Thursday, November 5, 2009


If sometimes you wonder why such strong anti-Catholic feeling can be experienced in the United States, you must consider this day in 1605—the day when the famous “Gunpowder Plot” was exposed.

The way the story is told, there was a plot (today we’d call it a terrorist attack) to blow up the Houses of Parliament while in full session with the King, James I. Disaffected Catholics were said to be the basis of the plot, including an Englishman of Spanish descent named Guy Fawkes. He confessed under torture (I would have, too—and, most likely, to anything!), and the Church of England instituted a liturgical feast to celebrate its triumph over “the evils of popery.”

This was seen as “strike three” by many English Protestants: the first two were Pope Pius V’s excommunication of Elizabeth I, and then the sending of the Spanish Armada. The result was not only the laws which led to execution (hanging, drawing and quartering) for the ‘treasonous’ crime of being a practicing Catholic priest, but also a further set of what came to be called “penal laws,” effectively disenfranchising Catholics from public life in England. These laws were never formally repealed until 1829. [In this regard reading the life of Oliver Plunkett is very instructive, so long as it is balanced by a reading of the execution, under Mary I, of Bishops Cranmer, Ridley & Latimer. No one’s hands are clean…]

This is the mentality of the original colonists in our part of the New World. They carried with them the national resentment for all things Catholic and “popistic,” and they were proud of their bias. It was commemorated for years on 5 November by the burning of an effigy of the pope, along with celebrations of fireworks.

The intensity of this hatred cooled somewhat during the succeeding decades, but the celebration never ended. It has, in its own way, been transformed into a British equivalent of Halloween. Children will build straw men and will sit at a bridge, begging “A penny for the Guy.” Most of them do not realize that “guy” refers to a proper name and is not a generic word for “fellow.” They will beg for a couple of weeks leading up to 5 November—then bonfires and fireworks finish off the evening’s celebration.

We can fairly lament and condemn the stupidity of that small cadre of Catholics whose idiotic (not to say incompetent) plot put the lives of the vast majority of English Catholics at risk and under a great burden. We can also lament the small-mindedness that equated this act with “the way all Catholics everywhere really are,” a sentiment we still live with, in far too much of America. It would be nice if the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day could instead be turned into a feast of reconciliation and tolerance and mutual understanding.

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