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Saluting our modern-day martyrs: dare we too confess our faith?​

Friday 5th June 2020

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Saluting our modern-day martyrs: dare we too confess our faith?

Stefan Kaminski

While we remain locked in debate over Covid-19 statistics, social distancing and lockdown measures, it’s a good time to remember that many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world have more immediate concerns: they are (readily) putting their very lives at risk by professing and practicing their faith.

On 8th January, four young Catholic seminarians were kidnapped from the Good Shepherd Seminary in Kaduna, north-west Nigeria, by gunmen. Kaduna is not a small shanty town: it is the capital of Kaduna state with a population of well over three-quarters of a million, and is a busy trade and transportation hub. The seminary is located on a main highway, and houses around 270 young men.

But in January it was raided by a kidnap gang disguised as soldiers, led by Mustapha Mohammed. Their intention was to use the hostages for ransom. In the weeks following the raid, they released three of the seminarians, aged between 19 and 23, in exchange for $25,000. Michael Nnadi, 18 years old, was never released.

Speaking to Nigeria’s Daily Sun newspaper after his arrest, Mustapha said that he was not able to have any peace from the moment they took the young men, because Michael “continued preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to him”. The seminarian “told him to his face to change his evil ways” or risk eternal life. In the end, Mustapha decided “to send him to an early grave” as he did not like the young man’s confidence. 

Michael Nnadi, 18-year old seminarian killed for preaching Jesus Christ. ‘He continued preaching the gospel’ to his kidnappers, telling their leader ‘to his face to change his evil ways.’ The leader decided ‘to send him to an early grave’ as he did not like the young man’s confidence.

Michael Nnadi’s bold witness shines among many such martyrs. Only 10 days later, Lawan Andimi, a member of the Christian Associationof Nigeria, was decapitated.

Today, some 120 other Christians remain hostage in the hands of Boko Haram; among them are many young women such as Leah Sharibuand Grace Taku, who refused to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. All these are part of a worsening and systemic attack on Christians, whose villages are attacked, farms set ablaze, adults kidnapped and killed, and women taken as sex slaves.

The Nigerian archbishops have repeatedly appealed to the country’s government for collaboration andprotection, but many Christians have accused the state of ignoringthe reality of Christian persecution.

Despite the assurances given, they point to the inconsistent protection offered by security forces and the consistently late responses to such incidents.

A woman prays against the shut door of Westminister Cathedral on Easter Sunday. Such public demonstrations of faith when lockdown allows will be a powerful witness to the continued importance of religion in modern life

Hopefully, the thought that such atrocities are not being challenged and responded to effectively fills us with horror. Equally hopefully, the fact that men and women just like ourselves are dying gruesomedeaths because they practice their Christian faith moves us to some desire for solidarity with them.

Meanwhile, we are no doubt thankful that such persecution does not take place in our liberal and tolerant Western society. However, thegrowing challenges to Western governments over their own discrimination against religious practice in their responses to Covid-19 should tell us that we are not entirely immune either.

Last month, several Catholic groups successfully appealed to the French Council of State, which ruled that the government’s ban on gatherings at places of worship was ‘disproportionate’ and ‘seriously and manifestly illegal’. A number of states in the USA have seen legal challenges against their closure of churches and bans on religious gatherings, with, most recently, the governor of Virginia facing two lawsuits over this issue.

Our own government sidelined public religious expression by declaring it as ‘non-essential’ at the beginning of the lockdown. The assignment of churches to an importance lower than garden centres can hardly, therefore, inspire great confidence in the public perception of the place of religious freedom. More to the point, if such a freedom is not seen to be demanded and practised, its fundamental importance will stop being appreciated.

A number of public figures have now stepped up to question this state of affairs. Edward Leigh MP pointed out on Twitter not long ago: ‘If MPs can socially distance in Parliament, why can’t people socially distance for private prayer in churches?’

