1766: Nicholas Sheehy, Whiteboys priest

Add comment March 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1766, Irish priest Nicholas Sheehy was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Clonmel — a victim to the years-long campaign of enclosures by Ireland’s landlords, whom English agriculturist Arthur Young reported as “harpies who squeezed out the very vitals of the people and by process, extortion, and sequestration dragged from them the little which the landlord had left them.”

Sheehy was a sympathizer of the peasant “Whiteboys” resistance movement, so named for the snowy frocks these secret guerrillas donned when out on midnight raids to strike back against the owners where tenants’ livelihoods were at stake. Where landlords enclosed public grounds, Whiteboys knocked down the fences; where they displaced peasant farmer with commercial livestock, Whiteboys hamstrung the cattle.

“It could not be expected,” wrote Margaret Anne Cusack, “that the Irish priest would see the people exposed to all this misery — and what to them was far more painful, to all this temptation to commit deadly sin — without making some effort in their behalf.”

Father Sheehy, parish priest of Clogheen, was one of these, and a villain in the eyes of Protestant elites for his denunciations of enclosure and his comforts to its more muscular foes.

He had interfered in the vain hope of protecting his unfortunate parishioners from injustice; and, in return, he was himself made the victim of injustice. He was accused of encouraging a French invasion — a fear which was always present to the minds of the rulers, as they could not but know that the Irish had every reason to seek for foreign aid to free them from domestic wrongs. He was accused of encouraging the Whiteboys, because, while he denounced their crimes, he accused those who had driven them to these crimes as the real culprits. He was accused of treason, and a reward of £300 was offered for his apprehension. Conscious of his innocence, he gave himself up at once to justice, though he might easily have fled the country. He was tried in Dublin and acquitted. But his persecutors were not satisfied.

A charge of murder was got up against him; and although the body of the man [John Bridge, a former Whiteboy turned informer -ed.] could never be found, although it was sworn that he had left the country, although an alibi was proved for the priest, he was condemned and executed. A gentleman of property and position came forward at the trial to prove that Father Sheehy had slept in his house the very night on which he was accused of having committed the murder; but the moment he appeared in court, a clergyman who sat on the bench had him taken into custody, on pretence of having killed a corporal and a sergeant in a riot. The pretence answered the purpose …

At the place of execution, Father Sheehy most solemnly declared, on the word of a dying man, that he was not guilty either of murder or of treason; that he never had any intercourse, either directly or indirectly, with the French; and that he had never known of any such intercourse being practised by others.

Father Sheehy’s head wound up on a pike (it was said that the birds in reverence would not peck at it), and his name in the rich firmament of Irish martyr-patriots. He’s been occasionally proposed for canonization.

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1930: Luigi Versiglia and Callistus Caravario, missionary martyrs

2 comments February 25th, 2018 Headsman

From Butler’s Lives of the Saints: February:

Bishop Versaglia (left) and Father Caravario.

BB Aloysius Versaglia, Bishop and Martyr (1873-1930), and Callistus Caravario, Martyr (1903-1930)

These two martyrs in China are the first two martyrs of the Salesians of Don Bosco (St. John Bosco; 31 Jan.). They belong to a later period than the Martyrs of China considered on 17 February, above, and though they inherited much of the same history, merit separate consideration here. They died in a period marked by continued feuding between local warlords, the rise of the Kuomintang government of Sun-Yat-Sen and then Chiang-Kai-Shek, the birth of the Chinese Communist party, its initial alliance and then break with the Nationalists, and the continued “imperialist” protection of foreign interests and nationals in China.

Aloysius (Luigi) Versaglia was born in Olivia Gessi, near Pavia in the Lombardy region of Italy, on 5 June 1873. Don Bosco sent him to study at his Valdocco “Oratory” in Turin when he was twelve. At that stage his great passions were mathematics and horses, and he told his parents that he was going to study there not to become a priest but to be a veterinary surgeon. He had counted without the extraordinary charism of Don Bosco, however; he changed his mind and joined the Salesians four years later, making his simple profession on 11 October 1889. He studied for a doctorate in philosophy from 1890 to 1893, was ordained in 1895, and spent ten years as superior and novice-master of the new Salesian seminary at Genzano, near Rome. In 1905 the bishop of Macao appealed to the Salesians for missionaries. Aloysius had always longed for a missionary summons; he was appointed leader of the first Salesian missionary expedition to China, setting sail on 7 January 1906 and based initially in Macao. There he was put in charge of a small orphanage, which he transformed into a highly respected school with two hundred pupils and a spiritual centre for the whole town.

