Sunday 28 February 2010

Bishops and bishops

As English or Welsh Catholics it is perhaps unsurprising if we are sometimes inclined to be somewhat sceptical of our bishops. "After all," it will be (has been) said, "all but one of them caved in to Henry VIII's government in 1532." It is, rather embarrassingly, true and we, perhaps, cast around looking for the Saint John Fisher of our day. What is unfortunately forgotten, however, is that at the accession of Elizabeth I and the reinstatement of the schism the figures were completely reversed!
Only one bishop accepted the Elizabethan settlement. All the others refused it and were deprived of their sees. As far as I am aware none were actually put to death but they have a claim upon our affections second only to the martyrs themselves. In fact in all but the shedding of their blood they deserve to be called martyrs. Theirs was a silent, largely invisible, witnessing as they disappeared from view, frequently - as in the case of Richard Pates, the last Catholic bishop of Worcester, dying in exile. In short there is a true story to be told of English episcopal heroism that generally goes unremarked.

Perhaps it is true today.

I can certainly understand how laypeople who find themselves "in the front line" defending a Catholic position can, at times, feel dismayed by the apparent silence or aquiesence of our shepherds in the face of public attack. Sometimes, however, silence is the only proper answer. Pope St Clement I in his Letter to the Corinthians in a memorable phrase speaks of Our Lord Jesus Christ who "spoke up for the truth before Pontius Pilate". Much of that "speaking up", we find in the Gospel, was, paradoxically, silence.

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