One of the glories of the post-Vatican II Church is the growth on Ecumenism; and the lessening of bigotry and religious intolerance. The blood of martyrs is powerful in


By   Alan McElwain

IN a joyous ceremony, Pope John Paul beatified 85 British martyrs in a packed St Peter's Basilica, Rome. The 85 had died in religious persecutions between 1583 and 1679.

This was the largest ever mass beatification ceremony. Pope John Paul described it as a mark of the progress made in developing ecumenical links between the Catholic and Anglican Churches.

The Pope recalled that other great ecumenical occasion, back in 1970, when, in this same spot, Pope Paul VI canonised 40 English martyrs, "decreeing and defining" them as saints. Cardinal John Carmel Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster, who had championed the martyrs' canonisation from the start, said in an address, "This day, ecumenism has been vindicated". In the immense basilica the immense congregation applauded mightily.


On the eve of the beatification ceremony (Sunday, November 22,1987) the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, joined the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, in issuing an unprecedented joint statement of thanksgiving for the event that put the 85 martyrs, now called "Blessed", on their final step towards full sainthood. The statement said:

"Today we have learned to view past controversy and division in a new light and with a common desire to heal ancient wounds. The theological conversations between Anglicans and Roman Catholics and dialogue with other Christians, together with the movement towards Christian unity in England, Scotland and Wales known as the Inter-Church Process, provide evidence that many of the issues which deeply divided Christians in the sixteenth and subsequent centuries can be resolved. Even where there is not yet substantial agreement we can see a convergence of understanding which the divided communities of the past would have found hard to credit and which some in both our communities today still find hard to accept."

Archbishop Runcie and Cardinal Hume added:

"This reconciliation of memories and this common commitment to unity involve no disloyalty to our own Church and history. Yet we have grown to recognise that those who were put to death on both sides of the Reformation divide were martyred by their brothers and sisters in Christ".

If we go back for a moment to the 40 English Martyrs canonisation in 1970, we can appreciate how strongly the unity theme stands out above all else on these occasions.

Said Pope Paul VI:

"May the blood of these martyrs be able to heal the great wound inflicted upon God's Church by reason of the separation of the Anglican Church from the Catholic Church. Is it not one - these martyrs say to us - the Church founded by Christ? Is not this their witness? Their devotion to their nation gives us the assurance that on that day when - God willing - the unity of the faith and of Christian life is restored no offence will be inflicted on the honour and sovereignty of a great country such as England".

Before the 40 English martyrs the biggest mass canonisation had been for 22 African Negroes, known as the Uganda Martyrs. They were Bantus put to death between November 1885 and January 1887 by the pagan Kabaka Mwanga, who hated all missionaries and converts to Christianity.

Pope Paul VI canonised the 22 in St Peter's on October 18, 1965, in a ceremony underlying the Vatican's growing concern for the Church in Africa and its opposition to racial intolerance. Up until then, the Church had never raised to its altars even one full-blooded African Negro and the scene in St Peter's, was I well recall, did more than justice to the occasion. The vast basilica was thronged with coloured people. Crowds of pilgrims from Africa were dressed in national costume. The basilica echoed to the wild notes of tom-toms and the monotonous chants of Uganda natives.

In the ceremony, Pope Paul was assisted by a black cardinal, the first ever Negro Prince of the Church. He was Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa, son of pagan parents of the Bahaya tribe in Tanganyika, whom missionaries subsequently converted to Catholicism. Laurean was trained for the priesthood by the White Fathers, the great missionary Order in Africa. He was ordained in 1943 and went to Rome for higher studies.

On March 28, 1960, when Laurean Rugambwa, then 47, was Bishop of Rutabo, Tanganyika, Pope John XXIII, to quote a London newspaper correspondent, "opened a real surprise packet". He named Bishop Rugambwa the first Negro cardinal ever created in the almost 2,000-year-old Catholic Church. In no more forceful way could John Pope of the brotherhood of man, have shown white racists and the apostles of apartheid what the Church thought of their cult. Civilised millions, black and white, of all nations and all creeds, rejoiced.

Dr Channing H. Tobias, an official of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, sent Pope John a cable from New York. Bishop Rugambwa's elevation, he said, gives American Negroes a deep sense of pride and an abiding feeling of encouragement'.

Justice Francis E. Rivers, of New York City Court, a non-Catholic Negro, described the appointment as a "dramatic and courageous challenge to all racist dictators who strive ruthlessly to deny soul and dignity to human beings because of accident of birth". He added: "Bishop Rugambwa's appointment is an inspiration to those struggling for freedom in Africa and every other land".


Up until 1752 in England, the feast of the Annunciation, march 25, was New Years's day - a relic of England's Catholic past. The Romans had always begun their year in March - hence the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months were called 'Septem-ber', 'Octo-ber', 'Novem-ber' and 'Decem-ber'. January 1st was adopted universally as the first day of the year following modifications to the calendar made by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.

Cardinal Rugambwa, who subsequently became Archbishop of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, came to Rome to receive his Red Hat (they still had them in those days!) from the Pope. Four other new cardinals had been created with him. With their attendants, they came out in procession in 5t Peter's and walked slowly towards Pope John, who was seated on his throne at the high altar. The other three cardinals received quite a warm welcome from the large congregation, but when the 6-ft tall black cardinal appeared there was a spontaneous, spine-tingling crash of applause from the overwhelmingly white spectators, which grew and grew as he got closer to the white-robed figure awaiting him.

When it was Laurean Rugambwa's turn to kneel before Pope John, the Pope greeted him with a huge smile, held both his hands in his own and had a lively conversation with him. The . applause increased - and it increased still more when the black man-turned-symbol walked away.

Watching it all, I wished that those "racist dictators" had been there ...


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