Anniversary of Pope Benedict State Visit – Christian Heritage Centre for Britain?

One year ago, at Westminster, Pope Benedict told English Catholics not to lose their identity; not to forget their Christian roots; to remember who they are; to pass on their beliefs to their children and to share their love of their Faith with their countrymen.

Some flavour of that identity has memorably been revealed in the remarkable “Treasures From Heaven” exhibition recently staged at the British Museum and sponsored by two significant Catholics, John Studzinski CBE and Michael Hintze. Both men have been honoured with Papal Knighthoods by the Holy See for their services to arts and culture.

The queues which have formed at the British Museum underline the public appetite for sacred culture. I saw the same phenomenon during 2008, when Liverpool was European Capital of Culture and, at St.Francis Xavier’s church, and an exhibition was staged entitled “Held in Trust”. Around 30,000 people poured in to the magnificent setting of SFX to see some of the wonderful artefacts loaned by Stonyhurst College and by the Society of Jesus. Arising out of the “Held In Trust” exhibition, Stonyhurst College published a beautiful book, by the same name, detailing some of the Collections which they hold and which they want to house in a permanent Christian Heritage Centre.

As a lasting legacy of Pope Benedict’s historic State Visit, the College Governors and the Society of Jesus have made available a Grade Two listed site, close to the College, the Corn Mill Buildings, which would be developed into an exhibition and interpretive centre. John Cowdall, the Chairman of Governors, Andrew Johnson, Stonyhurst headmaster, and the outgoing Provincial, Fr.Michael Holman SJ are all to be warmly applauded for this initiative.

Open to visitors The Christian Heritage Centre will have a mission to tell the Catholic story to future generations. Much more than a museum, it will be an interactive and inspirational educational centre; a study and retreat centre; a major visitors’ attraction; and a place where the rising generation will be inspired by the sacrifices of the past. The Christian Heritage Centre will be administered by a free standing charitable Trust. Knowledge of those who went before – and the price which they paid for the religious liberties and freedoms which we enjoy today – will help and guide our young people as they face today’s challenges and aggressive militant secularism.

The Lancashire Stonyhurst location has national and international significance – demonstrating the Catholic story of suppression to integration; the story of sacrifice, mission, emancipation, and Christian culture. Stonyhurst has a long and distinguished history, firm in its faith and strong in its patriotism, having produced three saints, twelve beati, twenty two martyrs, seven archbishops and seven recipients of the Victoria Cross.

During the period when Catholicism was suppressed many wonderful and historic artefacts were secretly hidden by Catholic families and then given to the safe keeping of religious orders and ultimately passed to Stonyhurst College and the Jesuit Province. Some of these unique manuscripts, relics and sacred vestments are quite breathtaking – Mary Queen of Scots’ psalter, which it is believed she gave to her chaplain before being led to the block where she was executed. There are very early prayer books and Scriptures, the rope used to drag St.Edmund Campion to his execution at Tyburn, hats worn by St.Thomas More, medieval manuscripts and volumes of Jacobite interest. There are which include 16th century manuscript verses by St.Robert Southwell SJ, the letters of St.Edmund Campion SJ (1540–81) and autographed poetry of the 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ. Some are in the ownership of the College others are owned by the English Province of the Society of Jesus. There is a first folio of Shakespeare – which will also be on display next year at the British Museum.

Elsewhere in the Collections are blood-soaked garments from Jesuits martyred in Japan; a beautiful portrait of the great Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci; the skull of Cardinal Morton; a cope made for Henry VII (on exhibition at the Victoria and Albert); and a thorn said to be from the crown of thorns placed upon Jesus’ head at the Crucifixion and exhibited as part of the British Museum’s Treasures From Heaven Exhibition. There are also fascinating links with the origins of the United States of America. John Carroll, first Catholic Archbishop in the US, and his cousin, Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signatory of the American Declaration of Independence, were alumni and books bearing the signatures of the Carrolls, as well as Latin compositions written by them for performance at public occasions, are kept in the Archives and illustrate Christian engagement in the birth of America. But many of these objects are rarely seen and obviously it is not possible to let the general public roam around a school. Hence the plan to create a freestanding building – and it is receiving significant endorsement.

The Christian Heritage Centre’s Royal Patron is Lord Nicholas Windsor and the Ecclesiastical Patrons are Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor and Cardinal Christoph Schonborn. Other patrons include Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank GCB, LVO, OBE, DL, KCSG, KM, KCJCO, former head of the British Armed Forces; the Anglican Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt.Revd.Nicholas Reade; Professor David Khalili KCSS, KCFO a leading Jewish expert on Islamic, Christian and Jewish art; and Nigel Evans MP, Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and Member of Parliament for Ribble Valley – an illustrious supporting cast.

Professor Khalili recently spoke at an event held to encourage support for The Christian Heritage Centre, at the Jesuit church in Farm Street. He reflected on the nature of the ownership of sacred culture, saying that “these items do not belong to any single individual, but to humanity as a whole” and that “the custodians of these pieces have a great responsibility”. He quoted the Persian poet, Jami:

Each tinted fragment sparkles in the sun;

A thousand colours, but the light is one.

In these hidden collections there are no shortage of sparkling fragments to bring the English Christian story to life. All they now need is a public home.

Since Pope Gregory first sent St. Augustine of Canterbury to these islands the Christian faith has animated the life of this nation. Yet, today, many children are growing up unaware of that story or their heritage and their parents are no wiser.

