Five Franciscan Martyrs: Loyal to the Catholic Faith

Five Franciscan Martyrs: Loyal to the Catholic Faith

On May 4, Franciscans recall the witness of five friars—Blesseds Thomas Bullaker, Henry Heath, Arthur Bell, John Woodcock, and Charles Meehan—who were executed in England and Wales in the 17th century because of their loyalty to the Catholic faith.

Founding English Franciscan friary at Douai

During the reign of Henry VIII, the Observant Franciscans had been staunch defenders of the king’s marriage to Queen Catherine and papal supremacy, and so were the first religious order in England to be suppressed in 1534. The friars met imprisonment, death or were scattered to the continent. During the late 16th century, a number of English Catholics came to Europe to join the Order, and in 1618 they founded an English Franciscan friary at the University of Douai, then in the Spanish Netherlands (English Catholic women also founded a Poor Clare monastery in nearby Gravelines).

Risking life to minister to underground Catholics

Four of the friars honored today were members of this English Franciscan province-in-exile, who had returned to their homeland on mission to minister underground to the Catholic population. (The fifth, Charles Meehan or Mahoney, was an Irish friar executed in Wales.) Their work was a very risky undertaking: under an act of Parliament in 1584 a Roman Catholic priest ministering in England could be charged with high treason. The friars remembered today are among some 85 martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987. For more detail on these friar martyrs, see http://stevenwood.com/reflections/franciscan/0504-34.htm.

Five martyrs London plaque 800pxlsThis plaque in London commemorates the Catholics executed for their faith at Tyburn. Henry Heath was one of these Franciscan martyrs.

Roman Catholics and Anglicans share common witness

Today, Roman Catholics and Anglicans look back at the way we persecuted one another in the wake of the Reformation with great sadness. Several years ago Pope Francis commended the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission for their work, reminding them of our common witness today:

There is a strong bond that already unites us which goes beyond all divisions: it is the testimony of Christians from different Churches and traditions, victims of persecution and violence simply because of the faith they profess. The blood of these martyrs will nourish a new era of ecumenical commitment, a fervent desire to fulfill the last will and testament of the Lord: “that all may be one” (John 17:21).

-----

Main image: Blessed Henry Heath was born at Peterborough, Northamptonshire, in 1599. A brilliant student, he graduated from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, in 1621 and was named librarian of the college. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1622 and went abroad to the English College in Douai; there he was received into the Friars Minor of the Recollect Reform in 1624 with the religious name of Paul of St. Magdalen.

He was ordained a priest in 1628. Noted for his deep spirituality as well as his learning, he filled a number of offices in the community at Douai, including director of student friars, vicar, and then guardian. He petitioned to be sent on mission and left Douai for England in December 1642, but no sooner had he arrived in London from Dover he was apprehended and sentenced to death for being a priest. He was executed in London, on April 17, 1643.