Be England Thy Dowry

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Almost 700 years ago, King Richard II dedicated England as the “Dowry of Mary.” On March 29, 2020, England will be rededicated to Mary. In light of this historic event, numerous articles have been published of late on the topic. These articles address what the rededication is and why it matters to English Catholics. But for the faithful outside of England, particularly for American Catholics, why does the rededication matter?

Recently, I approached a friend who was unaware of these events. Indeed, his initial response to the topic was, “But we’re in America.” Americans might not be paying attention to England’s upcoming rededication, thinking it doesn’t concern us. But the significance of this year’s rededication is far too important for us (and all Catholics) not to care.

For behind the rededication is an inspirational story that applies well beyond England’s borders. The “Dowry of Mary” signifies more than a special relationship with Our Lady because it’s also emblematic of England’s Catholic identity. I am hopeful that this is the beginning of England’s restoration, which Joseph Pearce recently wrote about in Crisis Magazine, however, all Catholics can share in the hope this great event represents. The significant lessons making the rededication possible should not be overlooked, including the power of prayer, survival, and sacrifice.

Prayer has played a central role from the beginning of this story. The title of “Dowry of Mary” originated in the eleventh century during the reign of St. Edward the Confessor, around the same time as the apparition of Our Lady of Walsingham. That apparition resulted from Lady Richeldis’s prayer that she be used in a special way to honor Our Lady. At its height, the Walsingham shrine was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Christendom. Pilgrims came to the shrine to pray and sprinkle themselves with water from its spring. As a result, miracles abounded and many were cured.

Notwithstanding such devotion, Satan never relented in his quest to pull Our Lady—as well as a rich Catholic heritage—out of the hearts and minds of the English people. Sadly, England’s Reformation saw the dissolution of the monasteries and the dragging of the famous statue of Our Lady of Walsingham—along with many other statues and icons—through the streets only to be burned. Roman Catholicism came to be completely outlawed, including devotions such as the Rosary.

But the Faith and devotion to Our Lady survived. During the centuries of persecution that followed, the faithful—the recusants—continued to pray secretly at the former roadside Marian shrines, monastery ruins, and other former Catholic sites. The faithful went so far as to create replicas of their sacramentals to prevent their destruction by state authorities. As Catholic Masses were no longer allowed, priests were hunted by so-called “priest-hunters.” Wealthier Catholics hid clergy in priest holes inside their homes. Although the state did everything in its power to stomp out more than 1,000 years of Catholic faith and history in England, somehow the faithful remnant found a way.

Continuing to live out the Faith after the English Reformation, however, did not come easily. Many faithful gave the ultimate sacrifice. Monks attempting to defend the Faith and protect the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, among other statues and icons, were tortured or killed or both. We most likely do not know the name of each of these early martyrs who refused to accede to the Act of Supremacy and the dissolution of the monasteries under the tyrant King Henry VIII. Some of those we do know by name—collectively referred as the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales—also refused to accept the English monarch as the head of the Church.

St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, arguably the most famous martyrs of the English Reformation, were well known throughout Christendom. Their earthly success afforded them an easy opportunity to evade death, but both men defended the Faith to the very end. In Utopia, St. Thomas More eerily foreshadowed his response to such persecution when he wrote, “You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds… What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can.”

While he did not die a martyr’s death, St. John Henry Newman certainly sacrificed prestige and fame, among many other things, when he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism. In his famous “Second Spring” sermon, Newman acknowledged these English martyrs: “Can we religiously suppose that the blood of our martyrs, three centuries ago and since, shall never receive its recompense? Those priests, secular and regular, did they suffer for no end? or rather, for an end which is not yet accomplished? The long imprisonment, the fetid dungeon, the weary suspense, the tyrannous trial, the barbarous sentence, the savage execution, the rack, the gibbet, the knife, the cauldron, the numberless tortures of those holy victims, O my God, are they to have no reward?”

By the seventeenth century, England was well established as missionary territory. At this time, St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionist Order, prayed that the Dowry of Mary would return to the Faith. A little later, Passionist and Anglican convert, Fr. Ignatius of St. Paul would spend his entire clerical life praying for the conversion of England. Consequently, he is called the “Apostle of Prayer for England.” From these, and many others’ prayers, sprang the Catholic emancipation, the conversion of St. John Henry Newman, the establishment of the first Catholic seminary since the Reformation (Oscott College in 1794), the return of the Catholic hierarchy, the consecration of England to the Mother of God and St. Peter, and the re-establishment of the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, to list but a few of the graces flowing from the prayer and sacrifice of the faithful.

This rich Catholic heritage—being dedicated to Our Lady—is all for naught should the faithful not learn from it. The example of our English brethren is important not just for England but for the whole Church.

In the past few years alone, American Catholics have been subjected to religious tests for civil servants, censorship of Catholic media, and protests against Catholic businesses for their adherence to traditional Catholic teachings. Of course, Catholicism is not outright illegal, priests are not being hidden in homes, nor are statues of Our Lady destroyed by state authorities—not yet, at least.

As the persecution of the Church grows everywhere, may we pray to be used in a special way to advance His Kingdom. May we turn to prayer for the conversion, or return, to the Faith of the culture around us. May we dare to risk everything for the continuity of the Faith, even if it seems all hope is lost. May we be given a spirit of strength and peace, should we die a martyr’s death—a holy death.

I pray this English Catholic heritage, shared by all Catholics by virtue of our common baptism, inspire the faithful when facing such persecution. If we have learned anything from our English Catholic brethren, we shall be prepared to turn to prayer, survive such times, and sacrifice for the Faith. This is why we should all care.

Image: from a Wilton Diptych belonging to Richard II of England (artist unknown)

Christopher Ortega

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Christopher M. Ortega is a lawyer, credentialed history teacher, and a Catholic revert who lives in Southern California.

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