50th anniversary of the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs - Fr Denis Blackledge SJ remembers the occasion

This Sunday (October 25) marks the fiftieth anniversary of the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope St. Paul VI. Fr Denis Blackledge SJ of Saint Xavier Parish in Liverpool - himself now a Jesuit for 59 years - was present at the celebration in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome - an awe-inspiring occasion, with music sung by the choir of Westminster Cathedral instead of the usual Papal Choir of the Sistine chapel.

“We extend Our greeting first of all to Our venerable brother Cardinal John Carmel Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster, who is present here today. Together with him We greet Our brother bishops of England and Wales and of all the other countries, those who have come here for this great ceremony. We extend Our greeting also to the English priests, religious, students and faithful. We are filled with joy and happiness to have them near Us today; for us they represent all English Catholics scattered throughout the world. Thanks to them we are celebrating Christ’s glory made manifest in the holy Martyrs, whom We have just canonized, with such keen and brotherly feelings that We are able to experience in a very special spiritual way the mystery of the oneness and love of the Church. We offer you our greetings, brothers, sons and daughters. We thank you and We bless you. While We are particularly pleased to note the presence of the official representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Reverend Doctor Harry Smythe, We also extend Our respectful and affectionate greeting to all the members of the Anglican Church who have likewise come to take part in this ceremony. We indeed feel very close to them. We would like them to read in Our heart the humility, the gratitude and the hope with which We welcome them. We wish also to greet the authorities and those personages who have come here to represent Great Britain, and together with them all the other representatives of other countries and other religions. With all Our heart We welcome them, as we celebrate the freedom and the fortitude of men who had, at the same time, spiritual faith and loyal respect for the sovereignty of civil society.” [The opening of Pope Paul VI’s homily]

Was it really fifty years ago on 25 October 1970 since we celebrated the canonization of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, the culmination of years of hard work from a handful of dedicated Jesuits and their co-workers? The story goes back to proto-Heythrop, to the year 1950, when an Italian, a German and an English scholastic ended up there as students, and became firm friends for life. The three were Paolo [Paul] Molinari, Peter Gumpel, and James Walsh. As well, the story goes back to Campion House, Osterley, where Clement [affectionately known as Clem] Tigar was Superior from 1936-66.

Clem was a tremendous devotee of the martyrs, and passed his infectious enthusiasm to the Osterley men, traipsing them round London martyr hot-spots, and to the annual Campion Day mass at Tyburn Convent, close to Tyburn Tree, where many of them met their death.

James Walsh meanwhile became Vice-Postulator for the Cause of the Forty, with his secretary Denise Critchley beside him, whilst Paul and Peter were at Jesuit HQ in Rome, working together in the office of Postulator-General. When he moved on from Osterley, Clem worked on the cause of the Forty Martyrs in the Office of Vice-Postulation at Farm Street, with lay co-workers historian Patrick [Paddy] Barry and his secretary Heather Down.

Pamphlets soon began to flow out from the office, highlighting the lives of these women and men who gave their lives for the Faith. Of the forty, three were wives and mothers, four were laymen, thirteen were diocesan priests, three were Benedictines, three were Carthusians, one was a Brigittine, two were Franciscans, and ten were Jesuits. Six were Welsh, and thirty-four were English.  Amazingly, the cost of each pamphlet in the series, produced to spread devotion to the forty, ranged between 6d and 1/-!