On this anniversary of Pope Benedict’s visit we have an opportune moment to rectify this. The Christian Heritage Centre is a superb initiative deserving of our support. Further details may obtained from the Development Director, Mrs.Rachel Hindle: r.hindle@stonyhurst.ac.uk

Thomas More, Edmund Campion and Westminster Hall

Much was written about the historic significance of Pope Benedict’s address to Members of Parliament in Westminster Hall – during the Pope’s visit last year. It was here, in July 1535 that the former Speaker and Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, was tried for high treason for denying the validity of the Act of Succession.
St.Thomas’ judges included the new Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, along with Anne Boleyn’s father, brother and uncle. The odds were stacked to make acquittal an impossibility.
Brilliant lawyer that he was, More believed he had to do all that was humanly possible to avoid prosecution and in the memorable words from Robert Bolt’s brilliant 1966 script of “A Man For All Seasons” he shrewdly says “Tell me the words” when asked to swear the King’s oath. He wants to assess whether they are words he can say while remaining true to his Faith. If there is any way to avoid direct confrontation and to live easily with his conscience then More will take it.
In the end Thomas More reluctantly concludes that the law is offering no way out and that no room is going to be given to accommodate his conscience. In the film’s exchange with his beloved daughter Meg, he explains the situation:

“If he suffers us to come to such a case
that there is no escaping…
…then we may stand to our tackle
as best we can.

And yes, Meg, then we can clamour
like champions, if we have the spittle for it.

But it’s God’s part, not our own,
to bring ourselves to such a pass.

Our natural business lies in escaping.”

After the corrupted legal process had run its course in Westminster Hall – and his betrayer, Richard Rich had received his reward of a Government post, as Attorney General for Wales – all escape routes were closed for More, and on June 22nd he was beheaded on Tower Hill.
More’s final testimony in Westminster Hall is contained in a still extant transcript. He told the Court that he was being tried for opposing Henry’s marriage to Ann Boleyn which he considered to be adulterous – not because of the Act of Supremacy: “you seek my blood as for that I would not condescend to the marriage”.
Pope Benedict reflected on these themes of religious liberty, the right to conscience and the place of marriage in contemporary Britain.
It was also a moment to dwell on courage and heroism – for Westminster Hall was the place of trial for many other notable Catholics.
In 1581, forty six years after the trial of More, Edmund Campion was brought to the Hall to face similar charges.
Having spent a year clandestinely celebrating Mass and bringing the sacraments to England’s Catholics, Campion had been arrested and brought before Queen Elizabeth – who asked him if he acknowledged her as the true Queen of England. After he replied in the affirmative she offered him wealth and preferment on the condition that he renounced his faith. His refusal led to incarceration in the Tower of London. He later pointed out that the Queen’s offer of a rich and comfortable life made nonsense of the charge that he was a traitor.
After being tortured on the rack, on September 1st, 18th, 23rd and 27th 1581, he faced public interrogation at the Tower and subsequent torture.
On November 14th Campion, along with his companions Frs. Sherwin, Kirby, Cottam, Johnson, Rishton and a layman, Orton, were arraigned at the Bar of Westminster Hall.
Campion responded “I protest before God and His holy angels, before Heaven and earth, before the world and this Bar whereat I stand, which is but a small resemblance of the terrible judgment of the next life, that I am not guilty of any part of the treason contained in the indictment, or of any other treason whatever.”
Ralph Sherwin added: “The plain reason of our standing here is religion and not treason.”
The following day a further seven Catholic priests were similarly arraigned at the Bar of the Hall. The trial took place on November 20th when his accusers described him as an agent of the Pope and the Holy See. He replied that his sole aim was to preach the Gospel.
In addressing the jury he told them “how dear the innocent is to God, and to what price he holdeth man’s blood.” He reminded them who his accusers were: “one hath confessed himself a murderer (Eliot), the other (Munday) a detestable atheist, a profane heathen, a destroyer of two men already. On your consciences would you believe them – they that have betrayed both God and man, nay, that have nothing left to swear by, neither religion nor honesty?”
Campion was convicted and sentenced to death as a traitor. With words that still resonate in 2010 he rebuked those who condemned him: “ The only thing that we now have to say is, that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen had. In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England — the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.
“God lives; posterity will live; their judgment is not so liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death.”
As they were taken from Westminster Hall the condemned men broke into the words of the Te Deum. Campion spent the next eleven days in prayer, and then, on December 1st, with Fr.Sherwin and Fr.Briant he was taken to Tyburn – today’s Marble Arch – where he was hanged, drawn and quartered. He was aged 41.
No one has ever told Campion’s courageous story better than Evelyn Waugh. His 1935 book has been republished by Sophia Institute Press under the title “St.Edmund Campion –Priest and Martyr”, and includes the full text of “Campion’s Brag.”
The sham trials and trumped up charges of treason leveled against Campion and More; the State’s determination to force men to choose between their conscience and submission; and the systematic abuse of power and falsified evidence are all a part of the story of Westminster Hall.
In their final agonies I doubt that either Campion or More would have foreseen a day when the successor of Peter would be respectfully welcomed at Westminster. But both would surely rejoice. As Campion hopefully wrote in the final words of his “Brag”: “we may at last be friends in Heaven, when all injuries shall be forgiven.”