Two weeks ago, a letter was sent to Catholic Bishops, as well as to Robert Jendrick (Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Governance), requesting the re-opening of churches, and signed by 19 peers, politicians and other notable Catholics. Another letter went to Boris Johnson this week signed by 20 MPs, requesting the same. And in a recent interview on BBC Radio 4, Cardinal Nichols asked the government for “a bit more sensitivity” to people’s spiritual needs.

As Pentecost approaches and we once again pray for the same courage that the Holy Spirit gave to the Apostles in those early, turbulent times, it is perhaps an opportunity to make our own stand for our faith. It would be a fitting act of solidarity with Michael Nnadi, and the many other men and women, young and old, who are suffering brutal treatment and death, to make our own faith public, in however small a way.

Until such a time as our churches are reopened, the first thing that can be done is to write to local MPs and/or to Robert Jendrick. It need not be a long email, but simple enough to register the fact that as Christians, our faith is of fundamental importance to us; and as Catholics, it is essential to be able to access our churches and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

Besides this, a group of young Catholics, led by Anton’ de Piro (a trustee of the Christian Heritage Centre) has set up the website This allows Catholics to register their name, contact details, diocese and parish in order to help manage the safe re-opening of churches. Volunteer details will be passed directly to the relevant diocese or parish, and will provide priests with the necessary help for to reopen their churches.

Lastly, but most importantly: when our churches do reopen, it is imperative that those Catholics who are able to do so safely provide a public witness to our faith. If every able-bodied and healthy Catholic in the country made the point of making a visit to their parish church once during the working week, the steady stream – even trickle – of visitors would make for a very visible statement.

Christians in Kwara stateprotest in February against thecurrent persecution

It is an opportunity not simply for outward effect, but also for the deepening and renewal of one’s interior life.

The small efforts and sacrifices we make are always observed by the Good Lord, who repays with His grace in His own way and time.

After the period of absence we have suffered from the Eucharistic Lord, what better way to mark the season of Pentecost – the era of the Church – by going out of our way to witness to the Lord, in solidarity with our martyred brethren?

Stefan Kaminski is the Director of the Christian Heritage Centre, Stonyhurst.

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A life of service comes from the Gospel and the heart of Christ

Friday 7th December 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

A life of service comes from the Gospel and the heart of Christ

Lord Alton of Liverpool

The principle of serving others is a central tenet of citizenship. For Christians it is at the very heart of the Gospel; and for all of us, service of others, changes lives, changes society, and changes us; all for the better.

Before I became a member of parliament I was a school teacher in Liverpool, where I soon learnt that inspiring young people to read, study and learn was far more effective than either simple reward or punishment. I witnessed how young men and women, inspired by all sorts of people, have made great contributions to their families, neighbours, society and world.

As a young boy, along with millions of others, I walked past Winston Churchill’s coffin in Westminster Hall. He has been lionised as the man who saved democracy, and he certainly inspired me. Nearly 2,500 years before this Aristotle warned that “he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must either be a beast or a god.” And a little late Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?”

Nelson Mandela often reflected on the idea of ‘Ubuntu’ – a person is a person because of other people, while Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained that “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good…”

For many who come to the Christian faith as adults, the first exposure is seeing an individual or group of Christians in service – teachers, medics, aid workers, judges, politicians. We are first inspired by people, and only then by their ideas. The Gospels tell us that the first Christians were inspired by Christ, and only then by what He taught them. For us to encourage the next generation to serve, we must do so by setting that example of service, and by doing so we become instruments by which others are inspired.

If we want to change the world, we need to change our nation; if we want to change our nation we must change our communities; if we want to change our communities, we must change our families; and if we want to change our families we must change ourselves. Change does not come about by itself – it comes through active participation and voluntary service.

Young Christ Preaching in the Temple, from the ‘Heures de Nostre Dame’, c.1430. By permission of the Governors of Stonyhurst College. Right, anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce combined a strong Christian faith with political service for the good of humanity. John Ricing, c1790, Private Collection

Churchill insisted that,“The flame of Christian ethics is still our highest guide. To guard and cherish it is our first interest, both spiritually and materially… Only by bringing it into perfect application can we hope to solve for ourselves the problems of this world and not of this world alone.”

