The English persecution produced many martyrs of the true faith, some of which many people are familiar such as St. Thomas Moore, or St. Edmund Campion. In smokers circles I have found that most know who St. John Kemble is, because of the tradition of the “Kemble Pipe”, named after the priest who had the last smoke of his pipe before being hung for the crime of saying Mass.
Yet there is one saint whom many in my estimation would do well to learn from and imitate, that is St. Margaret Clitherow. She was raised in between the restoration of Mary and the persecutions of bloody Elizabeth, as a protestant, and consequently she was not taught to read or write because the suppression of the religious orders had destroyed England’s educational system. The gold and silver gleamed more than the common good of the people for Henry and Elizabeth. According to St. Margaret’s confessor, “she found no substance, truth nor Christian comfort in the ministers of the new church, nor in their doctrine itself, and hearing also many priests and lay people to suffer for the defense of the ancient Catholic Faith.”
In the early Church, the blood of the martyrs had sunk like seeds in the earth and inspired many to seek knowledge about the Church, and to come into it themselves. This is also true of the English persecution. St. Margaret was inspired by the witness, (Grk: μαρτύρεω), and so she came into the Catholic Church. Yet though her husband remained protestant she persevered in charity, so that she had the admiration even of her protestant neighbors. She raised her children Catholic, and did not allow religious dissension in the house even though her husband persisted in the Queen’s religion, and continued to love him dearly. All of her children would later enter religious life.
St. Margaret also aided priests, making her home a hideout where Mass could be said in secret. Bloody Bess had made the immemorial Mass a crime punishable by death and just being a priest in the country was a felony punishable by hanging. We see this later with priests who shipwrecked with no intention of going to England being put to death for the crime of being a priest on English soil. Margaret had chambers built into the home, so that children could learn catechism and Holy Mass could be said in secret. Priests could hide there as they made their way around the country to keep the true faith alive. One day, the sheriffs burst into the Clitherow household, and the priest escaped in one of the chambers, but they did recover, vessels for Mass, vestments, and other things indicating that Mass was said there. Margaret was arrested, her children taken away, and she was put before a judge. She refused to plead, because she had done nothing wrong and because she knew her children would be called to testify against their mother. Many tried to persuade her to change her mind. Even the judge, as the law established by Elizabeth a year earlier declared that those who did not plead should be pressed to death unless they would change their mind. Even he however could not and so ordered her to die by being pressed to death. This involved being placed naked on a stone under the small of your back and having a heavy oak door placed upon you, and then larger stones added to it until the weight had pressed one to death. She was also pregnant, but this did not bother the executioners of bloody Bess.
She cried out “God be praised, I don’t deserve such a death as this!” Which again, the saint is worried about the next world, not this one. Death is a relief to the saint, it means that they will never offend the goodness of God again. Martyrdom moreover, satisfies for all the temporal punishment for sin. There is a justice in that, what more could God ask in payment for sin but that he lay down his life and that he separate himself from his own existence in this world. When hearing a sentence of death we fear, cry out, weep, think of our affairs in this world. The saint thinks of the divine majesty they will soon come into union with.
So when the day came she was led up to the place of execution, and many of those who looked on marveled at her countenance, and in life she had been exalted for her great charity and holiness, so that she was known as the “Good lady of York”. When she reached the place of execution she knelt down to pray, and some of the heretics asked if they could pray with her. “Neither shall you pray with me, or I pray with you. On no account shall you answer Amen to my prayers, and neither shall I answer Amen to your prayers.” Then she prayed aloud for Elizabeth to be converted back to the Catholic faith. She was martyred by the inhumane practice of pressing (by those enlightened Anglicans), and died in 1586, on Good Friday. Her children all entered the religious life.
There are a few good lessons here. The first is that the saint at her death was prepared to meet her heavenly spouse. The first thing on her mind is charity, that is charity for God. To man one has charity for the sake of God, but not for any other reason. Thus when the protestants wanted to pray with her she said no. Why did she say no? Wouldn’t it be a good thing to have the prayers of others? Well not exactly. If the people are in a state of grace due to some kind of ignorance they might merit something, but if not then their prayers are useless (that is, with respect to supernatural merit). God does not hear the prayers of sinners. Even if they were though, they might pray the wrong way because of their lack of right faith, and thus instead of meriting something for God might actually offend Him.
Secondly, she prays for Elizabeth to be converted to the true faith. The queen’s religion was not good enough to save her, or else St. Margaret would not have prayed for her. This is also a sign of charity in the soul of the saint, that she prayed for the tyrannous and bloody queen who everywhere by her edicts was having Catholics put to death, submitted priests to the most gruesome tortures and was responsible for her own death. Yet she forgives her this evil and wills for her the best thing possible, the salvation of her soul.
It is clear that such a saint presents a stark contrast to the life of today, where everyone must “get along”, and dialogue rather than the true work of Christ’s vineyard seems to reign supreme. Granted that the Church has the prudential right to determine if it will go out and evangelize a certain people or not (they couldn’t withhold it from anyone, but they could decide that a certain group for prudential reasons ought not be preached to, such as we see with the Jews in medieval Europe), to solicit prayers from non-Catholics has always been condemned by the Church. Filled with love of God, she would not allow her prayers and martyrdom to be mingled with the prayers of those who either a) were not in a state of grace and could not merit anything or b) due to incorrect faith might pray wrongly and offend God. In this she practiced true love of God and did not fall victim to the vice of human respect.
St. Margaret Clitherow, pray for us!