‘Then He saith to Thomas: Put in thy finger hither, and see My Hands; and bring hither thy hand, and put it into My side; and be not faithless, but believing. Thomas answered, and said to Him: My Lord, and my God’ (John 20, 27–28).
Devotion to the Sacred Wounds of Christ has been practiced throughout the ages, represented in popular piety, the devotions of the saints and of religious orders, in the Breviary and in the Mass.
The activity of St. Bernard and St. Francis in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, combined with example of the Crusaders returning from the Holy Land, gave an impetus to devotion to the Passion of Our Lord and particularly to practices in honour of the Holy Wounds. Meantime, the Dominican Rosary also helped to promote this devotion: while the fifty small beads honour Mary, the five large beads with their Paters were from early times considered to honour the Five Wounds of Christ.
In the fourteenth century it was customary in southern Germany to recite fifteen Paters each day in memory of the Sacred Wounds – amounting in the course of a year to 5475, traditionally believed to be the total number of Christ’s wounds. In some places it was customary to ring a bell at noon on Fridays, to remind the faithful to recite five Paters and Aves in honour of the Holy Wounds. Many beautiful mediæval prayers in honour of the Sacred Wounds, including some attributed to St. Clare of Assisi, St. Mechtilde and St. Gertrude of Helfta have been preserved.
A Chaplet of the Five Wounds was approved by the Pope Pius VII in 1823 and again in 1851. It consists of five divisions, each composed of five Glorias in honour of Christ’s Wounds and one Ave in commemoration of the Sorrowful Mother. The blessing of the beads was formerly reserved to the Passionists. This Chaplet is not to be confused with the Rosary of the Holy Wounds, popularised by Ven. Marie Martha Chambon (1841–1907), which uses the Marian Rosary beads.
In mediæval Missals a special Mass in honour of Christ’s Wounds, believed to have been composed by St. John the Evangelist and revealed to Pope Boniface II in 532; this Mass corresponds to the Mass ‘Humiliavit’ in the Traditional Roman Missal. Known as the Golden Mass, and was indulgenced by Innocent VI (1362) or John XXII (1334); during its celebration five candles were always lighted. It was popularly believed that if anyone should say or hear it on five consecutive days he should never suffer the pains of hell fire.
Feasts in honour of the Wounds of Christ are known to have been kept since the fourteenth century, with the earliest example being in Thuringia, Germany, on the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi. By the fifteenth century the feast was included in the Breviaries of the Carmelites, Franciscans, Dominicans, and other orders, spreading to several cities in Europe, including Huesca and Jaca in Spain, Vienna, Tours, and, in our own country, Salisbury. Particularly important is the Feast of the Five Wounds, celebrated since the Middle Ages at Evora and elsewhere in Portugal on 6 February commemorating the founding of the Portuguese kingdom in 1139, when, before the battle on the plains of Ourique, Christ appeared to Alfonso Henriquez, promising victory over the Moors and commanding him to insert into the coat of arms of the new kingdom the emblem of the Five Wounds.
It was under this important emblem that the Pilgrimage of Grace marched in 1536. The grievances of the ‘pilgrims’ were threefold. The northern gentry had concerns over the new Statute of Uses and there were popular fears of a new sheep tax. There were political grievances concerning the ‘divorce’ of the King and Catherine of Aragon, the trumped up charges against Anne Boleyn, and the rise of Thomas Cromwell. Finally, there was deep-seated resentment over the proposed changes to religious practice and tradition, with rumours that baptism would be taxed, church plate would be confiscated and, most importantly, that doctrine would be ‘reformed’. Robert Aske, a London barrister from a Selby family of repute, was chosen to lead the insurgents. In 1536 Aske led a band of nine thousand followers, who entered and occupied York. There he arranged for the expelled monks and nuns to return to their houses; the King’s newly installed tenants were driven out and Catholic observance resumed. The success of the rising was so great that the royal leaders, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk and George Talbot, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, opened negotiations with the insurgents at Doncaster, where Aske had assembled between thirty and forty thousand men. Henry authorised Norfolk to promise a general pardon and a Parliament to be held at York within a year; trusting in the King’s promises, Aske dismissed his followers. However, King Henry’s promises were not kept, and in January 1537 a new rising took place in Cumberland and Westmoreland called Bigod’s Rebellion (which Aske attempted to prevent) under Sir Francis Bigod, of Settrington in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Upon this the King arrested Aske and several of the other leaders, such as Darcy, Constable, and Bigod, who were all convicted of treason and executed. Aske was hanged in chains from the walls of York Castle as a warning to other would-be ‘rebels’. Sir John Bigod, Sir Thomas Percy, Sir Henry Percy, Sir John Bulmer, Sir Stephan Hamilton, Sir Nicholas Tempast, Sir William Lumley, Sir Edward Neville, Sir Robert Constable, the abbots of Barlings, Sawley, Fountains and Jervaulx Abbeys, and the prior of Bridlington were executed in July 1537. In all, 216 were put to death; lords and knights, half a dozen abbots, 38 monks, and 16 parish priests.
Behold, O good and most sweet Jesus, I fall upon my knees before Thee, and with most fervent desire beg and beseech Thee that Thou wouldst impress upon my heart a lively sense of faith, hope and charity, true repentance for my sins, and a firm resolve to make amends. And with deep affection and grief, I reflect upon Thy five wounds, having before my eyes that which Thy prophet David spoke about Thee, o good Jesus: ‘They have pierced my hands and feet, they have counted all my bones’ (Psalm 21, 17–18).