A secularizing revolution in Portugal in 1910 deprived the religious of their school, at least for a time, and the bishop sent him into China, on the Heung-Shan mission, between Macao and Canton. This was also the year of the downfall of the Chinese “Heavenly Empire,” which gave way to a republic plunged into civil turmoil. Aloysius organized residences, schools, and hospitals; he trained catechists and dreamed of a wider mission entrusted to the Salesians alone. This was to come about in 1918, when the superior of the College of Foreign Missions in Paris persuaded the pope to split the apostolic vicariate of Kwangtung (Canton and surrounding area) into two, entrusting the northern portion, with its centre at Shiu-Chow (where Matteo Ricci had landed in 1589), to the Salesians. New missionaries were sent from Turin: their leader brought Aloysius a fine chalice as a presence from the superior general of the Salesians in Turin; he took it in his hands and recalled a dream Don Bosco had had — that the Salesian mission in China would grow when a chalice was filled with blood: “It is that chalice you have brought me; it is my task to fill it,” he said. In 1920 the area was constituted an “autonomous apostolic vicariate,” and Aloysius was the obvious person to take charge of this. He was consecrated bishop on 9 January 1920 in the cathedral of Canton.

He took charge at a dangerous time, which made his presentiment of a martyr’s death entirely probable of fulfilment. The Kuomintang government of Sun-Yat-Sen had not succeeded in unifying the country, and local warlords still ruled in the north. The apostolic vacariate [sic] straddled the north-south divide. Sun-Yat-Sen appealed to the newly-formed Communist party for help; its ideology had inherited violent anti-foreign feeling from the Boxers. In such conditions, nevertheless, Aloysius over the next nine years built elementary, secondary, and tertiary schools and colleges, a cathedral, orphanages, and a seminary for Chinese candidates to the priesthood. The continued development of a native clergy was the outstanding missionary achievment [sic] of the 1920s, and Aloysius played a leading part in it. The bishop undertook endless and exhausting pastoral visitations throughout his territory, and the number of Christians trebled. Monsignor, later Cardinal, Constantini, then representative of the Holy See in China, was to say of him:

He was the best type of missionary bishop: simple, courageous, inspired by the apostolic fervour stemming from a deep communion with God and seeking nothing other than God’s reign and glory. Father and brother rather than commander, and so deeply loved and obeyed by missionaries and faithful, from whom he asked no more than he himself had done or was prepared to do.

Callistus (Callisto) Caravario was born into a working-class family in Cuorgne oin Piedmont on 8 June 1903, was educated by the Salesians, and joined the Order, taking his first vows on 19 September 1919. In 1922 he met Bishop Versaglia when the latter made a visit to Turin and promised him that he would rejoin him in China. He was sent on the China mission in October 1924. His first appointment was in Shanghai, where the Salesians had opened a school for orphans; there he learned English, French, and Chinese, began to study theology, and prepared children for baptism. The city was attacked by Nationalist-Communist militia in 1926, and his superior sent him away for safety to the island of Timor in the Indonesian archipelago, then a Portuguese colony. The Nationalists broke with the Communists in 1927, taking charge of Shanghai. After spending two years teaching and studying on Timor, Callistus returned to China, saying that he would die a martyr’s death there; he was ordained by Aloysius Versaglia in Shanghai on 18 May 1829 as a priest for the vicariate of Shiu-Chow. Thereafter the bishop and priest worked in close collaboration for what were to prove the last eight months of Callistus’ life. He was sent to join another priest in the distant mission station of Lin-Chow in a ministry caring for 150 converts and two schools, one for boys and one for girls. He was back in Shiu-Chow on 13 February 1930, when Bishop Aloysius asked him to accompany him on a pastoral visit to Lin-Chow. They were never to get there; Aloysius knew the risks but declared that if they were to wait until the passage was safe, they would never leave.

On 24 February the bishop and priest with others, including two male Chinese teachers, a sister of each of these, and a young woman catechist destined for the Lin-Chow mission, embarked by boat on the Pak-Kong Rier. The three young women were Mary Tong Su-lien, aged twenty-one, returning home to inform her parents of her decision to become a nun; Pauline Ng Yu-che, aged sixteen; and the catechist, Clare Tzen Tz-yung. The presence of these attractive young women on the boat was to play a decisive part in the subsequent course of events.

The previous year, Chiang-Kai-Shek had defeated a Communist force under General Chang-Fat-Kwai, whose soldiers were roaming the countryside living by brigandage. The bishop’s junk, after a day’s journey, happened on a band of river pirates, who regularly operated on the river and generally let missionaries pass unharmed. But this group had been joined by some soldiers from the defeated Communist army, who had been indoctrinated with anti-foreign and anti-Christian attitudes. They demanded $500 to allow the boat to proceed, threatening to shoot its occupants if this was not paid. Aloysius and Callistus protested that they were missionaries, who had usually been treated with respect, but the soldiers called them “European devils” and boarded the junk. there they found the young women and tried to drag them off to rape them. (It is possible that one of them may have been a rejected suitor of Mary Tong.) The bishop and priest stood in the doorway of their cabin to prevent this but were knocked to the ground with rifle-butts and bamboo canes.