William Wilberforce

In 1993 St John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor, wrote that, “If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” While, in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, in Caritas in Veritate, wrote that, ‘Many people today would claim that they owe nothing to anyone, except to themselves. They are concerned only with their rights, and they often have great difficulty in taking responsibility for their own and other people’s integral development. Hence it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere licence.’

Inspiring and channelling religious adherents into public service is transformative of individuals and of society. If the imperfect system of democracy is to function and survive, there must be a continuous cultivation of virtue and an upholding of those values that enrich and underpin a system that can so easily be subverted. Inspired political service can put right more than minor injustices, Wilberforce, who with Clarkson, the Quaker ladies and others campaigned for 40 years against the slave trade. Political service, legal service, medical, spiritual and many others, all better society and those who serve.

As a teenager I was inspired by Robert Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King – both murdered for their beliefs. Kennedy insisted that every person could make some sort of difference: “Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events”, while King insisted that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I was recently in Pakistan, raising the case of Asia Bibi – who has thankfully been released, though not yet been able to find sanctuary outside Pakistan. In 2011, after championing her case the Christian Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was murdered. He knew his potential fate: “I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know the meaning of the Cross. I am following the Cross and I am ready to die for a cause.”

When people take up a mantle and fight for something good, they often have a twofold effect. First, of moving their cause forward, but also inspiring those around them. They inspire others to realise that they can improve the lives of others and made a difference in our world. In a moving letter, the last he wrote, John Wesley told William Wilberforce to use all his political skills to end slavery and to fight for human dignity, to be like the fourth century Christian bishop Athanasius, an ‘Athanasius contra mundum’ or an  ‘Athanasius against the world’.

We see a long line of inspiration of one Christian to another, parents to children, teachers to pupils. At the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst’s Theodore House, we are proud to encourage this long line of inspiration, that begins and always points to Christ. We remember the many Saints and Blesseds (many old boys of Stonyhurst College) who have been faithful against the odds and have both enriched the world they lived in, and also inspired the next generation.

We continue in this long tradition by inviting young people from around the world to Lancashire to learn about the Christian story, and the many heroes of it – how they served in their time, and allow  the freedom of young minds to discover how they may serve in their word and in their time.

‘I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know the meaning of the Cross. I am following the Cross and I am ready to die for a cause.’
Shahbaz Bhatti (below)

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The witness of St Edmund Campion: a heroic story of faith

Friday 8th June 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

The witness of St Edmund Campion: a heroic story of faith

Graham Hutton

Last month we thought about the martyrs for the faith associated with the Tower of London, all of whom suffered under Henry VIII and who will be commemorated by the Christian Heritage Centre when Theodore House opens at the end of the summer.

Sadly, as the story of St Edmund Campion reminds us – and whose life and death has so many associations with our project – in the reign of Elizabeth I, the Tower would once again be adorned with the presence of many confessors for Christ, most of whom paid the supreme penalty.

The first of these was Blessed John Felton, imprisoned and tortured on the rack three times before being hanged, drawn and quartered at  Tyburn for having affixed a copy of Pope St Pius V’s Bull of excommunication of Elizabeth, Regnans in Excelsis, to the gates of the Bishop of London’s palace near St Paul’s Cathedral. Others included St Ralph Sherwin, Protomartyr of the English College, also racked in the Tower and then executed at Tyburn, and St Philip Howard, who left an inscription on the wall of his cell in the Beauchamp Tower which reads ‘The more suffering with Christ in this world, the more glory with Christ in the next’.

Of all these glorious martyrs, however, the one who is closest to the heart of the CHC is St Edmund Campion. When in 1564 Queen Elizabeth visited Oxford University, where Campion was a fellow, his learning was such that he was chosen to give a Latin oration in praise of the Queen. His oration won great praise and earned him powerful  patronage at Court. Ordained as a deacon in the Church of England he would undoubtedly have risen to high office in that Church had he not gradually became convinced by the claims of the Catholic Church.