Fr Peter Gumpel SJ and Fr James Walsh SJ meet Pope Paul VI at the canonisation ceremony of the Forty Martyrs

And so to 1970, when proto-Heythrop in the Oxfordshire countryside moved to deutero-Heythrop in Cavendish Square in the heart of London. I happened to be working that summer, helping with the move, which famously took place ever-so-smoothly in large egg-boxes, under the command of George Wilde. I was living on site in Cavendish Square in central London, and was billeted there in Queen Anne’s Mews with Lajos Kiss. One day as we were unpacking one of the boxes, it contained the splendid robes of the Chancellor of Heythrop College, so I just had to try it on! I happened to be at Farm Street in late August, when James Walsh sidled up to me, and asked if I could give a bit of a hand with the work going on in the office there in final preparation for the Forty Martyrs Canonization. A bit like Topsy, “giving a hand” grew into eight weeks of full-time work, dawn to dusk and a bit more, with the first six weeks in our London Jesuit HQ, followed by the final two weeks in our Rome HQ.

For someone aged 27,a scholastic just about to begin theology, I had the delicate task, in effect, of taking over from the venerable Clem, easing his burden, along with Heather his faithful secretary.   Clem was writing out postcard invitations to be present at the Canonization, and a proper system needed to be created and organised to comply with Vatican regulations. Clem took it all with great graciousness, and we worked very well together. I vividly remember one weekend nearly being driven daft, when Heather, Joe Duggan and myself had to write out in triplicate about 9,000 official invitations!

Then there were all the British Jesuits who wanted to go. I ended up pretty well organising a specially chartered plane with just over 100 Jesuits on board. We had to hold a lottery, but in the end all but about ten of those who wanted to go actually went. I shudder to think what would have happened if that plane had gone down, as it was Jesuits-only packed!

As well, we contacted clergy throughout the land, and asked them to write in if they wished to attend the canonization: 500 replied, and received appropriate instructions. See below what actually happened on the day!

After six solid weeks, when I should have been starting theology at Cavendish Square, I was flown out to Rome to our Jesuit HQ, and had the privilege of working alongside Peter and Paul, an amazing duo, in their Office of the Postulator-General. Peter was the nearest thing I have ever met to a human computer, answering “Pronto!” on the phone, then immediately changing language to that of the caller. He had that German precision, and a delightfully patient temperament. Paul was graciousness itself, serenely suave, and had all the connections necessary in the Vatican and the British Legation to the Holy See [as it then was] to make it a smooth fortnight as final touches were made for the big day.

Westminster Cathedral Choir sing their hearts out in front of Pope Paul VI

It was exciting to be at the nerve centre, and to see how Peter and Paul knit together the myriad strands so delicately and meticulously. They were the epitome of a great team, who knew how to spread the burden of responsibility. But the work went up to the wire. At 0100 on the very day the canonization was to take place at 0930 we delivered personally to Bishop Daniel Mullins, 41, newly ordained in April that year as Auxiliary in the Archdiocese of Cardiff,  the message he was to deliver to Pope Paul VI during the mass, telling the story of the six Welsh martyrs.

And so to the Canonization Mass itself. My job was to get the clergy procession in safely through the main doors of St Peter’s Basilica, starting at 0845. Long before, back in London, as I mentioned earlier, we had asked clergy to write in if they wanted a place in the special procession. 500 had answered in the affirmative. Typically, Peter Gumpel said he would reserve 800 places in a tribune at the front for them, just in case, knowing how bad clergy are at replying to letters! So there was I at the back of St Peter’s, as the Noah’s Ark priestly procession plodded in two-by-to. Then we realised that we had overtopped the 800, and still they came! The ultimate “boss” of the Basilica, a layman called Giovanni Giovannini, came rushing up to the back, shouting to me to get the doors closed! Just as we did so, who should appear at the tail end of the 1,300 who eventually turned up, but two Jesuit Brothers, Vincent Cookson and Richard Pope. I knew they had special seats at the front, and swore at them – saying: “What the bloody hell are you doing here?”  And that was the last thing I ever said to Cookie – he collapsed and died in the street next day. [But he did get a funeral at HQ with Pedro Arrupe!] As the main doors slammed shut, the very last of the priests got in, and somehow a place was found for them all.