They were all dragged on to the river bank, where Aloysius and Callistus were bound and shoved into a clump of bamboo. The women were asked why they wanted to follow the missionaries to their death; they were told that the Communists were going to destroy the Catholic Church and that they should follow them instead. Callistus made a last attempt to save them, offering to send money, but the soldiers replied that they no longer wanted the money, only to kill them because they belonged to the hated foreign religion. Aloysius begged them to kill him only, as he was old, and to spare the young, but to no avail. The brigands shot him and Callistus, battering in their skulls and putting out their eyes after they were dead. The two teachers were sent on their way on the junk. Their sisters and the catechists were taken off into the mountains. They were freed three days later by soldiers of the Nationalist army and told the whole story, declaring that Aloysius and Callistus had given their lives for them. The soldiers had paid some local villagers to bury the two bodies, which were recovered two days later. They were given an honourable burial in Shiu-Chow on 13 March. The two martyrs were regarded locally as heroes by both Christians and non-Christians because they had died to defend the women. The evidence of the specifically anti-Christian motives of the soldiers was sufficient for the Vatican to decide that they had died for the Faith; both were beatified by Pope John Paul II on 15 May 1983.

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1799: Andrea Serrao, Bishop of Potenza

1 comment February 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1799, the Bishop of Potenza was lynched by the faithful.

Andrea Serrao English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a late disciple of the reformist Jansenist movement which tended among many other things to such Enlightenment-friendly notions as liberty of conscience, the reduction of the papal authority, and “regalism” — the doctrine of secular supremacy over ecclesiastical.

According to Owen Chadwick’s The Popes and European Revolution, Serrao as Bishop of the southern Italian city of Potenza

found a cathedral in disrepair, a seminary closed for the last eleven years. He raised the money for a rebuilding of the cathedral, reopened the seminary, of which the products were suspect for their ideas of liberty. He was as strong a reformer as [fellow Jansenist Bishop Scipione de’]Ricci,* and with many of the same ideas. He held a diocesan synod which is unknown because the acts were afterwards destroyed by government; but evidently its conclusions resembled those of Ricci’s Synod of Pistoia. He may have been more radical than Ricci, for he wanted clergy to be allowed to marry.

In December of 1798, Bourbon authority collapsed in the Kingdom of Naples — which ruled all of southern Italy, including Potenza — leading to the formation of the Parthenopean Republic. Serrao fully embraced it, “and urged them to obey the new government; and at the end of his address the people cried ‘Long live the French government. Long live liberty!’ and rushed out into the piazza to plant a tree of liberty. Bishop Serrao then accepted the office of civil commissioner of Potenza.” (Chadwick again)

But this Republic was destined for an imminent and bloody conclusion.

The most immediate reaction, and the one that led to Serrao’s abrupt death, was the summons of Fabrizio Cardinal Ruffo to a popular anti-Republican movement, called Sanfedismo (“Holy Faith”). In early February, a bare two weeks after the Parthenopean Republic’s establishment, Ruffo ventured from the royal refuge on Sicily and landed at his native Calabria like Che Guevara, with nothing but a handful of companions.

“Brave and courageous Calabrians, unite now under the standard of the Holy Cross and of our beloved sovereign,” Ruffo’s summons to a resistance implored. “Do not wait for the enemy to come and contaminate our home neighbourhoods. Let us march to confront him, to repel him, to hunt him out of our kingdom and out of Italy and to break the barbarous chains of our holy Pontiff. May the banner of the Holy Cross secure you total victory.”

Ruffo’s message was a winner and almost instantly began attracting holy guerrillas by the hundreds; in a few months’ time, Ruffo secured the surrender of the Republicans in Naples itself, by which time his army is reputed to have numbered 17,000.

And even in its earliest promulgation, it attained — seemingly to Andrea Serrao’s surprise — strength enough to overwhelm that tree of liberty stuff in Potenza within days of Ruffo’s landing. Back to Chadwick:

When Ruffo’s bands drew near to Potenza, many peasants and some priests regarded Bishop Serrao as ‘the enemy of the Pope, the king, and God’. Warned to escape, he said that he trusted his fellow-citizens. When the professors and students at the seminary wanted to make a bodyguard, he forbade them to arm.

Very early on 24 February 1799 soldiers of the Potenza guard smashed the tree of liberty, and raided the bishop’s palace. They came upon Serrao still in bed, and killed him with two shots of a pistol. Bleeding to death, he uttered the words ‘Long live the faith of Jesus Christ! Long live the Republic!’ The guards broke into the seminary next door, and murdered the rector as his students fled. After sacking palace and seminary they cut off the heads of bishop and rector and carried them in triumph round the city on pikes.

* There’s an interesting public domain biography of Ricci which, without any direct reference to Serrao, delves into the theological and political conflicts of the age that would have been of interest to our principal.

