Of course the fact that miracles were regularly claimed at the sites where saintly remains were entombed was a driving force in the surge of pilgrimage which flourished throughout the medieval west.
The Roman church became even richer from the offerings of high- and low-born travellers who sought saintly intervention. Absolution of sins, the saving of souls and the miraculous mending of bodies were personal priorities for the superstitious citizenry and their overlords. Priests and monks did a booming business showing off their collections of relics, real and fake to the thousands who flocked to venerate them.
History reminds us that constant warfare, ravaging plagues and regular famines made life short and not so merry for most people. And the priestly promises of purgatory and hell fire in the next life added to their worries. All these threats were sufficient incentive for folk to travel to these far-off shrines, leave their donations and pray fervently for forgiveness and perhaps divine intervention. It was a popular medieval priority, although it soon became possible to buy a special dispensation, known as an indulgence, and perhaps save themselves the journey. If you could afford it, you coughed up for the clerical assurance that after death, your time in compulsory purgatory would be reduced and your sinful slate wiped clean, but apparently not quite. Only in the confessional could you be entirely shriven and forgiven.
This ingenious scheme did not have papal approval, but its enthusiastic application had a healthy effect on the already swollen estate of the English church. No wonder then, that the cunning and avaricious Henry viewed these burgeoning riches as a perfect take-over target. And that’s exactly what he did in 1539, when he officially broke with the pope and launched a new religion. Having once been proclaimed by the Vatican years earlier, as Defender of the old faith, he became lord and master of the new one. This was the start of the rival Protestant regime in England which was already awakening elsewhere in Europe. The change to the national religion soon created blood-soaked internal ferment throughout the realm, because woe betide anyone, aristocrat or commoner, who didn’t fall into line with the sovereign’s dictat and forsake their old beliefs. Many Catholics refused to comply. The aristocracy among them sometimes paid with their heads.
The new religion eschewed the imagery, the finery, the trappings and the many abuses of the Roman church and especially viewed the practice of praying through saints for intercession to the Almighty as a form of refined polytheism, hinting at idolatry. But elsewhere in countries where the Catholic Church flourished and in the new world where its beliefs were introduced and enforced, the reverence for old and new sainthood flourished.
Like most kids, I had my heroes — the soccer players, the cricketers and also for me, the early saints. Francis of Assisi topped the list because he was always depicted surrounded by passive wild animals and various cheerful birds perched on his shoulders. He seemed a kindly man who shared one of my priorities. But as the war progressed, we youngsters in those dark days grew up to understand some new and true realities — the meaning and priorities of patriotism, the importance of the Union Jack flying as a symbol of defiance and the role that our patron St. George was playing in our struggles to survive. I learned that most of our allies not only boasted a national anthem but also a saintly patron, and that the whole notion had emerged from the old Biblical belief in guardian angels, who apparently, in the old days, shielded us against national evils and dangers. So George superseded Francis, one of my early decisions to help win the war.
And favourite saints kept popping up for me later in life. The first car I owned had belonged to a retired reverend gentleman and a metal badge of St. Christopher was screwed to the dashboard. I left it there for good luck. I was a little miffed though when the Vatican decided in 1969 that Christopher no longer qualified as the guardian for travellers and they cancelled his credentials. I was positively indignant and so were many fellow Brits, when at the same time, St. George, who had been adopted by our warrior King Edward III, back in the 1300s, was also deprived of his bona-fide status.
What a nerve, I thought. Meanwhile regular beatification in the Roman church continues to this day. Pope John Paul II set a papal record by canonizing 110 new saints in his 26 year papacy, which ended in 2005. The present pontiff has added a further 26 since assuming the title in 2013.
So, the calendar is getting crowded again. It’s perhaps time I found that little old book of mine as there may be a new name or two to add to the list of the saintly English, because the Roman Catholic faith was eventually permitted official U.K. recognition again in the early 19th century. (Yes, it took that long for it to happen. Such was the public’s opposition to the spectre of what the Brits called popery)
Let’s not forget that we also have a few faithful heroes in our own Canadian past. They mostly earned their sainthoods the hard way and died martyrs, in their courageous missionary lives back east. And I have one last thought, I’ve just found out who the patron saint is for newspaper editors. I wonder if I should mention it when I when I send this in?
(Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.)