LIBERA ME, Domine, Iesu Christe, ab omnibus iniquitatis meis et universis malis,
fac me tuis semper inhærere mandatis et a te numquam separari permittas. Amen.

Monday, 1 February 2010

An Island of Saints ?

Am I the only Catholic in England who was slightly concerned by the huge excitement last year over the relics of S. Therese ?

Let me make it quite clear : I was delighted that they came to England, and I was amongst those who visited them, venerated them, and spent time in prayer before them – and I am delighted that they clearly were instrumental in a growth in devotion, holiness, and grace amongst Christians.

So why am I concerned ?

Well, I suppose for the same reason that I am slightly concerned about the passionate enthusiasm of English Catholics for Lourdes.

England was once known as an ‘Island of Saints’; and the tombs of many English Saints – and the relics of even more – are still readily available to the faithful, as well as an apparently limitless collection of relics of other saints from every age and nation : yet I have little doubt that more people venerated the relics of S. Therese in the short time they were in the UK than venerated all the relics put together in the whole of 2009; in just the same way that there always seems to be more enthusiasm in a parish for a pilgrimage to Lourdes than for one to Walsingham, despite the fact that Our Lady appeared at Walsingham almost 800 years before she appeared to S. Bernadette, and that England was ‘Mary’s Dowry’ half a millennium before she first appeared in the Grotto at Masabielle.

What I can’t work out is why this is so.

OK : I accept that many of England’s Saints rest in what are now Anglican cathedrals; but they are open to all, and in my experience give a warm welcome to Catholics who want to visit the shrines and tombs, whether to pray at them, or simply to visit them. (And, indeed, many of them are very happy for Catholic Masses to be said at them as well !)

And what about Westminster ? The queues to venerate the Little Flower there were tremendous. What I wonder, though, is how many of those people, who thought it worthwhile to queue for hours to venerate a splendid reliquary with some of S. Therese in it, also found a few moments to visit the Shrine of S. John Southworth, and light a candle and say a prayer there, before the body, clearly displayed, of that English Martyr who lies in the Cathedral which now stands in what used to be his ‘parish’, and who was born in heaven more than two centuries before S. Therese.

Could it just be another manifestation of the English refusal to believe that there is anything good in England ? Could it be that we find it hard to accept that there are any patterns worth imitating in English sainthood, or that we have any lessons to learn from them ? Or is it just that we’ve more-or-less forgotten that they exist, simply because they’re always there ?

I don’t know : but I do hope that, as part of the revival of enthusiasm and devotion which the relics of S. Therese kindled in England, a little part of it will be directed towards a restoration of interest in, and devotion towards, those ‘holy confessors, bishops, and kings, all those holy monks and hermits, all those holy virgins and widows, who made this once an island of saints’.


  1. A few years ago, before I had come home to the Church, I visited the church at Whitchurch Canonicorum. This lovely little church is one of only two shrines in England that survived the reformation with its relics intact. At the time, the experience of being in this place made a big impression on me; here there seemed to be some sort of continuity in English Christianity.

    Whenever I get the chance, I pop in to visit St. Bede in Durham Cathedral. The experience is always moving, but it is somehow different. It seems to be a grave, not a shrine in the true sense. Instead of a reminder about the continuity, there is a reminder of the great divide. Great sadness is mixed with the joy.

  2. Thank you for this post. In November 2008 the restored shrine of St Thomas of Hereford in Hereford cathedral was rededicated during a wonderful ecumenical sevice and through the great generosity of Roman Catholic church a relic of the saint was placed back in the shrine. The shrine has now become a great focus for prayer.

  3. Gregory;
    I do hope you don't ignore the rest of the saintly inhabitants of Durham Cathedral whilsy you're there ! :-)

    thank you for mentioning that. S. Thomas is not alone in that respect - it was a German Bishop who gave S. Alban's Abbey back a relic of their Saint !

  4. "I do hope you don't ignore the rest of the saintly inhabitants of Durham Cathedral whilsy you're there ! :-)"

    I try not to! But I seek out the saints who combine the intellectual with the spiritual for my personal devotions.