If you visit Oxburgh Hall in England you can tour one of the ancient country houses occupied without break since 1482 by one of the most venerable Catholic families in England. Last summer, while leading a pilgrimage to England with Joseph Pearce, we visited the hall and not only met Sir Henry Bedingfeld—the current baronet—but celebrated Mass for the pilgrims in the ancient family chapel. This was not before Joseph and I discovered the priest hole.
For those not in the know, a “priest hole” is the secret chamber where, during the anti-Catholic Elizabethan regime, priests would hide from the Queen’s agents. Under Elizabeth it was a capital crime to celebrate Mass, and any Catholic priest who was captured was sentenced to execution as a traitor, which meant being hung, drawn, and quartered. Elizabeth’s England was a police state with rules and penalties worse than Stalinist Russia. Spies were everywhere, and the priests, who traveled underground using aliases, disguises, and secret codes, were usually betrayed by spies who had infiltrated the underground Catholic community.
The priest holes were devised ingeniously, many of them by the amazing Saint Nicholas Owen. Owen was a dwarf and a Jesuit lay brother. He was also a master carpenter. Some priest holes were no more than a narrow space below floorboards where the priest would lie entombed. Others were elaborate and clever hiding places—false walls, hidden trapdoors, collapsible stair risers, and crevices in chimneys behinds fireplaces. Because the soldiers would search the house until the betrayed priest was found, the priest holes were sometimes equipped with emergency food, water and primitive privies. Sometimes holes drilled in the panelling would provide access for a straw through which a loyal servant would pour broth and water to sustain the priest.
The priest hole at Oxbrugh is especially clever. The house’s provision for sewage was effective, if simple. Toilets were built in the towers that extended over the moat, and waste simply dropped into the waters below. To get into the priest hole at Oxborogh one climbs down a narrow passage built beneath the toilet seat. The low chamber is just big enough for two men to be seated. I will never forget sitting in the ancient stone chamber—like a sixteenth-century English catacomb—and whispering to Joseph, “Almost certainly two priests once sat here praying the rosary and waiting to be discovered, captured and taken to be tortured and killed.” The emotion was high. Joseph said back, “Let us sing the Salve Regina.” So we said a Paternoster and sang the ancient tender homage to Mother Mary, and after all was done and we clambered out, the rest of the tourists who were visiting the house were spellbound. “We heard ancient Latin being sung and didn’t know where it was coming from! We thought we were hearing the disembodied voices of martyred saints!”
In a sense they were. Not that Mr. Pearce and I are saints, but we sat where they sat. We shared the same faith and we love the same sacred heart. The Salve Regina was the same hymn they sang, and our voices echoing with theirs brought home the point that priest holes are holy because they are the echo chambers of the faith. Persecution has always been part of the bargain in following Christ, and at all times in some place or another since the resurrection of the Lord of Life, his faithful children have been persecuted, captured, imprisoned, tortured and finally killed for their faith.
We continued our pilgrimage more soberly aware that persecution of Christians around the world has never been more acute. There were more martyrs for the faith in the twentieth century than in all the other centuries combined, and the wave of hatred for Christ and his children is not abating. John Allen’s brilliant book, The Global War on Christians outlines the continued, worldwide persecution of Christians in a range of different ways and by different enemies of Christ.
Allen points out that this global attack on Christians happens at many different levels. It begins with social isolation, mockery or blasphemy and moves on to financial and social persecution—in which Christians loses their jobs or their tax-exempt status, may be denied permission to build a church, school or monastery, or have property confiscated. Persecution is a regular part of life in many parts of Africa, India, the Far East, and Middle East. Neither is persecution of minority Christian communities just a “Muslim problem.” Christians are persecuted by atheist regimes, criminal gangs, and military dictators, but also by members of other religions, other ethnic groups, and even other “Christians.”
Jesus warned his disciples, “Unless you take up your cross and follow me you cannot be my disciple.” Indeed, persecution has been so much a part of Christian history that it would be fair to suggest that for a Christian community not to be persecuted is the unusual circumstance. If the United States has been free of such persecution for the first two centuries of her history, it is arguable that it was only because of the strong Christian foundation of the country and the Christian faith of the founding fathers. As that faith continues to erode, we should not be surprised when Christians are perceived as “extremists”—and if “religious extremists” then potential terrorists and enemies of the state, and once they are perceived as the enemy, the scapegoating dynamic will kick in and there will be no argument.
When that starts to happen, may God gives us some Nicholas Owens who know how to build priest holes, for some of us will need them.
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