Today is the 450th anniversary of the deaths of both Cardinal Pole, last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, and Mary Tudor. The English and Welsh bishops met today and visited Lambeth Palace to honour the memory of Cardinal Pole; meanwhile, a number of Requiem Masses were held in Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham and London. I had the privilege of preaching at one of these:
We gather here this evening to remember a series of deaths that occurred exactly 450 years ago. At about six in the morning of 17 November 1558, Mary Tudor died at St James’ Palace, as Mass was being celebrated in her chamber and the priest was elevating the Sacred Host. Twelve hours later her cousin, Reginald Pole, Cardinal Priest of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and Archbishop of Canterbury, died across the river at Lambeth Palace. With them died hopes for an English Catholic restoration and the subsequent long reign of Elizabeth did much to consolidate the newly-founded Church of England.
The two cousins had much in common. Both had saintly mothers – in the Queen’s case, Catherine of Aragon (the discarded wife of Henry VIII, who remained loyal to the Catholic Faith and to the bonds of marriage); in the Cardinal’s case, Blessed Margaret Pole, the last of the Plantagenets and martyr. When Pole heard of her execution in May 1541, he declared that ‘until now I had thought God had given me the grace of being the son of the one of the best and most honoured ladies in England...but now he has vouchsafed to honour me still more by making me the son of a martyr.’ Both the Queen and the Cardinal also tried to heal the English schism but their efforts were cut short by premature death. Both have been largely vilified by posterity – the Queen remembered as ‘Bloody Mary’ and the Cardinal as her henchman.
At this Mass, we particularly pray for the repose of the soul of Cardinal Pole and we pay tribute to his legacy, even though when he died all his efforts seemed to have failed. Mgr Robert Hugh Benson once wrote that ‘it is hardly possible to imagine a character less suited, in popular estimation, to the needs of his time, than was that of Reginald Pole to the period of the English schism. They were days of fierceness, brutality and literally Machiavellian diplomacy; and the nature of the Cardinal who played so great a part in them was one of gentleness, kindness and simple transparence...It is no wonder then that the Cardinal, a lover of peace and study, sensitive in conscience and passionately zealous for souls, should, as the world reckons success, have failed in nearly every task to which he set his hand.’
In the eyes of the world, Pole was a failure. He failed in his various diplomatic missions or legations aimed against King Henry. He famously failed to be elected Pope by just a handful of votes in the Conclave of 1549 – so certain was his election thought to be that pontifical vestments were even made for him. He failed in his desire for the Church to reach reconciliation with the schismatics and, in fact, at the time of his death he was suspected by Rome of having Protestant sympathies - only the protection of Queen Mary prevented him from facing the Roman Inquisition. Moreover, his plans for Catholic restoration in England ultimately came to nothing.
Pole was perhaps a failure in temporal terms, and yet his failure can be seen also as a victory from the perspective of Divine grace. Though, unlike his mother, he was not called to shed his blood for the Faith, he risked much in defending the Papal primacy.
We remember him today as a great scholar and the friend of the likes of Michelangelo. We recall his central role in the opening sessions of the Council of Trent. Above all, we celebrate his achievements in England, even though they were left unfinished. On 30 November 1554 he reconciled the realm to the Holy See during an emotionally-charged service at Whitehall Palace. ‘If the angels in Heaven,’ the Cardinal said, ‘rejoice over the conversion of a single sinner, what must be their joy to-day at the sight of a whole kingdom which repenteth?’ Pole set aside St Andrew’s Day as an annual celebration of ‘the return this kingdom to the unity of the Church.’ The following Sunday Pole was at St Paul’s and the Lord Chancellor, Bishop Gardiner, preached on the theme, ‘Now it is high time to awake out of sleep.’
Pole told Parliament that he aimed ‘not to pull down but to build; to reconcile not to censure; to invite but without compulsion.’ He took a gradual and realist approach to the Catholic restoration, confirming property rights and refusing help from St Ignatius and the newly-founded Jesuits - not because he opposed them but because he thought England was not yet ready and because they had too close a connection to Spain. Pole organised a Legatine Synod, perhaps his greatest legacy.. He stressed the importance of the residence of clergy and of preaching and catechesis in each parish. Most notably, he decreed ‘that in Cathedrals a certain number of initiated persons be brought up, whence as from a Seminary, men may be chosen who may be worthily set over Churches...We especially wish,’ he added, ‘the children of the poor to be chosen into these seminaries.’ The Cardinal was one of the first to speak of seminaries and anticipated the Tridentine decrees, though his vision would not be actualised in his own country for another 250 years.
But these battles and dreams have long since ended for our Cardinal. We pray that he is now at peace, united with his mother, the Blessed Margaret. Though we live in very different times, the battles that Pole fought so courageously have now passed down to us. The words of Bishop Gardiner, preached on that First Sunday of Advent 1554, echo in our ears: ‘Now it is high time to awake out of sleep.’ Like the Cardinal, it is up to us not so much to pull down but to build; to reconcile rather than simply to censure; to work for the unity of the Church and to re-evangelise our increasingly ‘post-Christian’ culture. As Fr Aidan Nichols showed recently, much of this project has to happen within the Church – the re-enchantment of the Sacred Liturgy, the on-going revival of catechesis and preaching, the rediscovery of the Catholic reading of the Bible, the preaching of the Gospel of Life and, most importantly, the continual striving for holiness on the part of us all. Cardinal Pole would approve of all these targets. As we pray for the repose of his soul (and also that of Mary Tudor), we continue to pray and work for the conversion of England.