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Sacred places that speak of the Catholic Faith throughout the ages

Friday 2nd August 2019

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Sacred places that speak of the Catholic Faith throughout different ages

Stefan Kaminski

Times change; people and places come and go. But the one Person a Christian relies on never changes or leaves: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8).  This fundamental conviction remains true for all Christians regardless of the age or society in which they live. It provides the same foundational inspiration for every authentic Christian life, and unites people throughout history – and indeed outside of history – in the hope of the Resurrection.

Up in Lancashire, within the space of about 10 miles (as the crow flies) one can visit the ruins of Whalley Abbey, the Shrine of Ladyewell at Fernyhalgh and Stonyhurst College. Each of these speaks in a particular way of a different era and dimension of the Catholic faith: each place witnesses to individuals and communities that bore out the conviction expressed by St Paul at various times and in various walks of life.

The Cistercian abbey at Whalley dates from the Middle Ages

Whalley Abbey testifies to monastic life, in the form of Cistercian monks, during the late Middle Ages. Established in 1296, it had a relatively short life of less than 250 years, before being dissolved by Henry VIII. Despite the bad press that is sometimes meted out, monasteries served as an important cultural driving force, maintaining the art of writing and illuminating manuscripts, generating artistic and architectural trade, and working the land to sustain their communities. If the Cistercian monks were more aesthetic and orientated to a life of prayer, all the more because of their desire to serve God alone.

Although the Shrine at Fernyhalgh pre-dates the Abbey with a devotional history extending back to the 11th century, it speaks most powerfully of the harshest period of the Protestant Reformation and the testimony of the Martyr-saints. The staunch faithfulness of local recusant Catholics, the determination of missionary priests and the willingness of all to lay down their lives for their belief in the one Church established by Jesus Christ, is vividly expressed in the collection of relics and in the famous Burgess Altar. This latter is a beautifully carved wooden altar, complete with a triptych of panels and a Nativity Scene underneath, which closes up to disguise itself as cupboard. Saints Edmund Campion and Edmund Arrowsmith are amongst the many priests to have offered Holy Mass at it, risking their lives and those of their congregation for this greatest of Mysteries.

Stonyhurst College of course begins its history precisely because of the Reformation, with the establishment of the school at St Omers in France, in 1593. Its story on English soil starts in 1794. Across both periods however, the school’s story is a testimony to the creativity, ingenuity, learning and sheer hard work of the Jesuit order. The great learnedness of the Society’s members is evidenced in multifarious ways in the school’s operations: the contribution to astronomy through the work of its observatory; the design and operation of its own powerplant; the writing and production of whole series of plays; numerous musical contributions.  All of this has its inspiration and final end “ad majorem Dei gloriam” (for the greater glory of God).

Across this panoply of Catholic activity, the underlying dynamic is the same: a personal conviction that God became man, and that He died and rose on the Cross for our salvation. If we wonder at the force of the conviction held by those monks, martyrs and school masters, it is because it was not simply a belief: it was faith. And therein lies a subtle, but substantial, distinction. In a society which tends towards viewing beliefs as a private matter, each as valid as the next, which may be held freely so long as they do not interfere in the lives of others, it is easy to lose a sense of the grandeur of the theological faith that the Church holds.

The Burgess Altar at the Ladyewell Shrine, Fernyhalgh

Beliefs are common to everyone – be they beliefs in a political system or in the wisdom of their favourite TV personality – and indeed everyone has some belief about God. In all its guises however, belief remains an intellectual act that begins and ends with the human individual. As such, it only has its foundations in that same person.

Faith, on the other hand, is a response. It is firstly the acceptance of Truth: the highest and final Truth, which is valid for all people in all places. This Truth is known to be true by the Christian, not because he or she thinks it an attractive thing to believe, but because it comes from God. How do we know it comes from God? Because we choose to believe the corporate witness of the Church: from those first Christians who saw the God-man walk this earth, down to each and every man, woman and child who has testified to that Truth with their lives over the last two millenia.

Such a faith does not remain a personal belief for private consumption: it prompts an obedience (literally, a “listening to” as the Latin roots signifies) and subsequent action. From Abraham taking all his family and possessions to an unknown destination across the Arabian desert, to those parents of the 17th and 18th centuries illicitly sending their sons across the Channel to receive a Catholic education, they all acted on “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1): they had faith.