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1584: Five Catholic priests

Add comment February 12th, 2018 Headsman

John Hungerford Pollen collected and translated this document in Unpublished Documents Relating to the English Martyrs. It comprises the testimony of a friendly Catholic witness to the martyrdom of five priests at Tyburn on this date in 1584, as conveyed to another priest, the future martyr Robert Southwell. The historical moment for these martyrdoms was the weeks following the exposure of the Catholic Throckmorton Plot; most of the priests had been in prison many months, but appear to have their martyrdoms catalyzed by a seemingly perilous security situation.

The Martyrdome of Mr Haddock, Emerford, Fenn, Mutter, priests.

The 6 day of February Mr Heywood and five other priests were brought to the Kings-bench barre, indited of high treason for conspiring at Rhemes and Rome, as it was surmised against F. Campian. They all pleaded not guilty and so were conveyed to the Tower. F. Haywood was in Jesuit’s weed, so grave a man as ever I sett my eyes upon, he wore a coate of black very low and upon the same a cloke of black, downe almost to the grownde. He had in his hand a black staff and upon his head a velvet coyfe and there upon a broade seemly black felt.

The 9 [sic] of February the five priests were brought againe to the barre, and arrained upon the former endightment: they pleaded and protested innocency. Their old friend [Charles] Sledd [an informer noted, like George Eliot, for turning in Catholic priests -ed.] gave in evidence against them: The Jury found them out of hand Guilty, and the Judge gave sentence of death. Whereupon the priests soung Te Deum and such like godly verses.

Upon Wednesday being the last day of the Terme, these five priests were drawen from the Tower to Tyborne upon hurdles; the first that was brought into the cart under the gibbet was Mr Haddock, a man in complexion fayre, of countenance milde, and in professing of his faith passing stoute. One of the Sherifs called Spencer much incensed against them, together with certaine ministers bad Mr Haddock confesse the fact and ask the Queen forgivenesse. Whereupon Mr Haddock calling God to witnesse, protested upon his soule that he was not guilty of the treason, and therfore would not aske the Queen forgivenesse: and further sayd, ‘I take her for my lawfull Queen, I have seyd this morning these many paternosters for her, and I pray God she may raigne long Queene. If I had her in the wildernesse I would not for all the world putt a pinn towards her with intent to hurt her.’

Then seyd the Sherif Spenser, ‘There is since thy arrainment worse matter found against thee [by Munday the spye]': Whereunto answered Mr Haddock, ‘You have found nothing since; and soe belyke I was wrongfully arrained.’

Then Antony Munday was brought in, who uttered these speeches, ‘Upon a time you and I, with another whose name I have forgotten, walking together at Rome, the other wished the harts [Munday actually said ‘heads’ -ed.] of 3 of the nobility being of her counsell. Whereupon you sayd, M. Haddock, To make up a masse, I would we had the hart [head] of the Queen.’

Then sayd Spenser and other of his officers, ‘Away with the villaine traytor.’

But Mr Haddock, moved with these foresaid talke and speeches sayd as followeth. ‘I am presently to give an account [of all that I have done during life before the tribunal of God]; and as before God I shal answer, I never spake nor intended any such thing. And Munday, if thou didst heare me speak any such thing, how chanced it thou camest not to the barre to give this in against me upon thy othe.’ ‘Why,’ sayd Munday, ‘I never heard of your arraingement.’

Then said Spencer, ‘Didst not thou call the Queen heretick?’ ‘I confesse,’ sayd Haddock, ‘I did.’ Whereupon Spencer together with the ministers and other of his officers used the aforesaid speeches of treason, traytor, and villaine.

Mr Haddock sayd secretly a hymne in latin and that within my hearing, for I stood under the gibbet. A minister being on the cart with him, requested him to pray in English that the people might pray with him. Where upon Mr Haddock put the minister away with his hand, saying, ‘Away, away, I wil have nothing to doe with thee.’ But he requested all Catholics to pray with him and for his country. Where upon sayd one of the standers-by, ‘Here be noe Catholicks': ‘Yes,’ sayd another, ‘we be all Catholics.’ Then sayd Mr Haddock, ‘I meane Catholicks of the Catholick Roman Church, and I pray God that my bloud may encrease the Catholick faith in England': whereunto sayd Spenser: ‘The Catholic faith, the devel’s faith. Away with the traytor Drive away the cartel’ And so Mr Haddock ended his life, as constantly as could be required.

When the cart was dryven away, this Spenser presently commanded the rope to be cut, but notwithstanding the officer strock at the rope sundry times before he fell downe; and the reporte of them that stood by the block was that at what time the tormenter was in pulling out of his bowells, Mr Haddock was in life. By his own confession he was 28 yeares of age.

