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Hunted Priests: The Resistance of John Gerard, SJ

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 10, 2012

It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of the Elizabethan period in English history to the problems of our own times. In the sixteenth century, the English crown was determined to assert the authority of the State over the minds and hearts of all those within its borders. This was the essence of the war on the “old religion”, which insisted on the indissolubility of marriage, on the authority of the Pope in spiritual matters, and on the necessity of the Church for salvation.

This situation closely mirrors our own, as the various Western powers, in the name of a secular relativism controlled by the modern State, gradually restrict the rights of Catholics and other non-compromising Christians to express and live their Faith. With each passing year, there are more statements that Catholics are not allowed to say, more actions they are not allowed to perform, and more immoral policies they are forced to support.

For this reason, it is also difficult to overrate the decision of Ignatius Press to bring out a new edition of The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, written by John Gerard, SJ to describe the secret work of the Jesuits in England in the 16th and early 17th centuries. A generation ago, this account might have been read mainly out of historical interest; now it reads like a prophecy.

John Gerard was born in 1564. He was the son of devout Catholic parents who had to pay many fines and even suffer imprisonment for their fidelity to Rome and their failure to attend the required Anglican services. John himself was taken from them at age five, while his father was in prison, in order to be raised by Protestant relatives, but three years later his father paid to be released from prison and got him back. After studying at Oxford and in France, young John felt the first call to be a priest, and in particular to be a Jesuit, at age 15. His first imprisonment came while still a student, after spies informed on him when he returned home to dispose of his property.

Obtaining his release after about a year at Easter of 1584, John settled his affairs, returned to the Continent, completed his studies at the English College in Rome, and was ordained in 1588—the year of the ill-fated Spanish armada. Later that year, he slipped secretly into England and began an eighteen-year mission which did not end until he was so well-known and so consistently sought by the Crown that he had to move on to other duties in order to avoid jeopardizing the work.

Fr. Gerard’s account of the mission, written on orders of his superior, makes a genuinely thrilling story. He had to operate in secret, posing mostly as an inoffensive English gentleman while he carefully established himself with various wealthy Catholic families who were willing to undergo considerable risk to serve as centers for Mass, confession and spiritual direction. Frequently betrayed, he sometimes hid for long periods in hard-to-find “priest’s holes” which were cleverly designed into unlikely spaces within these great houses, and were not always discovered even after days of searching by the authorities, though they poked holes in walls, destroyed woodwork, and tore down plaster. (A bill was presented to the homeowner for the costs of the search!)

Sometimes he was questioned, but without his interrogators knowing he was a priest. When he was finally imprisoned in the Spring of 1594, he was moved progressively to places of higher security and was cruelly tortured, especially by being hung by manacles from his wrists for long periods of time. Whenever he was left alone, he worked out arrangements with his jailers to minister as best he could to other Catholics in the prisons. He communicated with prisoners elsewhere and with the outside world by writing with the invisible juice of oranges, which could be read by applying either water or heat. In this way he was able to engineer a daring escape, using a rope drawn up to the roof over the cell of a friend, above the moat surrounding the Tower of London, in the dead of night.

The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest recounts not only Fr. Gerard’s own adventures but the similar adventures, courage, and even martyrdoms of many other priests and laity. It also recounts the many conversations Fr. Gerard and other priests were able to have with family members, friends and servants in the various households, through which they brought a great many souls back to the Catholic Faith, as well as strengthening those who were wavering. In addition, of course, the Church in hiding depended on the administration of the sacraments by these secret priests, who worked under a continual sentence of death.

The Ignatius edition was originally translated from the Latin by Philip Caraman, SJ around 1950; it includes extensive (and frequently illuminating) notes. It also boasts a new introduction by Fr. James Schall, and nine appendices which provide additional information on such things as Fr. Gerard’s residences, the Catholic defense of equivocation in the work of the Mission, and the Gunpowder Plot, which put several priests, including Fr. Gerard, in grave danger and resulted in more martyrs.

This a wonderful offering for the new Year of Faith, which begins on October 11th. It serves as a fascinating history, a story of saintly heroism, a tale of high adventure, a spiritual preparation for the work of the New Evangelization—and perhaps a warning of things to come.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John Holecek - Oct. 12, 2012 8:02 PM ET USA

    I can vouch for The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest. Fr. Gerard relates the most amazing stories with a straight-forward nonchalance. If you want to see God at work, read this book.