We might be tempted to wonder dubiously at our own faith (or indeed, to avoid asking ourselves what might feel like an embarrassing question!). However, Rome was not built in a day, and neither were places such as Whalley Abbey, Ladyewell and Stonyhurst. The real work started with the daily prayer and attentiveness to God of each individual concerned in all of those histories. The places that remain – be they merely the stones of a ruined church or a functioning school – reach back to beyond the external achievements of those Catholics: they bear witness firstly to lives that were centred around God. Without that continued response of faith – an acknowledgement of God, a prayerful listening to His Word, a striving to live out His teachings – there would be nothing for us to marvel at.

Visiting sites such as Fernyhalgh and Stonyhurst, one should therefore see “through” each physical place to the faith of the men and women that built them. They might be of another era and walk of life, but they follow the same Lord Jesus. They are now united with Him in the great “cloud of witnesses” that watches over us, waiting for us to pick up the baton and run the good race in our own time, and so join them in our heavenly destination (cf. Hebrews 12:1).

Stefan Kaminski is the Director of The Christian Heritage Centre

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A Lancashire tribute to Our Lady

Friday 1st February 2019

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

A Lancashire tribute to Our Lady

Ladyewell has withstood persecutions, sackings, pillage and violence, and
stands today as an enduring example of a county’s loyalty to the faith

If you are planning to stay for a few days at the Christian Heritage Centre’s Theodore House at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, you should aim to make a visit to the ancient shrine at Fernyhalgh, better known as Ladyewell.

Before your visit you might want to delve into two books which tell something of the story of Ladyewell – the Walsingham of the north.

In 1875, the Reverend T.E.Bridget compiled his classic book Our Lady’s Dowry; or how England gained and lost that Title, and in 1957 H. M. Gillett published Shrines of Our Lady in England and Wales. Both drew down on a tradition which is woven through centuries of Christian devotion in these islands.

Drawing on these sources we can construct some of the paths taken by the pilgrims of old and connect with a tradition that has always been part of the Christian life in Britain. People who have little understanding of why Catholics honour Mary often try to discount this tradition as something foreign or alien. Not only do they misrepresent Marian devotion but they misunderstand their own history.

In the 14th century Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, explained the devotion well. He wrote that ‘the contemplation of the great mystery of the Incarnation has drawn all Christian nations to venerate her from whom came the first beginnings of our redemption. But we English being the servants of her special inheritance and her own dowry, as we are commonly called, ought to surpass others in the fervour of our praises and devotions.’

The Shrine at Ladyewell

All over Britain there were guilds and fraternities dedicated to Mary. These institutions reached back to
the earliest Saxon times, and were organised for the performance of works of charity and piety. On the great Marian feast days pilgrims
would gather, walk in procession, hear Mass and lay flowers. The most common devotion to Our Lady in Old England was to Mary’s joys but pilgrims would also meditate on her words, on her sadness and on her glory. Here are the origins of the ‘mysteries’ on which Catholics set their hearts, as they say the Rosary.

In the 13th century St Edmund said that she might apply to herself the words of the prophet: ‘Call me not beautiful, but rather call me bitter; for the Lord Almighty has filled me with bitterness and with great grief.’ (Ruth: 1.20) By the 15th century hymns and carols were regularly dedicated to Mary: ‘Mother and maiden was never none but she; Well might such a lady God’s mother be’. Another, the Alma Redemptoris Mater, draws on St Luke’s Gospel narrative of the angel Gabriel’s dramatic intervention in Mary’s life.

In the 16th century, sacred drama, intended to be represented on the afternoons of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, again recalled Simeon’s prophecy and places Mary standing at the foot of her Son’s cross. Typical of these are the Chester Plays,  which include The Lamentation of Mary: ‘I pick out thorns by one and one, For now lieth dead my dear Son dear’.

While Bishop of Rochester, St John Fisher gave the funeral address following the death of Lady Margaret, Countess of Richmond (mother of Henry VII). In it he describes how this devout woman began her devotions at five in the morning, starting with the Matins of Our Lady, and continued thoughout the day to use the Office of Our Lady. After Fisher’s execution and the Reformation, secret  devotion to Our Lady continued but the shrines and chapels were desecrated and despoiled. In Lancashire, the county which clung most tenaciously to the Catholic Faith, the devotion to Mary, and through her to her son Jesus, never failed.

St Mary's Church at Fernyhalgh

Fr Christopher Tuttell was a missionary priest at Fernyhalgh – pronounced ‘ferny-huff’   – between 1699 and 1727 and wrote a personal account of its origins. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon for ancient shrine and has been in use as a baptismal well since at least the seventh century.

