran; the "Liber Paenitentiarum Mensura" of Cumenaus; the Lives of St. Comgal, of St. Molua, and of St. Mochoe. This collection was printed at Antwerp by Morelius. Soon after this, as we have seen, he was sent to govern the new college at Prague. In October 1631, the Elector of Saxony, having defeated the Imperial forces, advanced to besiege Prague. The Lutheran peasantry began to plunder the Catholic inhabitants, and wreck the religious houses, and, in consequence, the Friars of Prague had to seek safety in flight, Father Fleming, with Matthew Hoare, Patrick Magennis, and Patrick Taafe, and two Servites, departed, leaving the Convent in the hands of Father Geraldine. On the 7th November, as the fugitives approached the little town of Beneschow, seven Hussite peasants seized Father Fleming and his companion and barbarously murdered them. On the morrow the two bodies were found on the road. They were taken to the Convent of Wotitz, four miles from the scene and seven miles from Prague, where they were buried. An inscription in Czech over their graves commemorates their martyrdom.

 R.J.Kelly, 'The Irish Franciscans in Prague (1629-1786): Their Literary Labours', P.R.I.A. 6th ser., Vol.12, No. 2 (December, 1922) pp. 169-174.

Father Fleming's death thus took place against the backdrop of ongoing strife accompanying the Czech Reformation and the Thirty Years War. In these circumstances it must be established that a martyr has met his death for the faith and is not simply an innocent victim of war or of crime. The martyrologists were therefore at pains to stress that the peasants who attacked Father Fleming and his confrère were motivated by religious hostility. Anthony Bruodin, O.F.M., in his 1669 catalogue of Irish martyrs, Propugnaculum Catholicae Veritatis, wrote that the attackers shouted "Mactemus, mactemus monachos, patriae pestes, fideique nostrae hostes" - 'let us kill the monks, the curse of our homeland and the enemies of our faith'. Other accounts speak of the attackers as 'heretics' or 'Hussites'. Father Fleming's collaborator in the work of collecting the Lives of the Irish saints, Father John Colgan, declared in the preface to his Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae that 'He is united by the crown of martyrdom to the saints for whom he laboured'.

A more recent study of the Irish Franciscans in Prague has also acknowledged the difficulties in dissecting the motivation for this murderous attack, given that Father Fleming's body was robbed and that organized bands of robbers were known to be active in the Czech countryside at this time:

It is difficult to say whether the villagers were motivated by religious fanaticism, as Bruodin maintains, or by the latent mob violence which had come to the surface in the difficult war years, or whether it was, perhaps robbery. The truth, as usual, clearly lies somewhere in the middle.

Jan Pařez and Hedvika Kuchařová, The Irish Franciscans in Prague 1629-1786 (Prague, 2015), 46.

Interestingly, the same dilemma is present in the death of another Irishman martyred in 1639 at another village not far from Prague, Cork native Father John Meagh, S.J. His case, which I looked at here, has many parallels with that of Father Fleming, as he too was attacked by hostile peasants in an area where gangs of robbers operated.

Father Fleming was regarded as a martyr by his Order and Father Benignus Millett points out that his early death affected the Irish Franciscan College at Prague itself:

Had he lived to guide the destinies of the Prague college for a few decades, it seems likely that he would have trained and inspired a group of scholars in the new foundation whose writings and researches would have rivalled those of their brethren in Flanders and Italy. As it was, no such school of writers developed at Prague. In fact, for the seventeenth century the literary output of the Irish friars in the Bohemian capital was much smaller than that from the other two celebrated continental colleges.

Rev. B. Millett, O.F.M., The Irish Franciscans, 1651-1665 (Rome, 1964), 492-3.

The case of Father Fleming is one of those included by Irish Jesuit Denis Murphy, the then Postulator, in his 1896 catalogue Our Martyrs. He does not, however, feature on the Official List of Irish Martyrs submitted to Rome. It is customary for the cause of a martyr to come under the jurisdiction of the Bishop in whose diocese the death occurred but I do not know if the cause of Father Fleming was ever formally adopted or where it now stands. His cruel death cut short the life of a scholar of energy, vision and drive and denied the Irish Franciscan College at Prague the potential to develop under his leadership.

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