Hundreds of people gathered in the beautiful grounds of Harvington Hall, Worcestershire, for the annual pilgrimage to The Shrine of the English Martyrs.

Despite the changeable weather on Sunday 4 September the pilgrimage attracted visitors from parishes across the Archdiocese.

The Mass commemorating the English Martyrs was celebrated by Canon Richard Walker, with numerous clergy concelebrating.

Beforehand visitors could enjoy guided tours of Harvington - the ‘House of Secrets’ - and an opportunity for picnics in the grounds.

The pilgrimage is an integral part of the annual calendar for both Harvington Hall and the Archdiocese of Birmingham, as Canon Richard explained in his Homily:

As I was reflecting over the summer on the story of Harvington, I couldn’t help but think back to my time spent in formation for the priesthood at the English College in Rome. That college has a very strong tradition of its martyrs and is rightly proud of the 44 men ordained from there who came back here, knowing the danger they would be in, but who had the courage and faith to return, and, as today’s Gospel put it, to be brought before governors and kings as a witness to their faith, and were martyred.

As a seminarian in that college, it made me ask myself the question whether, if I was in their situation, I would’ve done the same. Would I, as the First Reading today put it, have risked ‘the witness of martyrdom because in the face of death I did not cling to life’? And the honest answer is, I don’t know. I have faith, I don’t think I’m lacking in courage, and my priesthood is who I am. But would I have been brave enough to do what they did? I don’t know.

And what about you? Because, of course, we’re not thinking only of the martyrdom of priests and religious. Of those canonized or beatified from this time, many were lay men and women, from all walks of life, who died upholding their faith, often assisting, protecting and sheltering their priests. Imagine the situation in the house here when a priest was being sheltered. The priest himself, of course, was in danger, but so was anyone who knew he was there and kept quiet. How would you feel about that? Would you have risked your life?

On the part of everyone involved, these were extraordinary acts of faith and courage. Being willing to risk your life for something in which you believe, for your conscience, in all modesty and humility, is something that anyone can admire, whether Catholic or Protestant, of any faith or of none. That is what is remarkable and memorable about the lives and deaths of these people.

But this also, I think, raises the question as to why they did it? What was it all for? The priest, I suppose, is the central figure here. It was to have him in the house that people risked their lives, but why? And what was it that motivated him to come back to this country? Well, I believe it was to bring the faith, as expressed in the sacramental life of the church, to the people. We are a sacramental church. The Church is the sacrament of Christ’s action in the world and the sacraments build and sustain the life of the Church; build and sustain our faith. The people living here then, priests and lay people, believed that the celebration of Mass and the other sacraments was so important, so much more important than anything else, that no matter the circumstances, no matter the obstacles, they would risk it. The story of our faith shows repeatedly that it is these things that matter. Isn’t that extraordinary? Do we think that?

We know that in this country there will be, indeed there are already, fewer priests. I know that raises questions as to the shortage of vocations, but it also asks the question that if we have fewer priests, what do we want from them? The people in this house 400 years knew what they wanted, and the priest knew why he was here. It wasn’t to be a good administrator or fundraiser, or building manager, but a mediator between God and humanity, to lead people to God, to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

As a diocese this building, this site, is important to us. We keep it and maintain it because it represents to us, as a Catholic community, what is most important. It symbolises our faith in God, given concrete expression in the celebration of the sacraments, and the lengths we have been willing to go to maintain that, even in times of extreme difficulty.

In our time, as we look at the organisation and vision for our Archdiocese, we know there will be challenges. Being here invites us to place our current situation in a broader historical context, to recognise that some of the adjustments we may be called upon to make, some of the sacrifices we may be asked to consider in order to have continued access to the sacraments, may not be as challenging as we sometimes feel, when placed alongside what the people here were willing to do and to risk. The people who lived here worked together, as a community, co-operating with each other in a bond of loyalty, to sustain their life of faith, and so must we.

Today we pray in joy with and for all martyrs of the faith in England and Wales. They were special only as we too strive to be special: in dedicating our lives to God, in prayer, in generosity and in our efforts to love God and to live our faith each day. May they continue to inspire us.

There can be no better place for us to come together to pray for the intercession of all those who have given their lives for the faith, especially those who did so during the turbulent years of the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, for which Harvington Hall is most famous.

We give thanks for the lives of all of the martyr saints, those recognised on earth as saints of the Church and those known only to God.

The four martyrs especially venerated at Harvington, who worked at various times in the area, are:

St John Wall – hung, drawn and quartered at Red Hill, Worcester on 2 August 1679, and canonized in 1970;
St Nicholas Owen – died under torture in the Tower on 2 March 1606, and was canonized in 1970;
Bl. Edward Oldcorne – executed at Red Hill, Worcester on 7 April 1606 and beatified in 1929;
Bl. Arthur Bell – executed at Tyburn on 11 December 1643 and beatified in 1987.

A house which holds many secrets, Harvington contains seven priest hides.

Humphrey Pakington, who inherited the estate in 1578, was a staunch Catholic and thus subject to the harsh penal laws of the Elizabethan age.

Humphrey was a recusant, meaning he refused to attend the Church of England service on Sundays, a refusal that initially cost 12p a week but increased to £20 a month (equating to around £4,000 today).

From 1585 it was illegal for a Catholic priest to step foot in England, making it necessary for Humphrey to equip Harvington with the impressive priest hides, which visitors can see today. We don’t know the full story of these priest hides but we do know that some of them were almost certainly the handiwork of the master carpenter St Nicholas Owen.

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Harvington Pilgrimage 2022