Fr Billy Swan
Seventeen Irish martyrs, men and women, lay and clerical, were put to death for their Catholic faith between 1579 and 1654. They were beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1992. Their names were:
Patrick O’Healy OFM; Con O’Rourke OFM; Matthew Lambert; Robert Meyler, Edward Cheevers; Patrick Cavanagh; Bishop Dermot O’ Hurley; Margaret Ball; Fr Maurice MacKenraghty; Dominic Collins; Bishop Conor O’Deavany; Fr Patrick O’Loughran; Francis Taylor; Fr Peter Higgins; Bishop Terence Albert O’Brien; Fr John Kearney, Fr William Tirry.
Four of these were from Wexford – Matthew Lambert, a baker and Robert Meyler, Edward Cheevers and Patrick Cavanagh who were sailors. Here I would like to reflect a little on the witness of these heroic and courageous men and suggest that we have many reasons to be proud of them and be inspired by them today.
Ireland in the sixteenth century was a difficult and dangerous place to live as a Catholic. It was a time when thousands of innocent people were killed as part of the brutal campaign of Queen Elizabeth of England to impose the Protestant faith on the Irish. For the Crown, you could not be a subject to the Queen and be loyal to the pope at the same time. You must be one or the other. To declare yourself to be a Catholic was to believe there was a higher moral and spiritual authority than the monarchy – something that the monarchy rejected. Total allegiance to the queen was essential. Such arrogant usurping of God as the ultimate authority was behind the violence inflicted on thousands of victims including those who wanted to be loyal to the crown politically but religiously wanted to stay faithful as Catholics.
For Matthew Lambert, Robert Meyler, Edward Cheevers and Patrick Cavanagh, this was not the direct reason why they were first accused of treason. They were arrested for their charity to fugitives who was seeking a safe passage to France from Wexford. Two men named Baltinglass and Rochford (who was a native of the town) were on the run from the British and sought safe passage to Europe from Wexford. On their arrival in the town, they met the local baker Matthew Lambert and begged him to provide a night’s shelter and some food. Matthew duly obliged. Robert Meyler, Edward Cheevers and Patrick Cavanagh were implicated by their arrangement of a boat that would help Baltinglass and Rochford leave from the harbour.
In the end, Baltinglass and Rochford did escape but those who helped them do so were to pay a heavy price for their merciful deeds. They were arrested, imprisoned and during a sham trial, admitted their assistance to Baltinglass and Rochford and justified their actions because of their Christian faith. It is said they were tortured and came under huge pressure to recant their faith and pledge allegiance to the Queen but they refused. At the trial, Matthew Lambert acted as spokesperson for the group of his co-accused. To the question of his loyalty to the Queen or the pope, the future blessed declared his respect for the queen and his intention to show her and the monarchy no disrespect. In words that echoed those of Sir Thomas More during his trial in 1535 where he said he was ‘the King’s good servant but God’s first’, Matthew declared: ‘I know only one thing. I am a Catholic and I believe whatever Holy Mother Church believes’.
Therese words aligned himself to the pope and for this reason only, Matthew Lambert and his companions were sentenced to death by being hanged, drawn and quartered. This brutal and horrific method of execution was carried out on the four men around 5th July 1581.
411 years later, Pope John Paul II declared Matthew Lambert, Robert Meyler, Edward Cheevers, Patrick Cavanagh and the other 13 Irish martyrs as blesseds of the Church. On that occasion in 1992, the pope honoured those ‘who courageously gave their witness to Christ’ as ‘deserving of being offered by the Church to the admiration and imitation of all the faithful’. He spoke of how these new blesseds:
‘Have always counted on God's help, striving to "strive for justice, piety, faith, charity, patience, meekness"(1 Tm 6:11), so as to "preserve the commandment unblemished and irreproachable"(1 Tm 6:14). They offered themselves to God and to others in martyrdom and consecrated virginity. The Church is pleased today to recognize that these children of hers "fought the good battle of faith" and "reached eternal life"(1 Tm 6:12)’.
The pope continued: ‘We admire them for their personal courage. We thank them for the example of their fidelity in difficult circumstances, a fidelity which is more than an example: it is a heritage of the Irish people and a responsibility to be lived up to in every age…The Martyrs exhort succeeding generations of Irish men and women: "Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called ... keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ"’.
‘To the Martyrs' intercession I commend the whole people of Ireland: their hopes and joys, their needs and difficulties. May everyone rejoice in the honour paid to these witnesses to the faith. God sustained them in their trials. He comforted them and granted them the crown of victory. May he also sustain those who work for reconciliation and peace in Ireland today! Blessed Irish Martyrs, intercede for the beloved Irish people!’
On their feast day this Tuesday 20th June, we need to hear these words again and be inspired by the courage and sacrifice of Matthew Lambert and his companions. In his working life he provided bread for the hungry people of Wexford town. The circumstances that led to his arrest saw him provide food and shelter to refugees when they needed it. In the end, he gave the ultimate witness to his faith and to God as the ultimate judge of all. Matthew Lambert and his companions still provide bread – the living bread of authentic witness to faith that is not afraid to suffer for the truth despite the consequences. In these four Wexford people, we have local examples of how to persevere in our faith and to live it fully with conviction and courage today.
Blessed Matthew Lambert and your companions, pray for us!