After Mr Haddock was taken to the block Mr Hemerford was brought unto the cart; he was very milde, and sometime a scholler of St John’s College in Oxford. Spenser bad him confesse and aske forgivenesse as before: but he protested innocency as Mr Haddock had done; yet sayd, ‘Where in I have offended her, I ask her forgivenesse, but in this fact of treason alleaged against me, I never offended.’

Then sayd a minister, master of art of St John’s College of Oxford, ‘You and I ware of old acquaintance in Oxford, by which I request you to pray openly and in English, that the people may pray with you.’ Then said M Hemerford, ‘I understand latin well enough, and am not to be taught of you. I request only Catholicks to pray with me.’ Where upon answered the minister, ‘I acknowledge that in Oxford you were alwaies by farre my better. Yet many times it pleaseth God, that the learned should be taught by the simple.’ One Risse termed a Doctor of Divinity, asked Mr Hemerford whither he would hold with the Pope or the Queen, in case the Pope should send an army into England. Whereunto Mr Hemerford answered, That in case they were sent in respect of the Pope’s own person, then he would holde with the Queen; but if it were sent to suppresse heresy or to restore the land to the catholick faith, then he would holde with the Pope. His speech was short being not permitted to speak much, and in substance the rest of his speech, not here sett down verbatim, was to the same effect that Mr [Haddock’s] was. He was cutt downe half dead: when the tormentor did cutt off his membres, he did cry ‘Oh! A!’ I heard my self standing under the gibbet.

Mr Fenn was the third that suffred, being bidd to doe as before, answered as his fellows did & sayd. ‘I am condemned for that I with Ms Haddock at Rome did conspire, & at which time Mr Haddock was a student at Rome and I a prisoner in the Marshalsea, or at the lest I am sure that I was in England, but to my remembrance, I was a prisoner in the Marshalsea. Therefore good people judge you whether I am guilty of this fact or noe.’

A minister called Hene avouched a place of St Paul whereunto Mr Fenn said: ‘I am not to be taught my duty by you.’

The rest of his speeches were to the same effect his fellows were. Before the cart was driven away, he was stripped of all his apparell saving his shirt only and presently after the cart was driven away his shirt was pulled of his back, so that he hung stark naked, where at the people muttered greatly, and the other sherif, called Massam, sayd to the officers, ‘You play the knaves. They be men. Let them be used like men,’ and alwaies commanded that they should hang until they were dead. Notwithstanding the other sherif commanded that they should be cut downe presently, and soe was Mo Fenn, but his companions following him were permitted to hang longer.

Mr Nutter was the 4th man, sometime schollar of St John’s College in Cambridge, and Mr Munden was the fifth & last: they denyed the fact, acknowledged the Queen Majesty to be their Queene and prayed for her, as the former had done, and soe in most milde and constant manner ended their life. Many a one in my hearing sayd, ‘God be with their sweet soules.’

What I have putt downe I hard myself, and therefore I may boldly speake it. If you please, you may shew it to your friends, provyded alwaies you tell not my name.

Plaque honoring George Haddock/Haydock at St. Andrew’s & Blessed George Haydock’s Catholic Church, Cottam, Lancashire. (cc) image by Skodoway.

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1586: John Lowe, John Adams, and Robert Dibdale, English Catholics

Add comment October 8th, 2017 Richard Stanton

(Thanks to Richard Stanton for his guest post, originally published in A menology of England and Wales, or, Brief memorials of the ancient British and English saints arranged according to the calendar, together with the martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries. Writing in the 19th century, Stanton calls these English martyrs “Venerable” but as of this writing they are “Blessed” — having been advanced further along the path to sainthood in 1987. -ed.)

The Venerable John Lowe was born in London, and for some time was a Protestant minister. On his conversion he went to the College at Douay, and from thence to Rome, where he was ordained priest. In due time he returned to England and laboured on the Mission, till he was arrested and condemned and executed for high treason, on account of his priestly character and the exercise of its functions.

The Venerable John Adams was a native of Dorsetshire, and went to Rheims for his theological studies. He returned to England as a priest in 1581, and after some time was seized and banished, with a number of others, in the year 1585. After a few months’ stay at the College, he contrived to return to his labours on the Mission, but was once more apprehended and condemned to death, barely for being a priest. Few particulars are known relative to this Martyr, but it is recorded in one of the catalogues that his constancy was proof against all the artifices and promises, used to divert him from his generous resolution to sacrifice his life for the Faith.

The Venerable Richard, or, as he is called in some catalogues, Robert Dibdale, was born in Worcestershire. He became a student, and in due time a priest, of the English College at Rheims. In the year 1584 he was sent on the Mission, which he diligently served for some time. He was however arrested by the persecutors, tried and condemned for high treason, on account of his priestly character and functions. This Martyr, like a number of other missioners of that time, was remarkable for the gift he possessed of exorcising evil spirits. A fellow-missioner has left an account of several wonderful instances of this kind, of which he was himself witness, and others are recorded by Yepez, Bishop of Tarrasona, in his account of the English persecution. These wonderful occurrences were said to be the cause of numerous conversions to the faith.