This led him to renounce the brilliant career which lay ahead of him and to leave England for the continent where he was reconciled with the Church of Rome.

Portrait of St Edmund Campion

At first he studied at Douai but in 1573 left for Rome to join the Society of Jesus. It was quickly decided that he should join the Austrian Province
of the Society and in 1573 he travelled first to Vienna and then on to Brunn and finally to Prague where he remained for six years. Here he was Professor of Rhetoric and Philosophy and Latin preacher. In 1580 it was decided that the Society of Jesus which, until then, had provided no priest for the mission to England, would send two, and Campion was chosen to be one of them. He returned first to Rome and from there made his way through France with Robert Persons, and a lay brother, to St Omer. On 24th June 1580 Campion set foot in England for the first time in nine years; he knew that he was returning to almost certain death.

Campion’s mission was to the Catholics of England. It was now 21 years since the second break with Rome and few of the old priests ordained under Queen Mary I remained alive. The Mass had been proscribed by a law which imposed a fine of 100 marks and 12 months’ imprisonment for the hearing of it in addition to the large fines which were imposed on so-called recusants for failing to attend the services of the state Church.

The Tower of London's White Tower. Photo by Bernard Gagnon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Nevertheless, many remained loyal to the Church, and  Catholicism was particularly strong in some of the great aristocratic households of the Thames Valley and the Sacred County of Lancashire. It was to these houses, with their secret Catholic chapels and holes in which the sacred vessels and vestments (as well as the priests themselves in time of emergency) could be hidden, that Campion went to minister. In disguise he travelled  extensively ‘through the most part of the shires of England’ (Persons) hearing confessions and saying Mass for the faithful who would have had no access to the sacraments for many years and yet who had kept faith.

During this time Campion wrote Decem Rationes defending the claims of the Church against those of the state church. This document was widely circulated and led to an increase in the government’s

determination to track down Campion. Betrayed by a spy at one of the Catholic houses, Lyford Grange in Berkshire, and after an extensive search of the house, he was found lying in one of the secret priest’s holes.

Campion was, of course, taken at once to the Tower where he was initially imprisoned in the cell known as the Little Ease because it was so small that a man could neither stand upright not lie down in it. Here he had to crouch in the halflight for four days before he was taken out for examination by senior officials of the Crown. He was then promised that even now he could obtain freedom and great preferment if he would renounce the Church of Rome and return to the state Church. Campion, of course, refused and was returned to the Tower where those who had offered him his freedom now  authorised his being put to the torture.

For three months Campion suffered intermittent torture on the rack. By the time he came to trial in November he was so physically broken that he was not even able to raise his right hand to take the oath. At the trial he was found guilty of treason and condemned to the usual barbaric form of execution. On hearing the dreadful sentence he and the other priests condemned with him burst into singing the Te Deum.

Despite his broken body, Campion was now forced to take part in a series of disputations in the Tower in St Peter ad Vincula. Despite the disadvantages, Campion acquitted himself well and put up a strong defence of his faith.

On 1st December St Edmund Campion along with two other priests met at the Coldharbour
Tower. It was raining as it had  been for several days and the London streets were foul with mud. The three priests were bound on hurdles (as was customary) and dragged by horses for several miles through the muddy streets from the Tower to Tyburn. The rope with which he was bound is held in the Collections at Stonyhurst.

"Chamber of Little Ease" in the Tower of London

One witness records how one gentleman along the way wiped Campion’s face ‘all spattered with mire and dirt’. At Tyburn St Edmund made a brief speech before being hanged, drawn and quartered. Standing near the front of the enormous crowd was Henry Walpole. He came of a Catholic family but had fallen into indifference. Now, when St Edmund’s entrails were torn out by the executioner, a spot of the martyr’s blood splashed his coat. In that moment he was converted and immediately afterwards left England, became a priest and 13 years later suffered the same martyrdom as St Edmund, although in his case at York rather than Tyburn.

