BEATIFICATION OF ARCHBISHOP ROMERO, MAY 23, 2015
At the Los Angeles Archdiocese Fortnight for Freedom Mass with the relics of Sts. Thomas More, John Fisher, Junipero Serra and Bl. Oscar Romero, the conversation among some of the pilgrims attending the event turned to the Tyburn Martyrs. This designation refers to the priests, monks, laymen and laywomen who were hanged at the King’s Gallows near modern day Hyde Park in London for refusing to renounce the Catholic Church during the Reformation. It made me think of the parallels between the suffering of the English martyrs over the centuries, and the modern day travails of the martyrs of El Salvador.
It may be no coincidence, after all, that devotion to Blessed Oscar Romero has particularly taken off in England. It was there that Archbishop Romero found support, in life, from Cardinal Basil Hume, and English Catholics who nominated Romero for the Nobel Peace Price in a bid to save his life. It was in London that a statue of Romero was placed at Westminster Abbey in 1998 in the presence of the Queen. In 2013, the Roman Catholic Cathedral in London set up Romero relics in a special Romero chapel. More recently, another Romero statue was installed at St. Albans Cathedral in Hertfordshire, England. A British specialist preserved Romero’s relics in San Salvador (the same specialist in charge of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher’s relics), and for several years, the Romero Trust promotes devotion to Romero from its London base.
None of this should be too surprising if we look at England’s unique history with martyrdom, and the Tyburn Martyrs hold a special place in that sacred legacy. What most stands out to me of the Tyburn story is the way a story of shame and infamy has been redeemed, and transfigured into a precious and holy symbol, through popular devotion and what we call in El Salvador “historic memory.” The Tyburn Tree is a symbol nearly akin to the Cross, in the way that it represented in its day, everything that was nearly pure dread. The “Tree” was a triangle-shaped gallows where criminals were hanged. They were paraded there from jail, and put up on a horse-drawn cart while the noose was tied around their neck. Then, the specially-built carriage would be withdrawn and the condemned left to die before large gathered crowds.
Those led to die there were mocked and reviled. They included common criminals as well as traitors and conspirators of every stripe. They also included bona fide conscientious dissenters and martyrs of the faith, like Saint Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest who was hung at Tyburn in 1581. I cannot read about Campion without thinking about another Jesuit, one killed in El Salvador, Ignacio Ellacuria, killed during the Central American University Massacre of 1989: “Edmund Campion, born in London in 1540, was soon recognized as one of the most talented scholars of his generation” (source: Jesuits in Britain). Saint Edmund died forgiving his executioners: “I recommend your case and mine to Almightie God, the Searcher of hearts, to the end that we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.”
The Tyburn Martyrs also included St Robert Southwell SJ, killed in 1595; Blessed Thomas Maxfield who was dragged to the Tyburn Tree in 1616; Blessed Philip Powel who was executed in 1646; and hundreds of others who faced the same cruel fate. The location of their humiliation and death was almost erased from history—but their memories were not. It did not matter that they died alongside the guilty and the ignoble. It did not matter that their executioners, who were trying to consolidate their grip on power, had political as much as religious motives for their repressive campaigns against priests, to say nothing about economic incentives (the Crown appropriated all the Church’s property). Above all, it did not matter that the Tyburn Tree had become a disgraceful brand, a badge of shame.
Popular piety knew how to discern the propaganda, the distortion, the lies, the defamation that was spoken against the martyrs, to find the strands of holiness, and from some fifty thousand suspected to have been killed in an over a period of six centuries, be able to salvage the names of a few hundred holy martyrs who are honored and cherished today—a few of them beatified and canonized saints. This is the same process that the faithful must carry forward in so many other places in the world today. In El Salvador, that means honoring and venerating the broken skeletons discarded in so many killing fields, in the lava plain known as “El Playon,” in the bowels of the Guardia Nacional barracks, and those whose ultimate resting places are known only to God. As preached by the martyr Romero, “every assassinated man is a sacrificed Christ whom the Church also venerates” (March 2, 1980 Sermon).
May the example of the English faithful be an inspiration to us all to courageously claim our martyrs.