BY SIMON CALDWELL
IN A REMARKABLE demonstration of Christian unity, a Catholic and an Anglican bishop have together commemorated the death of the first English martyr of the Protestant Reformation.
Anglican Bishop Richard Chartres of London and Catholic Auxiliary Bishop George Stack of Westminster, representing Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, led an ecumenical service in memory of St John Houghton, one of 18 Carthusian monks killed by King Henry VIII in the 16th century.
The service was held on May 4 in the grounds of the former London Charterhouse, the monastery where St John served as abbot.
A choir sang plainchant while almost 100 guests made their way through various “stations”, visiting areas where the monks once lived, their burial ground and the priory church.
A commemorative stone was unveiled on the site of the monastic cloister by the two bishops.
Inside the church a message was read out on behalf of Dom Marcellin Theeuwes, the Prior of the Grande Chartreuse, near Grenoble, France, who said that the martyrs, by their example, showed the “power of faith in the world”.
Bishop Stack then compared St John to Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered in 1980.
He said: “We who today give thanks to the witness of these Carthusian martyrs and the martyrs of every age may not be called upon to die for the faith that we profess but there is no doubt that whatever our Christian tradition each of us who believe are challenged to live for that faith by Jesus Christ, the king of martyrs who gave his life as a ransom for all of us.” Bishop Chartres explained why it was right for Anglicans to honour Catholic martyrs. He described King Henry as a “monster of egotism” with “messianic pretensions” similar to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
“We salute the courage and discernment of those who said ‘no’,” he said. “Those martyrs could have saved themselves by one stroke of the pen and we have to remember that most of their contemporaries chose to do so. “It was a lonely martyrdom. Most people chose not to see the crucial significance of this issue.” He added: “We are honouring martyrs who deserve to be remembered with thanksgiving by the whole Church.” Red roses, each representing a martyr, were then placed into a model of the “Tyburn Tree”, the triangular London gallows where 105 Catholics were executed during the Reformation.
St John was the first of five priests hanged, drawn and quar tered on May 4, 1535, after they were convicted of treason for refusing to take the oath of the Act of Supremacy, the law that made King Henry supreme leader of the Church of England.
St Thomas More, watching their departure from the window of his cell in the Tower of London, remarked to his daughter, Margaret, how the men went “to their deaths as cheerfully as bridegrooms to their marriage”.
St John remained conscious throughout his grisly execution. Some sources say his last words were: “Lord Jesus, lover of thy children, have mercy on me in this hour.” Others claim that the saint, as his heart was ripped from his chest, said: “Good Jesus, what will you do with my heart?” Two other Carthusian abbots, St Robert Lawrence and St Augustine Webster, Blessed John Haile, an aged secular priest and the vicar of Isleworth and a Bridgettine monk, St Richard Reynolds, were executed in the hours that followed. Afterwards, Henry ordered one of St John’s arms to be nailed over the main entrance of the Charterhouse as a warning to others.
Yet within five years six more Carthusians were executed and nine others tied to posts in Marshalsea Prison, London, and starved to death.
St John, St Robert, St Augustine and St Richard were among 40 English and Welsh martyrs canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
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