For All the Saints: The Martyrs of Douai College

 A few days back, we learned about the Bond family and their recusant Catholic past. Also a few days ago, CARA released survey results saying Catholics really want to learn more about the saints, and such. So let’s put it to the test with this post, shall we? Because this post has got it all, from daring do, to fidelity to the faith. Sainthood and martyrdom.

It’s dangerous business being a Catholic.  Dangerous, that is, if your idea of being thought well of is to be looked upon with favor by such worldly paragons as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. If by becoming a Catholic you hope to curry favor with the world, here is a little news flash: that ain’t a gonna happen. It never has, and never will.

And in the end, it may cost you your life.

A little over a fortnight ago, a feast day (October 29) came and went with nary much mention.  The Feast of the Blessed Martyrs of Douai College is the one I speak of now, and as the Thanksgiving holiday rapidly approaches, what better way to celebrate our true thankfulness then to read of some of the bravest souls ever to march in the ranks of God’s not so secret service?

Here is the snippet that the editors at Universalis give us,

The English College at Douai was founded in 1569 to educate English Catholics, and in particular to act as a seminary training priests to enter England covertly, minister to English Catholics, and attempt the re-conversion of England to the faith. Simply being a Catholic priest was high treason in England at this time, with the penalty of hanging, drawing and quartering, and more than 160 of the priests from Douai were thus executed. Each time the news of another execution reached the College, a solemn Mass of thanksgiving was sung.

What?! Covertly? Christian Black-Ops?! Sign me up for that, because this sounds like a mission that only a Marine could love. Or a samurai. Suffice it to say that the seminarians of this particular English outpost, in France, knew that they were headed behind enemy lines on a one way mission. These priests were kamikazes for Christ. And this also was where the Douay-Rhiems translation of the Bible was produced? Tell me more bwana!

I did some digging over at Google Books and found The First and Second Diaries of the English College, Douay for more in-depth information on this heretofore little unknown (to me, that is) historical episode. I promptly added that volume to the YIMCatholic Bookshelf.

What follows is from the Introduction of that book and are the words of Cardinal William Allen, the head of the institution during this time. Just a few short paragraphs, really, but they speak volumes as to the resolve of the Roman Catholic Church, and her servants, not to bend a knee to the “powers that be” if doing so will compromise the souls of the faithful. Let’s go back in time, in order to prepare ourselves for the possible future…

In ordinary years we advance to the priesthood twenty, or thereabouts, and send as many every year to England. Since the college began we have given to the Lord’s work above 160 priests, concerning whose instruction, learning and method of training I will say a few words, at your request, if you will allow me to premise what follows.

Doing the quick math, that means this infiltration of England went on for 8 solid years. Remember that at this time, being a Catholic in England was illegal. Treason was the charge, with the death penalty as the punishment. By this time, the gloves were off and the State wasn’t kidding about eliminating the Church. If you’ve ever heard the slogan “Death Before Dishonor,” that is what the average lay Catholic in England had to live under. And the priests? Gallows bound. So forget training the next crop of deep thinkers, and bring on the 90 Day wonders, like you do in wartime officer commissioning programs.

Our students, being intended for the English harvest, are not required to excel or be great proficients in theological science, though their teachers ought to be as learned and prudent as possible; but they must abound in zeal for God’s house, charity and thirst for souls. True it is that the more knowledge they possess concerning the Scriptures and controversial divinity, and the greater the prudence and discretion which they couple with this knowledge, so much the more abundant will be their success. Still when they have burning zeal, even though deep science be wanting, provided always they know the necessary heads of religious doctrine and the power and nature of the sacraments, such men, among the more skilled labourers whom we have in nearly all the provinces of the kingdom, also do good work in hearing confessions and offering sacrifice, which are the points to which we especially direct our instructions according to the gifts and ability of each one.

In a wartime situation, give me troops with zeal and fortitude over those without the same any day of the week! And for covert operations? Give me troops who know what they are fighting for. Not for mere mercenary glory, but for the survival of Truth.

Moreover we make it our first and foremost study, both, in the seminary and in England by means of our labourers, to stir up, so far as God permits, in the minds of Catholics, especially of those who are preparing here for the Lord’s work, a zealous and just indignation against the heretics. This we do by setting before the eyes of the students the exceeding majesty of the ceremonial of the Catholic church in the place where we live, the great dignity of the holy sacrifice and sacrament, and the devotion and diligence with which the people come to church, confess their sins and hear sermons: while at the same time we picture to them the mournful contrast visible at home, the utter desolation of all things sacred which there exists, our country once so famed for its religion and holy before God now void of all religion, our friends and kinsfolk, all our dear ones and countless souls besides perishing in schism and godlessness, every jail and dungeon filled to overflowing, not with thieves and villains, but with Christ’s priests and servants, nay, with our parents and kinsmen.

Sure, that was one helluva long sentence. But the freedom for the souls of our brethern was at stake. And these few stood up for the challenge. And this is the wartime situation that none of us has ever really faced. And again, in order to endure it, it is time to get back to the fundamentals. The Catholicism that was enjoyed in peactime isn’t going to cut it. It will be time to dig in and fully embrace prayer and the Sacraments like this,

Then turning to ourselves we must needs confess that all these things have come upon our country through our sins. We ought therefore to do penance and confess our sins not in a perfunctory way as we used to do when, for custom’s sake, we confessed once a year; but we should go into our whole past life and perform the spiritual exercises under the fathers of the Society in order to perfect the examination of our consciences, and choose a holier state of life and one more fitted to secure our own salvation and that of others. We should likewise enter into a holy union with these fathers or others, so as to pray unceasingly with many for our church and country and the afflicted Catholics who live there, and we should excite ourselves to pity and tears for them, but above all for those who are perishing so wretchedly at home, and then consider in what way we, even we, may be able to snatch some of them from ruin, remembering that this would cover the multitude of our sins.

“We few, we happy few. We band of brothers…” as the famous St. Crispins Day (October 25th) speech of William Shakespeares Catholic King, Henry V, delivers to his demoralized troops before the battle of Agincourt. Have a look at what it was like when England was Catholic,

Now that is a speech! “What can we do?,” is what these seminarians at Douai asked. And they resolved to give their all to save, and minister to, the souls of the English faithful. For as long as it took. And all the while knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, that they would be almost certainly killed for this.

What gave them comfort and solace was the sure knowledge that they had the full, and unequivocal, support of Mother Church behind them, which in the end means everything.

Lastly we should resolve to confess more frequently, communicate more devoutly and study more diligently, so as to prepare ourselves for the priesthood, which Christ has given us the opportunity of receiving even in exile, beyond all our hopes and deservings; seeing that we have found so much favor with foreigners that they assist us, nay more, that Christ’s own Vicar does not disdain us, miserable and unworthy though we be, but entertains us at his own expense for that end which God has predetermined.

For His name’s sake,

Therefore we should desire to correspond in some measure with God’s providence which has brought us forth unharmed from Sodom, and we should long to serve Him in the sacred priesthood, not because that order, as was formerly the case and always should be, brings with it profit or honor among men, but because we wish at this present time, when it is an office contemptible in the world’s eyes and perilous, to labour for Christ and the church and the salvation of our people in tears and penance.

Not my glory, but to God be the glory is what these 160 priests gave there lives up for. Forgive me for the scenes of carnage below, but in honor of these 160 martyrs of Doaui, perhaps you will join me in singing the Non Nobis and Te Deum from Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic version of Shakespeare’s Henry V in their honor.

So I ask: should this post be read more, and shared more, than the post with Dennis Miller’s quip about Sandra Fluke?

Pretend I’m from Missouri and show me.

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