The three Martyrs, Lowe, Adams, and Dibdale, all suffered at Tyburn on the same day, the 8th October, and on the mere charge of their priesthood, which by the recent statute was declared to be high treason.

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1627: Matthäus Ulicky, for communion

Add comment September 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1627, Matthäus Ulicky had his right hand chopped off, and then his head, in Caslav, Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic).

Ulicky and his offending extremity were casualties of the centuries-old struggle for reformation in Bohemia, and more specifically of the 1620s triumph of Catholic arms and the consequent promulgation of Habsburg edicts enforcing orthodoxy in ecclesiastical doctrine and practice.

One of the chief fault lines in the generations’ religious strife* had been Rome’s practice — never dictated in Scripture — to limit Holy Communion for the laity to

  1. Bread only, and not both bread and wine; and,
  2. Bread only when distributed by a priest, and not by another lay congregant.

Perhaps this point reads in retrospect like a minor ritualistic difference, but for disputants upholding or breaking the priestly domination over Christ’s body and blood denoted a question of power, of the intrinsic nature of Christianity. Little surprise that the Catholic order of the 1620s barred the reformist practice of permitting communion of both types, distributed by hands unburdened with holy orders.

Ulicky and his right hand broke that prohibition, delivering both bread and wine from his own unworthy lay deacon’s hands. He initially escaped Bohemia, leaving a reformist manifesto in his wake, but was arrested when he attempted to return.

* Both the Bohemian Hussite movement and the later Lutheran Reformation opposed Catholic doctrine restricting communion to the control of ordained priests.

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1622: Charles Spinola, martyr in Japan

Add comment September 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1622, Jesuit Charles Spinola was martyred in Nagasaki.

He was the son of both Spanish noble stock and the spirit of missionary martyrdom that swelled in Europe’s Age of Discovery. As a young man, Spinola thrilled to reports of evangelists suffering for the faith in the New World, for “to die for the faith, to shed his blood for Jesus Christ, seemed to him supreme happiness. Thenceforward all his thoughts tended to the means of attaining this end.” Indeed, his very decision to enter the Jesuit order was “impelled by his ardor for martyrdom.”*

And he would need the ardor, because merely to attain the scene of this hoped-for Calvary in distant Japan would require a Homeric six-year odyssey featuring a shipwreck, a pestilence, a stint in an English prison, nearly drowning in the Caribbean, nearly dying of fever in Goa, and outmaneuvering the attempted interpositions of his powerful family who aspired to a more comfortable and proximate appointment for their kin.

Finally alighting in Nagasaki in 1602, Spinola enjoyed or endured (as the mathematically disposed reader will infer) a twenty-year chase for the palm of martyrdom. He passed most of those years in the small and unglamorous labors of religious and managerial constancy necessary to tend the growing flame of Christianity in Japan.

Around 1612 Japan’s tenuous toleration of Christian proselytizing began taking a turn very much for the worse. The only recently coalesced state had long feared that the Catholic priests dispatched by Spain and Portugal portended the imperial domination visited elsewhere in Asia. Were these Christians, now perhaps two million strong, being prepared as a fifth column?

Spinola went underground, going by the foreshadowing alias “Joseph of the Cross”, a haunt of the shadows who was obliged to conceal himself from daylight because his foreign features were instantly recognizable. With the help of Nagasaki’s ample Christian community he eluded capture for an amazingly long time.

For nearly two years and a half I have devoted myself to encourage and support the Christians of this country, not without great difficulty. Having no home, I pass secretly from house to house, to hear confessions and celebrate our holy mysteries by night. Most of my time I spend in utter solitude, deprived of all human converse and consolation, having only that which God gives to those who suffer for his love … However I am tolerably well, and, though destitute of almost everything and taking but one scanty meal a day, I do not fall away. Does not this prove that “man liveth not by bread alone?”

-Letter of Spinola dated March 20, 1617

He wouldn’t be caught for almost two more years yet after that letter, in December 1618 — whereupon, “seeing that he was discovered, he raised his eyes and hands towards heaven, and in a burst of unutterable joy, humbly thanked God.” God was still going to make Charles Spinola wait another four years for martyrdom, time mostly spent in the “tedium” (Spinola’s word) of prison with some other Christians, on a diet of meager rice portions and regular penitential self-flagellation.

Spinola burned when the time finally came with twenty-one other holy martyrs … plus three Japanese converts who attempted to apostatize to escape the flame, but were put to the stake just the same.

* These quotes, and a good deal of this post’s narrative, come from the public domain hagiography Life of the Blessed Charles Spinola, of the Society of Jesus.

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1592: Thomas Pormort, prey of Richard Topcliffe

Add comment February 20th, 2017 Headsman

Thomas Pormort (or Pormant) was hanged on this date in 1592 on a gibbet erected adjacent to a Paul’s Churchyard haberdashery whose proprietor had once entrusted the condemned Catholic priest with his confession.

Pormort was a priest trained on the continent who returned to native soil about the beginning of 1591 to brave the Elizabethan persecution, but managed only a few months in the field before his arrest.

He had the misfortune to face the personal interrogation of the vindictive inquisitor Richard Topcliffe, notorious even in his own day for his gleeful sadism. Topcliffe seems not to have even feigned a politic distaste for the breaking of bones and and of men and made a point to attend the executions his offices effected, including Pormort’s.

Now, back in the day such grim ministers of state could be empowered to toy with their prey in their very own lairs. Even the sainted Thomas More had kept a personal torture chamber at his own home.

So it was with Topcliffe, who inflicted his hospitality on Pormort in the intimacy of his own place, where he apparently had the facilities necessary to put a prisoner to the rack. According to Portmort, the torturer had another intimacy besides during their pain-wracked discourse, taunting or boasting to his victim of carnal indulgences he enjoyed from the queen herself. Pormort would allege at the bar that

Topcliffe told [Pormort] that he was so familiar with her Majesty that he many times putteth [his hands] between her breasts and paps and in her neck.

That he hath not only seen her legs and knees [but feeleth them] with his hands above her knees.

That he hath felt her belly, and said unto her Majesty that she had the softest belly of any woman kind.

That she said unto him, ‘be not these the arms, legs and body of King Henry?’ To which he answered: ‘Yea.’

That she gave him for a favour a white linen hose wrought with white silk, etc.

That he is so familiar with her that, when he pleaseth to speak with her, he may take her away from any company; and that she is as pleasant with everyone that she doth love.

This Penthouse letter for the queen has no factual plausibility, and nobody thought so in 1592. Whether the priest’s report of its utterance is an actual glimpse into a seditious perversion of the torturer, or a desperate attempt by a doomed man to smear his persecutor, Topcliffe took the matter seriously enough that he made Pormort stand on the ladder under his noose in freezing cold for two hours on execution day while Topcliffe browbeat him to withdraw the allegation. (Pormort didn’t budge.)

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1628: Edmund Arrowsmith, Catholic priest

Add comment August 28th, 2016 Headsman

Lancashire priest Edmund Arrowsmith was martyred on this date in 1628.

Actually named Bryan by his parents, Arrowsmith took the name of an uncle while matriculating at the English seminary in Douai.

He deployed for the old religion his “fervour, zeal and ready wit” in Lancaster from 1612 to 1622, withstood an arrest, then entered the Jesuit order and resumed his underground ministry — until, as the story has it, a man whom Fr. Arrowsmith had chastised for his adulteries petulantly shopped him.

Arrowsmith suffered the horrible public butchery of drawing and quartering, as well as posthumous burning. From the remans, someone retrieved as a relic a charred hand and sent it to Arrowsmith’s relations, who (per a 19th century relative) “keep it in a silver case, and honour it very much, and every Sunday all the crippled or diseased Catholic poor come to kiss it, and the priest touches them with it. It has performed many authentic cures, — some in our time, — so strong is faith.” It has since been transmitted to the Church of St. Oswald and St. Edmund Arrowsmith in Ashton. Look for the stained glass of Edmund and his Holy Hand in this beautiful Flickr album of the church.

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1375: Niccolo di Toldo, in the arms of St. Catherine of Siena

Add comment June 20th, 2016 Headsman

I have one body
And to you I offer and return it.
Here is my flesh;
Here is my blood;
Let me be slain, reduced to nothing;
Let my bones be split apart
For those for whom I am praying, if such is your will.

-Prayer of St. Catherine of Siena (Source)

This date in 1375 is the best data point we have for the beheading of Niccolo di Toldo.

The Sienese archives offer scant documentation of this political execution; a decree of June 4, 1375 orders his examination for “the discord sowed by him in the city of Siena, pernicious and deadly to the state of the present government” — and a couple of letters on Niccolo’s behalf from the governor of neighboring Perugia. Francis Thomas Luongo in The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena — we will come to Catherine presently — next points in lieu of any remaining record of Niccolo’s execution to “the necrology of the Sienese Dominican friary [which] includes an entry for one ‘Nicholaus, familiarius of the Lord Senator,’ who died and was entombed in the cloister of San Domenico on 20 June, the vigil of the feast of Corpus Christi.” It’s not certain that this is the same man but the description fits him, and the date is one week after the last known letter on his behalf from Perugia — which was an appeal for mercy.

We are as ignorant of Niccolo di Toldo’s offense as we are of the date of his death. But his position (in the household of a senator) and his Perugian affiliation suggest him an agent of papal subversion.

Siena’s centuries-long decline from the ranks of Italy’s city-state powers dates ultimately to the Black Death outbreak of 1348. The Plague devastated Siena.

The ensuing generations saw authority in the great Tuscan city furiously contested; the government turned over repeatedly in the 1360s — the Dodici (the Twelve), the Tredici, the Quindici, each an executive committee of interested parties in the coalition of the day.

From the late 1360s and through the 1370s, the Quindici held sway: reformist guild leaders* who were opposed by the the deposed (and by now proscribed) ex-Dodici, Siena’s great magnates in alliance with the papacy. (Luongo delves into Sienese politics in considerable detail in his book.) By year’s end Siena would join a city-state coalition led by Florence that fought a three-year war against the papal states with the excellent name “the War of Eight Saints”.

That coalition and that thrust of policy is likely what a “political subversive” in 1375 Siena would be subverting. And the governor of Perugia appealing to the Sienese for Toldo’s life? He was a French cardinal, kin to Pope Gregory XI.**

Little as we know of Niccolo di Toldo prior to his death, that execution is one of the most famous in all of medieval Europe.

The wretch was comforted in his last days by Catherine of Siena, a young mystic — and, not incidentally, an increasingly influential opponent of the anti-curial political climate. Today, Catherine is the patron saint not only of Siena but of all Europe, and her dessicated head (sawed off her body by devotees for use as a fetish) greets the reverent and the gawker alike, enthroned in its grisly reliquary in the Basilica San Domenico.

(cc) image by Patrick Denker.

Catherine found Niccolo angry at his impending fate, initially refusing to see any spiritual counselor: no state of mind for a soul to meet its maker. Any of the confraternities tasked at this time with succoring those about to face execution would have been charged with bringing such a person to a condition of resignation and penitence.

Catherine achieved her mission to join the doomed man to God but much, much more than that: her account of their relationship, up to the moment when she ecstatically catches his falling bloody head, is a celebration of erotic mysticism. It’s also one of the most famous episodes of the saint’s life.

Niccolo’s virgin helpmate was herself noted for her mystical “marriage to Christ”: in it, Catherine presented her heart to the phantom Savior, and he his ritually circumcised foreskin to her.

Converging religious fervor and carnality mark her interaction with Niccolo, too; at one point she implies that she has sublimated the condemned traitor’s attraction to her into piety, and (as Catherine wrote a follower),

God’s measureless and burning goodness tricked him, creating in him such an affection and love in the desire of me in God, that he did not know how to abide without God, and he said: ‘Stay with me and do not leave me. Like this I cannot but be alright, and I will die content!’ and he had his head resting on my breast. I sensed an intense joy, a fragrance of his blood, and it was not without the fragrance of my own, which I wait to shed for the sweet husband Jesus.

Catherine saw Niccolo di Toldo only twice in the days leading up to his execution. When he went to the block, she was there to meet him: in fact, she was there early and made bold to occupy the condemned’s place on the scaffold, and to stretch her own neck out over the headsman’s block that her kindred spirit would soon soak in gore. It was as if preparing his bridal bed, where she would embrace Niccolo even as the executioner struck — the two as passionately near to one in soul and body as the logistics of a heavy blade’s arc can permit.

[H]e arrived, as a meek lamb, and seeing me, he began to laugh, and he wanted me to make the sign of the cross. When he received the sign, I said, “Come on! to the nuptials, my sweet brother! for soon you will be in life without end.” He got down with great meekness, and I stretched out his neck, and leaning down, I reminded him of the blood of the Lamb. His mouth said nothing but “Jesus” and “Catherine.” And, as he was saying thus, I received his head in my hands, closing his eyes on divine goodness and saying, “I want this!” (“lo voglio”)†

She clutched to herself the lifeless head that had dropped into her lap and beheld “with the greatest envy” Niccolo’s soul ascending in the martyrdom Catherine aspired to. Afterwards, she was reluctant to wash out the clothes spattered with blood from the sacred climax of death.

The Dominican friar Caffarini, an ally of Catherine who was later to become of the principal exponents of her canonization, wrote of the tableau that Niccolo

accepted death while still at a young age, in the presence of the Virgin and with her receiving his head into her hands, with such marvelous devotion that it was like the transitus of some devout martyr and not the death of one who was condemned for a human crime. And everyone watching among whom I was only one was so moved internally and from the heart that I do not remember any previous burial accompanied with as much devotion as that one.

Panel of Francesco Messina‘s 1962 monument to St. Catherine of Siena outside Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo.

* Apart from the enmity of the papal party, the powerful guild leaders of the Quindici faced working-class opposition that resulted in a 1378 revolt.

** Gregory XI was the guy who moved the papacy back from Avignon to Rome.

† Translated excerpts culled from snippets and excerpts in various locations. Original Italian versions of Catherine’s poetic letters are available in public-domain Google books here; there’s also a recent English translation by Susan Noffke.

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