Mass for Blessed Nicholas Postgate 2 July 2017 – Diocese of Middlesbrough, preached at the Diocesan Shrine
“I am sure the man who is constantly passing our way must be a holy man of God.” (2 Kings 4:9)
Those words, spoken in the first reading about the prophet Elisha, could easily have been said of Blessed Nicholas Postgate. Today, above all, we remember, and give thanks to God for, his inspiring holiness. Death has no more power over him; the life he now lives is with God. How fortunate you are to have such a heavenly intercessor who is one of your own.
Reading the accounts of Blessed Nicholas’ discipleship and priesthood, we cannot help but be touched by the power and dedication of his witness. In that turbulent and terrible period, following the English Reformation, religious and political persecution affected so many people, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike. There was an overriding sense of fear towards anything or anyone seemingly different or foreign. In changed circumstances, even in our present-day society prejudice and discrimination can still divide communities and create division, and we must each play our part in working to overcome this.
Looking back, I don’t think we can, or should, ever tire of hearing the incredible chronicle of Blessed Nicholas Postgate’s life. Born around the year 1598, he grew in faith and heard the call of Jesus to be priest. He was ordained in 1628 after studying in Douay College, then in the Spanish Low Countries, now in present-day France. Some 43 years earlier, in 1585, long before Nicholas was even born, a law was passed making it high treason for any Englishman ordained a priest to enter or remain in England. This law also made it a serious crime for anyone to shelter or help a priest. The punishment for both these offences was death: for a lay person, by hanging; for a priest – guilty simply by setting foot on English soil – by hanging, disembowelling, and being cut into quarters. Knowing this, the bravery of Blessed Nicholas, and his commitment to minister the sacraments to the downtrodden Catholics of his homeland, was quite remarkable.
For around fifty years, Father Postgate lived and worked as the priest of the moors, travelling across North Yorkshire, serving the underground recusant Catholic community. He lived simply and peaceably; causing no upset and stirring no trouble. But this was all to change in 1678. A known perjurer called Titus Oates began to spread false rumours about a popish plot, a supposed conspiracy to impose a Catholic king on England. Anti-Catholic sentiment was ignited, and in the confusion and panic a prominent Protestant magistrate, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, was murdered. Oates loudly blamed Catholics for this and the desire for revenge spread persecution out from London. Sir Edmund’s servant, John Reeves, set out to avenge his master’s death. He travelled north to Whitby, well known as a place where priests arrived from the continent.
On 8 December 1678, while Fr Postgate was conducting a baptism in the house of Matthew Lyth at Sleights, Reeves, acting on behalf of the authorities, arrested him and he was imprisoned in York. The priest of the moors was soon to become the martyr of the moors.
During his trial, in the Lent of 1679, Father Postgate put the burden of proof on his accusers, wanting to protect the faithful to whom he had ministered. Prosecution witnesses were summoned and evidence given against him: not of violence or insurrection, but simply that he was a priest and was known to have acted as such by celebrating the sacraments. For this high treason he was sentenced to death. Graciously accepting his fate, Blessed Nicholas replied “I am being sent to heaven by a short cut.”
On 7th August 1679, aged 82, this elderly and venerable priest, wearing new clothes given him by friends, was now dressed and ready to enter the wedding feast of the Lamb. With a small bone cross around his neck, he was tied to a wooden sledge and dragged through the streets of York to the gallows at the Knavesmire. Like that first Good Friday, some in the crowd mocked and jeered him, while others followed in tears and prayer.
Standing by the gibbet Father Postgate addressed the crowd: “I die in the Catholic religion” he said; not for any plot “but for my religion.” He prayed for the King and the Royal family, forgiving all who had wronged him and caused his death and asking forgiveness for himself from others. It was the death of a holy man, a priest who took up his cross and followed faithfully in the footsteps of his Master.
This holy man of God was, and is, constantly passing on his way across the landscape of North Yorkshire. It was faith in Jesus Christ – and love for His Gospel, His Church, His priesthood, and His sacraments – that enabled Blessed Nicholas to lose his life in service of Christ’s people, to give his life in imitation of the cross, and to find a holy man’s reward.
Today, we are not just commemorating the past; we are uniting ourselves to a living truth. In the risen Lord Jesus, Blessed Nicholas is alive; and he is present with us by his intercession. The same Catholic faith for which he lived and died is the bedrock of our own yearning to live more for heaven than for earth and to share our faith by winning hearts and minds and souls for Christ.
If we are ever tempted to despair because we encounter indifference, even hostility, to our Catholic Faith, if we are ever become disheartened by the challenges facing the Church, we need to remember Blessed Nicholas. Was he cowered by any lack of faith? No. Did he recoil from the challenges of his day? No. Did he ever ignore an opportunity to reach out to others with the love of Christ? No. His fidelity gives us reassurance. His example spurs and cheers us on. His love for the Lord Jesus, especially in the Mass, is our great and enduring encouragement.
You, dear friends, are Blessed Nicholas’ spiritual sons and daughters. His legacy is alive in you. In same spirit of faith, take to heart from the words of St John Paul II when, at the year 2000, the beginning of the Third Christian Millenium, he called us: “toremember the past with gratitude, tolive the present with enthusiasm, and tolook forward to the future with confidence” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 1). This is what it means to be spiritual descendants of Blessed Nicholas: to be priests and people who pass on their way as hope-filled missionary disciples. While there is breath in our bodies, confidently and enthusiastically, we will live for Christ and for our faith.
Along with 85 other martyrs from England, Wales and Scotland, Nicholas Postgate was beatified by St John Paul II on 22 November 1987. So what might Blessed Nicholas teach us for our mission today?
First, I think he teaches us that more important than any human measure of success, we must faithfully stay close to Christ, to the teaching of His gospel and His holy Catholic Church. We are to desire and seek to be holy men and holy women.
Second, Blessed Nicholas testifies that the sacraments are fountains of our Christian living. We are to love the Mass and confession; and celebrate the sacraments of initiation, healing and commitment, with devotion and dedication, leading others to this spring of new and eternal life.
Third, Blessed Nicholas reminds us that we are to play our part in society according to our faith. We are called to be true disciples who, because we love Christ, will give a cup of water to anyone who is thirsty. We will act with justice in the service of peace, never shying away from being witnesses who welcome the stranger, stand up for the defenceless, and protect and provide for the poor and needy.
Blessed Nicholas’ entire life was built on his absolute faith in the truth about Christ: that we have been baptised into Christ’s death and raised by the Father’s glory so that we might live a new life, already in this world and fully in life to come.
“I will sing for ever of your love, O Lord.” This is the song of joy sung by those in heaven. May the prayers of Blessed Nicholas help us too in joyfully singing the Lord’s love song of salvation and in walking with confidence in the light of the His face.