Martyrdom by Catherine Pepinster

This year “is full of anniversaries: 40 years since Oscar Romero was assassinated; 100 years since Joan of Arc’s canonisation; 850 years since the killing of Becket; 50 years since the canonisation of the 40 martyrs of England and Wales,” says Catherine Pepinster.

Catherine Pepinster’s new book Martyrdom: Why Martyrs Still Matter embraces St Thomas Becket and is extremely timely despite Becket 2020 events being postponed by the virus.

Her main six page section on Becket, who appears again and again through the book, is a good introduction.

Also featured are a number of the PW saints. On pilgrimage we meet St Oscar Romero in Southwark’s Roman Catholic St George’s Cathedral and again in Canterbury.

Catherine devotes a chapter to Oscar Romero, a 20th-century ‘Becket’ murdered in church by the state. Within hours of Romero’s assassination Archbishop Robert Runcie publicly knelt to pray for his soul at the site of Becket’s murder.

It is suggested that both Becket and Romero were considered to be irritants who were expendable.

Also making an appearance is St Thomas More. Walkers meet him in Southwark where his head was put on a London Bridge stake and find that head in St Dunstan’s Church on approaching Canterbury’s city gate.

He famously declared himself, like Becket, to be “the king’s good servant and God’s first”.

Thomas Becket and Thomas More “are people of conscience whose sacrifice resonates with contemporary audiences,” claims the author.

St John Fisher of Rochester is shown as standing by Katharine of Aragon despite the consequences. The Pope tried to save the bishop from death by making him a cardinal but Henry VIII threatened to send Fisher’s decapitated head to Rome for the red hat.

Much more is covered in this thorough book: many countries, eras, other faiths claiming martyrs and 20th-century suffragettes.

Also included is a look at the English Reformation which paused pilgrimage. At this time the new English College in Rome had a large painting of Becket to inspire students. Now the annual Martyrs’ Day at the college is a Christian unity occasion with Anglicans and Methodists present.

The book was completed after Covid shut down the country which enables the author to reflect that, although the planned Becket 2020 events are cancelled, many were to have been ecumenical. Pilgrimage today is one of the great signs of living and growing Christian unity as people of all churches and none begin to understand history.

In the 21st-century it is natural for Canterbury Cathedral and Santa Maria Maggiore to be ready, as Catherine reports, to cooperate in honouring Thomas Becket.

Martyrdom: Why Martyrs Still Matter by Catherine Pepinster is published by SPCK (£25).

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