Why do stories like this  matter? It’s because they remind us of the price paid for the religious freedoms that we enjoy today and the central importance of upholding the right of every man and woman to believe, not to believe, or to change their belief. In promoting freedom of religion
and belief, The Christian Heritage Centre will shine a light on today’s Towers and today’s tortures – from Eritrea to Nigeria, from North Korea to Pakistan.

Graham Hutton is a Trustee of the CHC and Chairman of Aid to the Church In Need.

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Fr John chose to die rather than yield to Protestantism

Friday 8th January 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Fr John chose to die, rather than yield to Protestantism

Br Samuel Burke, OP

“I am willing to die, and I had rather die than doubt of any point of faith taught by our holy mother, the Roman Catholic Church.” In his ‘last testament’, St John Plessington, a Catholic priest, foretold his own fate.

He died a martyr’s death. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Gallow’s Hill in Boughton Cross, Cheshire, overlooking the River Dee, on 19th July, 1679. His offence: taking Orders in the Church of Rome and returning to the realm as a Catholic priest contrary to Act 27 of Elizabeth, 1585.

For his troubles, for his fidelity, for his ultimate sacrifice, as Paul VI declared in 1970 along with 39 others, Plessington numbers among the Saints in heaven. But the story doesn’t end there because the question remains: how do we honour the memory of this Saint and others like him?

Our first task is to remember, which is easier said than done. At least in the case of recent Saints, remembering is not a matter of fabled legend, it is an historical exercise, which often requires diligent research. Good, accurate information is important because it bring us closer to the person; they serve to make their memory more real to us; the details matter.

John Plessington was born around 1637, the youngest of three children, at Dimples Hall near Garstang in Lancashire. His father, Robert, was a committed royalist and Governor of Greenhalgh Castle, which stood on a hill overlooking a boggy plain about a quarter of a mile from the family estate. The family were both Royalist and Catholic.

St John Plessington

During John’s childhood, Robert fought for the Crown in the Civil War, for which he was later imprisoned and forfeited his property. The Parliamentarians also destroyed Greenhalgh Hall and a lone western tower is all that now remains of the fortress. As Catholics, the family kept a priest and a chapel.

Their chaplain, the Venerable Thomas Whitaker, was captured and martyred in 1646. Perhaps this was one of John’s earliest memories, aged about nine. Did the martyrdom of the family priest inspire his own priesthood and martyrdom? 

Educated by the Society of Jesus, John left the family home first for Scarisbrick Hall, near Ormskirk, and subsequently leaving Lancashire for St Omers in France, a forerunner to Stonyhurst College. The Jesuits were famed not only as “the schoolmasters of Europe”, they have also been dubbed “the shock troops of the Counter-Reformation”, a glib remark that fails to do justice to valiant mission and unparalleled sacrifice which they made to the Greater Glory of God and for the preservation of the faith in England during penal times.

If our first task was to remember, our second task, I think, is to understand the human context. Part of this is speculative, of course, but we must seek to understand the motivations and challenges that the martyrs faced if we are to appreciate their witness in its fullness.

From France to Spain where John, taking the pseudonym ‘Scarisbrick’ — perhaps in tribute to his early educators — studied at the Royal College of St Alban, Valladolid, along with five other fellow seminarians in November 1660.

St Winefride's Well, at Holywell, in Flintshire, Wales, where Father Plessington ministered

As a welcome gesture, they were given a good supply of tobacco to help them settle in. Within a very short time, John was ordained a priest on 25th March in 1662 at Segovia. Not long after, ill-health curtailed his studies and, though a priest, he returned to England with his theological studies incomplete. Little is known about his early ministry in Lancashire. What is known is that he subsequently lived and ministered at the St Winefred’s Shrine at Holywell in North Wales. The area had a strong Catholic community supported by secular priests, including Plessington, based at a local Inn, Ye Cross Keyes, and a Jesuit mission based at another pub, Ye Old Star Inn, a pub which plays another role in Plessington’s tale to which I will return.

