Spirituality for Today – August 2012 – Volume 17, Issue 1

The Priest In The Wall

By Rev. Raymond K. Petrucci

A photo of a basement door

Sixteenth century England was a tough place to be a Catholic (Papist), Henry VIII's Church of England struggled to take hold of the populace and this struggle was part of the inheritance of the young Queen Elizabeth I. Many of her subjects, including a number of the wealthiest and most powerful families in England, remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. These Catholics (recusants) were liable to fines, imprisonment, and even execution. The Englishman, William Allen, emigrated from England to continental Europe where he founded a number of seminaries to train other Englishmen for the mission of returning as priests to serve the Catholics of their homeland and, it was hoped, set the stage for England's return to Catholicism. Elizabeth was concerned over, whether or not, her Catholic subjects would be loyal to her as queen. In 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth and with that act freed the English people from the requirement of allegiance to her. This act made the problem especially acute. Politics and religion were inextricably linked. Now, being a Catholic in England might be construed as tantamount to being a traitor. Allen's newly ordained priests and, especially, the added mission of the Jesuits to England made being a priest or harboring a priest in one's home a deadly activity. Although a mission fraught with danger, many priests crossed the channel to England and found refuge among certain families and remained in their homes, teaching and administering the sacraments. Against this effort, henchmen, called "pursuivants," raided great manors suspected of hiding priests. A Catholic carpenter, a genius at building "hides" for priests, named Nicholas Owen saved the life of many a priest. The following is an example of the intensity of the pursuit:

Downstairs the pursuivants fanned out across the house. Mrs. Wiseman and her two daughters were locked away in her chamber, the family's Catholic servants were segregated in different parts of the building, and the search began. Candles were shone into dark corners. Long rods were brought out to measure walls, checking where the internal and the external dimensions did not tally; and sections that could not be accounted for were demolished. Paneling and floorboards were sounded for hollow spots then swiftly smashed through. This took two days.

– Alice Hogge, God's Secret Age

These priest hunters were successful enough to make caring for a priest's shelter and support or being a hidden priest a daunting enterprise. There is no need to describe the horrors of being drawn-and-quartered – a fate endured by numerous priests and laity. Puritans also drew much suspicion. In fairness, previously Catholic England in like manner persecuted Protestants. In concurrence with the thinking of the age, this suppression was supported and tolerated by the various denominations in power.

The essence of religious persecution lay in its political dimension. Rulers were worried about a particular religion or sect becoming a threat to the state rather than being spurred to action because of a purely religious question. Thus, Catholic nations and Protestant nations, on occasion, fought as allies in a number of these so-called "religious" wars. This concern is not a new one and the nature of the opposing forces has had many names. In the United States, no wonder that religious issues confronting political policies engender such intense response. Moral stands, most often, are defined by faith. Therefore, the faith of a person in power, along with their defense of the Constitution, will, at its best, safeguard the rights and responsibilities of all citizens. Abundant prayers should be offered for the protection of our leaders and for the guidance requisite to safeguard our religious liberties.

Many centuries have passed since a priest in England has had to feel compelled to hide in a wall. Although the monarch, who serves as Governor of the Church of England, cannot be Catholic, in 2011 another Queen Elizabeth – the Second by name – has discontinued the ban on an heir to the English throne being prohibited from marrying a Catholic. Far from being traitorous, English Catholics have proved their patriotism. American Catholics have irrefutably done the same. May these nations combat religious prejudice resolutely and may the law of the land protect the faiths within their borders. Yet, to all people of faith – be vigilant!