Fr Tuttell wrote that in 1471 a wealthy merchant found himself in great distress during a passage on the Irish Sea. He ‘made a vow, in case he escaped danger, to acknowledge the favour of his preservation by some remarkable work of piety. ‘After this the storm began to cease and a favourable gale wafted the ship into the coast of Lancashire … a voice somewhat miraculous, yet providential, admonished him to seek a spot called Fernyhalgh and there to erect a chapel…’

Having found the spot he discovered a statue of the Virgin and erected a chapel. The spring became known as Lady Well, usually abbreviated to Ladyewell. An earlier chapel existed on this spot and the merchant may have discovered its remains. The chapel was pulled down during the suppression but Lancashire Catholics continued to throng there, shrine or no shrine. By 1685 a house of prayer was constructed next to the Holy Well, and made to look like an ordinary house. Cuthbert Hesketh of the Whitehill in Goosnargh bought the house at Fernyhalgh and paid the rent for the following 16 years. A Madam Westy was another benefactor, as was Bishop James Smith, first Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District, who died in 1711.

In 1687 Bishop Leyburn confirmed more than a thousand people at Fernyhalgh but the authorities did not always turn a blind eye. As late as the 18th century soldiers were sent to plunder the chapel, although they stopped short of destroying it. On one occasion, in 1718, a renegade priest, a Mr Hitchmough, led 20 soldiers to Fernyhalgh to plunder and strip it. By 1723 prayers began to be offered at the shrine.

Fernyhalgh’s sufferings were still not over. In 1745, as Prince Charles and his Highlanders pushed south to Manchester, during the second Jacobite Rising, a hostile mob attacked the Lady Well chapel, sacked and burned it. Another priest, also by the name of Tuttell, rebuilt the chapel and as numbers increased they began work on a new church, which was opened in 1794. Built to escape notice from the outside, the cruciform shape and interior design leave today’s pilgrim in no doubt that this church, built 35 years be- fore Emancipation and 14 years after the Gordon Riots, represented a statement of enduring faith. It has continued since then to draw pilgrims who continue to give thanks from being spared the shipwrecks which threaten every life.

Even in our own times, on the feast of the birthday of the Virgin Mary, on September 8th 2000, the shrine was desecrated. An effigy of Blessed Padre Pio, brought from Rome by a Liverpudlian family, was ripped from its base and a chapel was daubed with blue paint. A priest at the shrine, Fr Benedict Rucsilo, described the attack as “sickening.” The attack came after five churches in the same part of Lancashire had been torched by an arsonist.

Endurance is summed up by one other aspect of Fernyhalgh. Here, too, is the tombstone of the last of the English Carthusians of the old traditions. It reads: ‘Sacred to the memory of the Reverend James Finch, the last of the English Carthusian Monks. He died March 3rd, 1621, aged 72. Good Christian, on this Stone, shed not a tear for virtue lies entombed, enshrouded here. Religion, resignation both combine over these remains to raise a heavenly Shrine. R.I.P.’

A Marian procession at Fernyhalgh

Mary is venerated at Fernyhalgh as Our Lady Queen of Martyrs. The statue depicting the Virgin holding her son was brought to Fernyhalgh from Bolzano by the sisters of the Holy Child of Jesus after the restoration of the English and Welsh Hierarchy. Beside the shrine is a prayer room called Stella Maris, built in 1996 in the shape of a ship. Nearby is the Martyrs Chapel, a modern building, beautifully simple, housing statues of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher. Around the walls are the names of more than 300 Catholics from these islands who gave their lives for their faith.

Approaching Fernyhalgh, along Fernyhalgh Lane, today’s pilgrim passes St Mary’s Church and school, which is where Adam Butler, who wrote the famous Lives of the Saints, was educated. There is a quiet Lancashire lane, wooded embankments, and a reminder, in the distance, of the M6 and the cares of this world as well as the next. In May you will see the timeless processions of pilgrims from the Lancaster Diocese.

It is possible to leave a car by St Mary’s or further along the Lane at a small car park. Next to the shrine is Ladeywell House. Upstairs there is a reliquary which is home to the Burgess Altar, and which folds away as a sideboard. This was the secret altar on which many of the martyrs, including St Edmund Campion, St Edmund Arrowsmith and Blessed John Woodcock, celebrated Mass There is also a display of the vestments which were used by many of the priests before their arrest and execution. Here too is part of the skull of St.Thomas a Becket, murdered in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral, and taken to Castelfiorentino in Tuscany during the desecration of the shrines by Henry VIII.

Ladyewell House has been developed as a pilgrimage centre, with seats, an outside altar and Rosary Way. In a modern chapel each of the names of the Catholic martyrs is inscribed on a roll call, the names themselves a reminder that the same faith was once held by all the people of these islands. Like the ancient pilgrims who recited the Jesus Psalter and had a great love of the Virgin, today’s pilgrims will find peace here.

There is no doubting that this is hallowed ground.