The prayer of the English people to St Peter

I was in England on 29 June, and I was greatly struck by the attachment that English Catholics still have today to the pope and the Church of Rome. This attachment has its roots in the painful schism that took place in the sixteenth century, tearing England away from the true faith. The author of this schism was King Henry VIII, who, in the grip of a diabolical passion for the lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn, divorced his wife Catherine of Aragon, and in defiance of the papal ban, married her in 1533. Pope Clement VII did not recognise the marriage, and the following year Henry VIII had parliament approve the Act of Supremacy which separated the kingdom from the Roman Catholic religion and established a national church, later called Anglican, of which the king was the supreme head. The English people were Catholics, but few churchmen, dignitaries and aristocrats dared brave the imprisonment and death that awaited them if they went against the sovereign.

The first among these were the eminent layman Thomas More, chancellor of the kingdom, and Bishop John Fisher, whom the pope made a cardinal before his execution. A period of pitched political and religious struggles ensued, in which Pope Saint Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII, and the Spanish king Philip II tried to conquer the kingdom of England. But Providence had ordained otherwise. For more than two centuries, a legion of saints bore the witness of loyalty to Rome, ready to face the worst of deaths in defence of the Catholic faith.

The condemned man, brought on a cart to the place of execution, was horribly mutilated whilst still alive and conscious. After castrating the victim the executioner slit open his belly and pulled out the intestines, which were burned in a brazier before his eyes. Then the executioner cut off his head and proceeded to quarter the body — dividing it into four parts with an axe — first cutting vertically, then horizontally. The quarters of his body were hung in different parts of the city. St Oliver Plunkett, the last Catholic martyr of England, was quartered in London in 1681 following the Popish Plot, a fictitious Jesuit conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II, but in reality made up by the fanatical Anglican Titus Oates to gain favour with the sovereign. 

Of the countless Catholic martyrs of England and Wales, Margaret Pole and 40 others were beatified by Leo XIII in 1886, and nine more in 1895. Thomas Hereford and 106 other martyrs were beatified by Pius XI on 15 December 1929. On 25 October 1970, Paul VI canonised 40 martyrs, 11 of whom belonged to the group beatified in 1886 and 29 to that of 1929. Finally, on 22 November 1987, George Haydock and 84 Catholics from England, Scotland and Ireland, who had been disemboweled at Tyburn, were beatified by John Paul II.

At Tyburn, next to the very place of execution facing Hyde Park, a small convent was built where prayers are made for the intercession of these martyrs. There hovers around it the same supernatural scent that one breathes in so many Catholic chapels, churches, shrines and monasteries in the United Kingdom, from London to the mists of Scotland and the coasts of Cornwall.

The feast of Saints Peter and Paul on 29 June, which in Italy is a holy day of obligation only for the diocese of Rome, is obligatory nationwide in England. And on that day, a beautiful prayer is recited which expresses all the love of this people for the Chair of Peter:

O Blessed Prince of Apostles, Vicar of Christ, Shepherd of the whole flock, Rock on whom the Church is built, we thank the Prince of Pastors who, in the ages of Faith, did bind this country
so sweetly and strongly to thee and to that holy See of Rome from which her conversion came. We praise and bless our Lord for those steadfast Confessors who laid down their lives for thy honour and prerogative in the hour when schism and heresy broke upon the land. We desire to revive the zeal, the devotion and the love of ancient days. We consecrate our country, as far as in us lies, fervently and lovingly to thee. We offer thee our homage. We renew our loyalty to the Pontiff, thy successor, who now fills the Apostolic See. Do thou confirm and strengthen, by thy powerful intercession, the faith of the Pastors and people who invoke thee, save us from apostasy, from disunion, from religious indifference, and from the losses to which ignorance and temptation expose our little flock. O most sincere and most humble penitent, obtain for us tears of true repentance for our sins, and a strong personal love for our Divine Master; O Key-bearer of the Heavenly Kingdom, open to us the gate of Heaven, that we may enter into the joy of the King of Glory. Remember this realm of England, which grew in grace and unity under thy blessed apostolic influence for nigh a thousand years. Pray to Jesus that all may see the way and be brought back to thy Fold, which is the One Fold of Christ.

This is not an English prayer; it is universal, like every Catholic prayer. Today, the smoke of Satan, which according to the words of Paul VI, has penetrated within the Temple of God, envelops the Chair of Peter itself. But for this very reason, we need to increase our love for the pope and for the papacy; for the immortal Rome of martyrs and saints, which sent apostles and missionaries to every corner of the earth to spread the truth of the Gospel. Today, there is a need for new apostles who, from England to Russia, may convert the world to the Holy Roman Church, which alone is truly one, catholic and apostolic, and which has its foundation in the successor of Blessed Peter, Vicar of Christ. The prayer is a necessary one.