by Rosemarie Clerkin
Watching the recent BBC1 series Gunpowder about the 1605 Gunpowder plot, I started to think about what it was like to be a “minority”; a Catholic living in England today. To see a visual representation of a priest hiding from Government forces and to realise that if they found him they would kill him, made me understand how brave English Catholics were during those times.
I’d heard the stories growing up of priest holes, Catholic martyrs and gruesome deaths. During my time at Catholic school, I dutifully visited aristocratic homes with hidden places for priests and even secret chapels. I knew priests dressed as wayfarers on the road, travelling salesmen or even shepherds. These stories certainly fed my imagination and gave me a sympathy for the oppressed but they seemed to me like fairy tales: exciting and adventurous but not real.
Watching the drama unfold in Gunpowder, I realised that I’d never truly thought about this part of British history as something that affected real people. In my adult life I’m lucky to count a number of priests as friends and have priests in my family too. The thought of any of these gentle and committed men being hunted down and killed for the act of celebrating mass or spreading the Gospel is unthinkable. The fact really shook me that if I’d lived in England just 400 years earlier, I could have been killed for taking Communion and that I would probably have spent my life in hiding, being scared and expecting death.
So I started to feel grateful for my Catholic ancestors who have upheld the faith for me to cherish and pass on. Of course our Jesuit friends were in the vanguard of this keeping of the flame and there have been many martyrs. There are also many people of all faiths who face persecution and death today.
I shared my thoughts with some Catholic friends and was surprised by the number who told me the Gunpowder Plot was ‘anti-Catholic propaganda’. Guy Fawkes was merely an invention, a made up ‘bad guy’ to coin a phrase. His story ensured persecution of Catholics could continue and the bad ‘guy’ was placed at the centre of a bonfire every year just to ram the message home.
Yet I have studied this period of history and know the primary evidence is clear. Catholic plotters led by Robert Catesby did plot to blow up Parliament and, yes, religious persecution also existed. I think the lesson is that intolerance and persecution is not ended through violence but by the brave witness of those who keep their faith even when forced to give it up.
The disavowing of uncomfortable facts is no way to understand past persecution, far better to study history and reflect on where we are now, how we got here and how we can best move forward together in love and faith.