400th Anniversary of a Martyrdom
By making the Martyrs’ Walk today, we have raised up to the surface of our memories the many Catholics who suffered here and in other parts of London and the country. We not only remember their brave witness but are fully confident that the blood of the martyrs provides us with a channel – indeed a river – of grace and intercession. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
I'd like to especially recall one of the Tyburn martyrs, the Jesuit St Thomas Garnet, the 400th anniversary of whose death we celebrate on Monday (23rd June).
The saint was born in Southwark around 1575 and was the nephew of Henry Garnet, the famous Superior of the English Jesuits at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. After being educated at a grammar school in Horsham, St Thomas Garnet went overseas to continue his education, like so many other Catholics of the day: he first spent time at the Jesuit college of St Omers. This institution later moved to Stonyhurst and Garnet is considered its first martyr (or protomartyr). Garnet then proceeded to the English College at Vallodolid, although his arrival there became quite an adventure. The ship that was going to take him across the Channel was delayed by bad weather and the young man was discovered hiding in the hold when the vessel was searched by the authorities, who always kept an eye open for young Catholics travelling overseas. He was taken to London for interrogation but eventually managed to escape.
Garnet’s life was marked by several periods of imprisonment. As a priest, he worked for a time in Warwickshire but was arrested at the time of the Gunpowder Plot, partly in the hope that he would give information concerning his uncle, Henry Garnet, who was eventually executed for his alleged involvement in the conspiracy. St Thomas Garnet was kept at the Tower in close confinement for the best part of a year and the fact that he had to lie on the bare floor during the winter led to the development of rheumatism. However, he was released in July 1606 and banished to the continent on pain of death. In Flanders he entered the Jesuit novitiate and returned to England the following year. After only six weeks of ministry, he was betrayed by an apostate priest called Rouse and arrested. He was found guilty of being a Catholic priest and remaining in England illegally – the main evidence for his Priesthood being a piece of graffiti he had supposedly added to the walls of his prison cell, reading: Thomas Garnet, Priest. He was quickly sentenced to death but professed that he was the happiest man alive and, when someone suggested that he might have an opportunity to escape, he spoke of an interior voice that said quite clearly: Noli fugere, Don’t run away. And so St Thomas Garnet was put to death at Tyburn on 23rd June 1608, aged 34.
Noli fugere, Don’t run away! We often think of the English Martyrs – in fact, of most saints – as flawless heroes who never wavered in their faith and in their actions. They were heroes most certainly but a large part of their heroism was the way that grace triumphed despite our frail human nature. The temptation to run away, to escape the terrible death of hanging, drawing and quartering would have been a natural human reaction for Garnet and the other martyrs. So too would be the temptation to reach a compromise or accept the offers that were normally made promising clemency and even preferment in return for conformity in matters of faith. The martyrs probably lay awake in their prisons at night struggling with these temptations and fears. But the English Martyrs realised that God’s truth was more important than their personal well-being and safety. They lived and died according to the words of our Gospel: ‘do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul: fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell.’ The martyrs were prepared to go through great bodily suffering if it meant the preservation of the spirit.
Noli fugere, Don’t run away! Garnet’s words echo down to us 400 years later. It’s unlikely that we’ll win a martyrs crown in the same way as him but we do face the lesser martyrdom of facing indifference, secularism, relativism and ridicule. The Christian Life involves following Our Lord and even being hated in His Name. Practising as a Catholic in the twenty-first century involves the same struggle with the temptation to compromise and conform as it did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Today we ask St Thomas Garnet and all the English Martyrs for their intercession: that we will be steadfast in our Faith and not compromise our principles even (and especially) when they are unpopular; to stand by the Rock of Peter and not be swept up by stormy waters; to realise that the only thing to be feared is losing God – for whoever loses Him loses everything; to carry the cross of Christ and not be tempted by an easier life. Let the words of St Thomas Garnet resound in our hearts today: Noli fugere, Don’t run away!