Some time before 1670, perhaps as early as 1665, Fr Plessington is to be found at Puddington Hall, home to the Massey family near Burton, on the Wirral. Officially, he was tutor to the Massey children but in reality he was the resident priest, supporting the family and Catholics in the surrounding area. For a brief time, there was relative toleration for Catholics and Fr Plessington would have probably gone about his ministry discretely but without too much trouble. This was not to last.

In 1678 Titus Oates’ feigned to reveal an elaborate conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and replace him with his Catholic brother, James. Catholics, especially priests, were rounded upon by authorities.

They stood accused as conspirators in the ‘Popish Plot’. In all, some 45 Catholics were executed in this wave of persecutions. On the Wirral, directions came from the King’s Ministers in Whitehall for the local authorities to exercise great vigilance and near panic ensued.
It seems that Fr Plessington was targeted following the report of a Protestant landowner who was grieved at the refusal of a match between his son and a Catholic heiress. It was presumably on the basis that a Protestant husband would be unwilling to risk keeping a priest, and, as a consequence, such matches would inevitably result in the falling away from Church.

On 28th December 1678, the priest hunter Thomas Dutton raided the house at Puddington and, despite the house having a priest hole by the chimney, Fr Plessington was found and taken into custody. Dutton received a handsome reward of £20 for his troubles.
The trial of Plessington, which followed was defective in several respects. Three lapsed Catholics testified against him but their evidence was seemingly insufficient. The first witness was deranged, as confirmed by her father and neighbours, and the second Fr Plessington had never met. This left only a third valid witness, a man named Robert Wood.

However, for a capital offence, at least two witnesses were required for a conviction, as Fr Plessington pleaded in the court. Nevertheless, the jury still convicted him. Such was the ill-feeling at the conviction that the judge granted a reprieve only to have this overturned by Whitehall.
Though awaiting death for nine weeks in a damp underground cell at Chester gaol, Fr Plessington maintained a lively sense of humour. When his friend, Sir James Poole visited him at the same time as an undertaker who was apparently measuring him for a coffin, Fr Plessington joked that he was giving orders for his last suit!

Dragged on a hurdle through the city of Chester from the Castle to Gallow’s Hill, overlooking the River Dee, Fr Plessington was hanged, drawn and quartered on 19th July 1679. His body was later committed to Puddington Hall, where it was ordered that the body parts be displayed on the four corners of the property. In open defiance of this charge, the Massey family laid out Plessington’s dismembered body on an oak table.

Where the martyr’s remains are is a matter of some debate. 140 years after Plessington’s death, a collection of bones bearing fractures consistent with his death, wrapped in children’s clothes of the period were discovered in a trunk in Ye Olde Star Inn. There is good, albeit circumstantial, evidence to suggest these are the bones of St. John Plessington.

A few years ago, an appeal was made by the Bishop of Shrewsbury to conduct DNA tests on the bones. Let us hope that will happen soon so we can honour the relics and memory of this martyr.

This brings me finally to our third task in honouring the martyrs: learning the lessons of history. It is to this third task especially that the new Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst is committed.

Painting by Daphne Pollen (1904-86) commissioned for the 1970 canonization of the forty martyrs of England Wales.

This special museum is housed at the very school at which Plessington was educated, no longer in exile on the continent but in his native Lancashire. We will strive not simply to retell his story, important though that is, and not only to understand the human context, but crucially to ask also what lessons we can draw from the witness of martyrdom, even as they are made today.

Bloodshed, oppression and discrimination against Christians takes place the world over. One thinks particularly of the genocide of Christians in the Middle East.

There is much to learn from the life and death of St John Plessington about the importance of Catholic education; the mentality of the mob and scare-mongering; about the importance of legal process; about maintaining a sense of humour in the face of adversity; about faith and, yes, about Christian heroism – if we can learn some of that, we will have truly honoured the memory of the martyrs.

Br Samuel Burke, OP, is a Trustee of the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst.