By Oliver Delargy
On Tuesday 24th April, Canon Stuart Wilson led the seekers group to a meeting at the Tyburn Convent near Marble Arch for an evening of prayer and discussion on the English Martyrs and their connection to Catholic priesthood today.
The seekers group is an initiative run by the Vocations Office for men who are seriously considering whether God may be calling them to apply to train for the priesthood in the Diocese of Westminster. There are currently over a dozen men who attend the monthly meetings. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions, yet they share the sense that God is asking something of them, and feel called to discern with the Church whether they are being called to take a further step by joining one of our national seminaries.
With that in mind, the seekers gathered in the chapel of the Tyburn Convent for an extended time of Eucharistic Adoration before going downstairs to the Martyrs’ Chapel for some reflection from Sr Thomasina of the Tyburn community, as well as from Canon Stuart. Sr Thomasina welcomed us warmly and immediately reminded us that we were standing on the blood of the martyrs. From there, she introduced us to the story of Tyburn, the mission of the Sisters who pray continually on the holy site, and how they regarded us who had come along.
Tyburn became a key site during the long years of the English Reformation. The ‘Tyburn Tree’, as it was known, was erected as an instrument of execution for all who were deemed to be traitors of the English Crown during the 16th and 17th centuries. Following Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1534, many who remained faithful to the Mass and the Successor of St Peter went to their deaths at Tyburn by the brutal method of hanging, drawing and quartering.
A large number of English Catholics who met this fate from 1535 to 1681 were men who had fled to the Continent to be trained as priests and subsequently returned to England to administer the sacraments to their people. Both Sr Thomasina and Canon Stuart emphasised in their addresses that the Catholic Church in England today is built on the tradition of the martyrs.
What was particularly striking in Sr Thomasina’s words was her associating of the seekers with the martyrs. She reminded us that the word ‘martyr’ translates as ‘witness’, and thus as part of the group we were already witnessing to the power of offering our lives out of love for Christ and his Church. The directness of her words, towards men who may in time be called to act in persona Christi, was very moving and was received as an exhortation to deep and sincere discernment, given the dignity of the priestly vocation.
Similarly, Canon Stuart told us that the tradition of martyr priesthood is central to the self-understanding of the seminarians and priests of the diocese. Following the example of Jesus, the martyrs embraced their fate in their inner joy that they were doing the will of God. As their descendants, discerners, seminarians and priests alike in London today are called to remember this rich heritage and mission in ministering to God’s people in this city.
At the end of her address, Sr Thomasina invited the seekers to venerate the altar of the Martyrs’ Chapel, which contained relics of Saints Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell. She explained that the tradition of priests venerating the altar goes back to the first century in the catacombs, where Masses would be celebrated above the graves of the Apostles. For us seekers, it was an extraordinary privilege to visit and pray at this holy site. Sr Thomasina left us with a final thought that it is the mission of the Tyburn Sisters to pray especially for priests and seminarians as the ‘heart’ of the Mystical Body of Christ, with the lay faithful and clergy called to act as Christ’s hands and feet in the world today. As we continue to discern how the Lord is calling us to live out our baptism, we would kindly ask for your prayers too.