Eight panels under the half dome in the sanctuary at Holy Name bear images of saints popular when this church was built in 90 years ago. They are, from left to right, Thomas Becket, Thomas More, Margaret Clitherow, the Angel Gabriel, George, Margaret of Scotland, John Fisher and Cuthbert. (Along with the four panels in the Ambo as well as the 14 Stations of the Cross in the side-aisles, they are signed by a Dutch artist, Fr J Coppejans, and dated 1932.)

The third panel from the left is an image of St Margaret Clitherow. Her feast day occurs on Friday (30 August, the date poet Seamus Heaney also died). Margaret born in York in 1556. After converting to Catholicism at the age of 18, she risked her life by harboring and maintaining priests which had been made a capital offence by an Act of Parliament in 1584 during the English Reformation. This Act stipulated that all Catholic priests should leave the country within 40 days or they would be punished for high treason – unless, within the 40 days, they swore an oath to obey the Queen. People who harbored them, and anyone who knew of their presence and failed to inform the authorities, would be fined and imprisoned for felony, or, where the authorities wished to make an example of them, they might be executed.

In spite of this law, Margaret’s home became one of the most important hiding places for fugitive priests in the north of England. Eventually, however, she was arrested for her crime. She refused to plead, thereby preventing a trial that would entail her three children being made to testify and subjected to torture. Although pregnant with her fourth child she was executed in York on Good Friday 1586 by being crushed to death.  The two sergeants who should have carried out the execution hired four desperate beggars to do it instead. She was stripped, had a handkerchief tied across her face and then laid across a sharp rock the size of a man’s fist. The door from her own house was put on top of her and loaded with an immense weight of rocks and stones so that the sharp rock would break her back. Her death occurred within fifteen minutes, but her body was left for six hours before the weight was removed. [source: Wikipedia]

Margaret Clitherow was declared saint in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. She is commemorated on 30 August along with martyrs Anne Line and Margaret Ward, two other northern women who also were executed during the reign of Elizabeth for assisting priests.

The second panel on the left is an image of St Thomas More. Born in 1478, he was an English lawyer who was councilor to King Henry VIII and Lord High Chancellor of England. After the Pope refused to declare Henry’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon null and void, Henry declared himself “Supreme Head of the Church in England”, thereby setting up the Anglican Church. Thomas More refused to recognise the divorce and the King’s break with the Catholic Church. He esigned as Lord Chancellor and continued to argue against the King. When he refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy, More was convicted of treason and was beheaded on 6 July 1535.

Just before his execution, More was reported to have said: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”  It was a principled stand adopted by Margaret Clitherow. On the day before his execution, More wrote a letter from the Tower of London to his daughter, Margaret Roper. It contained a sentence used much since then by Catholics at a time of bereavement, and which is often printed on Memoriam Cards. More asked his daughter:

Pray for me as I will for thee that we may merrily meet in heaven.

 In today’s Gospel (Luke 13:22-30) Jesus refers to what More called ‘heaven’ as a happy place – a state of merriment – where God will host a feast or banquet for all his people, as envisaged by the Prophet Isaiah in the First Reading  (66:18-21). However, Jesus warns his fellow Jews that they will not have automatic entry to this feast simply because they are Jews. They need to pass through the ‘narrow door’ or gate of accepting him and following his teaching. If they reject him, then others (converts from other races) will be admitted before them. Hence his saying: ‘The last (pagans) shall be first, and the first (Jews who reject him) will be last.’ Their loss or separation will leave them with “weeping and grinding of teeth”.

What does his teaching say to us today? Well, there is no mention of Hell here and no threat of eternal damnation. It’s a consoling message from Jesus – we who try to follow his teaching – however imperfectly – have much to look forward to in the next life. We might dread dying but when it happens He will lead us into the loving presence of God.

This is the stark and simple truth – too simple for many – of Christ’s teaching. However, for we who do believe, we try to live in the hope that we will merrily meet in heaven with those who have gone before us.

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
25 August 2019

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