The ticket I had for the ceremony had “free circulation” written on it in Italian, which meant I could move around, but I ended up sitting in front of the first row of benches, in the inner circle close to the front of the altar. At that stage I did not know that a further privilege awaited, that I was to take part in the offertory procession, taking one of the traditional gifts of bread, wine, big six candles, flowers, and birds – doves and red finches -  to present them at the feet of the Pope. I got the birds!

Fr Denis Blackledge SJ (centre) leads the offertory procession

Then the moment came when two by two we were put in order for the procession. I picked up the birds, but was immediately accosted by Fr Philip Caraman, well-known writer on lives of the martyrs, who had the bread, and he asked me to swap with him, as he fancied having a cage full of birds to carry! That is how I ended up first in the queue with Frank Walsh as we solemnly carried up the bread - last literally became first!

In the procession various folk who had had much, much more to do over the years than myself, took up a variety of gifts, especially the humble Clem, who carried one of the big six candles, along with Peter and James.  Paddy Barry held a little cask of wine, Heather flowers, and Philip got the bird!

The whole celebration had an ecumenical “feel” about it, as witnessed by the opening words of the Pope’s homily, above, and also his final paragraph, which had a deeply encouraging ring of Christian Unity about it: it is quoted in full at the very end of this article. The entrance hymn was the Old Hundreth, All people that on earth do dwell, originally a Protestant hymn. Along with the Sistine Choir, Westminster Cathedral Choir sang William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices. Byrd, of course, was a Catholic survivor in Tudor times. In his own lifetime twenty-five of the forty martyrs lost their lives. Soul of my Saviour crept in and was sung enthusiastically after communion, and For all the saints rang out at the end, as the Pope was carried out on his sede gestatoria.

Pope Paul VI, now officially a Saint, was given a rare gift from the Stonyhurst collection, presented by Paul Molinari, on behalf of David Hoy, then Superior there. It was part of the rope – about a foot long - from the hurdle that had dragged Edmund Campion to his death at Tyburn. As he received it, the Pope reverently kissed the relic.

At communion time, three of our Jesuit Brothers were chosen to receive directly from the Pope: Harold Lynch, George Benfield, and James Higgins. At that stage they had given 147 years of loving service to the Society. Bernard Hall, then our English Province Provincial, also had his special moment with the Pope, as did, of course, our General Pedro Arrupe.

Fr Bernard Hall SJ, Provincial of the British Province, shakes hands with Pope Paul VI (Fr Paolo Molinari SJ is on the right)

There are plenty more memories in my mind and heart from the following days, especially my involvement with the British Legation to the Holy See and the special Triduum of Masses at St Paul’s outside the Walls, where Cardinal Heenan preached; at St Mary Major, where Bishop Mullins preached, partly in Welsh; and at the Gesu, where Cardinal Bertoli, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, preached. I hope I have given you a rich flavour of the main event, which for me was capped by the extraordinary ending of Pope Paul VI’s homily.

“May the blood of these Martyrs be able to heal the great wound inflicted upon God’s Church by reason of the separation of the Anglican Church from the Catholic Church. Is it not one - these Martyrs say to us- the Church founded by Christ? Is not this their witness? Their devotion to their nation gives us the assurance that on the day when - God willing - the unity of the faith and of Christian life is restored, no offence will be inflicted on the honour and sovereignty of a great country such as England. There will be no seeking to lessen the legitimate prestige and the worthy patrimony of piety and usage proper to the Anglican Church when the Roman Catholic Church - this humble “Servant of the Servants of God”- is able to embrace her ever beloved Sister in the one authentic communion of the family of Christ: a communion of origin and of faith, a communion of priesthood and of rule, a communion of the Saints in the freedom and love of the Spirit of Jesus. Perhaps We shall have to go on, waiting and watching in prayer, in order to deserve that blessed day. But already We are strengthened in this hope by the heavenly friendship of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales who are canonized today. Amen.”

Two future Saints meet: Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, shakes hands with Pope Paul VI