“We offered prayers and sacrifices to make reparation and atonement for our sins and the sins of our country,” said Frances Scarr, chairman of Art and Reconciliation Trust, at a press conference April 29. The conference was held, appropriately enough, at the Charterhouse, where proto-martyr St. John Houghton had served and where St. Thomas More had received spiritual formation during his four-year residency as a young man.
The “fruit of that prayer and sacrifice,” Scarr said, is a memorial, a sculpture entitled Mary Most Holy, which is scheduled to be unveiled next year in Chelsea near the very spot where the Marian shrines were burned. Cromwell, instigator of the burnings, was himself beheaded at Henry VIII’s order in 1540.
The artist behind Mary Most Holy is Paul Day, a leading English sculptor who sculpted the large memorial to the Battle of Britain (1940) that stands by the Thames near the Houses of Parliament.
Mary Most Holy “is not just about reparation but is also very much about reconciliation,” Scarr said at the conference. “I hope that when we come together before this monument we will ask for God’s forgiveness and through the intercession of Mary, we will pray that she will help us put behind our turbulent past and lead us forward in unity, peace, and reconciliation.”
“When you bring things out from the past, you have to make sure that everyone sees it as a way to move forward,” Marist Father Noel Wynn, director of the Catholic shrine at Walsingham, said. “The danger is that people might see this as a way to apportion blame.”
That’s not the project’s intent.
Thousands of pilgrims, mainly Anglican and Catholic, visit the Catholic and Anglican shrines at present-day Walsingham, which also has ruins of the monastery destroyed during Henry VIII’s reign.
Art and Reconciliation Trust’s trustees include two Anglicans who are on the College of Guardians, the group that governs the Anglican shrine in Walsingham. One of these, Canon Martin Warner, the head of the College of Guardians, serves at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Patrons of the Mary Most Holy sculpture include Msgr. Graham Leonard, the former Anglican Bishop of London, who entered the Catholic Church in 1994 and served as president of the Path to Rome conferences, as well as Edward Fitzalan-Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, the highest-ranking duke and Catholic in England.
The Mary Most Holy sculpture will be a bronze triptych about 12 feet high and 10 feet wide. In the two side panels, iconoclastic thugs in modern dress are smashing the statues with sledgehammers. Some mock the figure of Jesus on the cross; one, however, mournfully cradles the decapitated head of Mary — “suddenly realizing that he is destroying the heritage that he and his family and his family’s family were devoted to,” sculptor Day said in an interview the day before the press conference. In the background are headless saints, their hands folded in prayer.
Paul Day himself has been influenced by the three main religious groups (Catholic, Anglican, Puritan) involved in the 16th- and 17th-century religious controversies in England. Day received eight years of instruction as a boy in a Church of England primary school in Horsham, his hometown, and for seven years was a member of a “brilliant Baptist church.” For the past 15 years the 41-year-old sculptor and his wife have lived in the town of Beaune in the Burgundy region of France, where Day has been greatly influenced by the medieval art in Catholic churches.
“I am absolutely convinced that Christ is not only God’s revelation to man but he’s my personal savior,” Day said. Although he doesn’t regularly attend church (there are no Protestant churches in Beaune), “it would be lovely to be in Christian fellowship,” Day says. “The differences that divide Catholics, Anglicans and Baptists are important, but they are not insurmountable. The shared foundation of truth is absolutely what matters.”
In the central panel of Mary Most Holy are the figures of Mary and the child Jesus, flanked by two figures, one penitent and the other adoring, on a “bare, ruined” street, as Day describes it. Despite the destruction in the two side panels, “the mood of the sculpture is ultimately very positive,” Day explains.
“In a piece which is otherwise quite complicated, Mary and Jesus stand proud and are clear” — as if emerging unvanquished by the divisions among Christians shown in the side panels. “Reconciliation requires confrontation with the truth of the past,” Day said at the press conference.
Since the Second Vatican Council, Anglicans and Catholics have become more open to each other than before, says Richard Mortimer, an Anglican who serves at Westminster Abbey Library in London. Nowadays “there’s the awareness that all Christians together are a minority in this country.”
The percentage of English Protestants and Catholics who worship in churches is so low that, in any given week, “there are almost as many Sikhs worshipping in their temples as there are Christians — Protestants and Catholics — in churches,” Mortimer observes.
“Most people in England — which after all is quite Godless and secular — don’t have a heart for purification and reparation,” admits Antonia Moffat, a Catholic lay leader who helped organize 100 all-night Eucharistic vigils of prayer and reparation in London and Walsingham. “We don’t need to apportion blame for the past, but, as a nation, England wronged Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and his Holy Mother and we need to make reparation.”
On busy Bayswater Road in central London, near the spot at Tyburn where Saints John Houghton, Edmund Campion, Oliver Plunket, and the other 105 Catholic martyrs were executed, stands a convent. Here is a shrine to the martyrs and Perpetual Adoration of the Eucharist by the 25 cloistered nuns in the Tyburn Benedictine order.
“We pray for the conversion of England,” Mother Simeon, prioress of the order, said. The order’s charism reflects the martyrs’ sacrifice, she said, adding, “The martyrs died for their loyalty to the pope and for the Holy Eucharist, and they died praying for the conversion of their country.”
Bryan Berry is based in
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