What Fr. John Gerard’s escape teaches us now

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 24, 2020

John Gerard was an English Jesuit priest who secretly served the Catholics in England during the period of persecution under Queen Elizabeth. Born in 1564 to a wealthy family, John was sent to the English College at Douai and Rheims in 1577. After about three years there, he spent a year at Oxford before going on to the Jesuit Cleremont College in Paris. After an illness at Cleremont, he went to see the Jesuit priest Robert Persons in Rouen.

Returning to England, Gerard was arrested for lack of travel papers and spent a year in the Marshalsea prison. After his release in 1584, he continued to recuperate, and then again went to meet with priests in France. He eventually made his way to the English College in Rome. Ordained in 1588, he entered the Society of Jesus in August, and shortly thereafter departed for the English mission.

Fr. Gerard was an effective priest who encouraged Catholics and brought many Protestants back to the Church. He was also extremely wily, narrowly escaping capture on numerous occasions, sometimes hiding for days in tiny “priest holes”. He served the English mission from 1588 to 1606, until the Gunpowder Plot, of which Fr. Gerard had no knowledge. After its failure, however, Fr. Gerard was accused, and he had to hide in a priest hole for nine days—during which time he wrote a letter refuting the charges.

In the end, though he came close, martyrdom eluded Fr. Gerard. He was recalled by his superiors and set to the task of training other Jesuits for the English mission. He died in 1673 in Rome, from natural causes, at age 73. But during these later years, at the order of his superiors, he wrote an account of his days in England, from which we gain many important historical details of the mission—and of course tremendous inspiration. The most recent and best edition of this work is The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, published in 2012 with copious notes and appendices, by Ignatius Press.

Modern parallels

While the consequences of professing the Faith in the West today are not nearly as severe as in Elizabethan England, most serious Catholics suffer to some degree a milder white martyrdom, in that we are very frequently constrained by cultural pressure to keep silence (if not absolute secrecy) with respect to our deepest beliefs and opinions on matters great and small, or at least to express them only judiciously in exactly the right setting, with care not to inadvertently offend, and with numerous caveats and even exculpations to soften the impact of the truth. We may soften our speech lest we be misunderstood by others, or simply to make things less difficult for ourselves, and yet try as we might, sincere and honest Catholics still frequently suffer many social, economic and political disadvantages.

This habitual care is learned almost instinctively as we sense the weight of what we call “the dominant culture”, a weight which is difficult to describe but almost instantly felt, so that all parties have a keen sense of what they may or may not say, and how they may and may not behave publicly. This is the culture that permits secularists and libertines to behave atrociously and speak abusively of those “intolerant Christians”, while making these same “intolerant Christians” very cautious about speaking at all. Thus the denunciation of intolerance and bigotry has paradoxically become the hallmark of the intolerant and the bigoted, nearly always based on unexamined assumptions by those possessing no discernible habit of analytical thought.

In this sense, then, every good Catholic (and many another Christian) walks a tightrope through life today not unlike the tightrope walked by the secular and religious priests in the English mission in the sixteenth century, save for the intensity of the physical punishment occasioned by a slip from the rope.

Imprisonment and escape

It is just this image of a tightrope that reminds me of the most dramatic episode in Fr. John Gerard’s life, which occurred after he had been imprisoned for a little over three years (between 1594 and 1597), but still managed to carry on his mission in certain limited ways even so. During this period he had been moved to the Tower of London, where he was also tortured. In an effort to get Fr. Gerard to give up information about the English mission, he was hoisted up by his hands with heavy weights attached to his feet, and left hanging for long periods of time, with excruciating pain to his joints along with no small damage—to his hands in particular.

During his imprisonment, he found ways (often by both befriending and rewarding jailers) to communicate with others in the prison, to visit around the cells saying Mass and hearing confessions, and to receive visitors from outside at times. He was also able to send messages, written invisibly with either lemon or orange juice. (The properties are quite different, in that while both are invisible until the paper is heated, writing done with lemon juice disappears again upon cooling, whereas orange juice does not. Therefore, while orange juice is in some ways more dangerous, at least the recipient of the message can tell if it has already been intercepted and read.) Thus was important information sometimes exchanged.

However, after his torture, it took Fr. Gerard some months of recuperation before he could adequately control any sort of writing instrument, and of course he was much weakened in all his muscles and joints. Nonetheless, there came a time when he was able to visit an imprisoned gentleman in a tower across from his, which was close enough to the stream near the prison area that they might attempt to escape by night after communicating with free friends to secure the necessary equipment—in this case a strong thick rope along with a means to draw it up to the roof of the tower. From there, its length would extend over the moat, across a wall, and on down to the ground.

History as metaphor

There were two attempts made, the first abortive, before Fr. Gerard and his gentleman friend were able to use the rope. What follows is in Fr. Gerard’s own words:

My companion now changed his mind—he had always said it would be the simplest thing in the world to slide down. Now he saw the hazards of it. “But I shall certainly be hanged if I remain here”, he said…. So he said a prayer and took hold of the rope. He got down fairly easily for he had plenty of strength and the rope was still taut. But his descent slackened the rope and made it much more difficult for me. I only noticed this when I started to descend.
I commended myself to God and Our Lord Jesus, to the Blessed Virgin, my guardian angel, and especially to Father Southwell, who was imprisoned near here until he was taken out to martyrdom, and to Father Walpole and to all our martyrs. Then I gripped the rope with my right hand, and took it in my left. To prevent myself falling I twisted my legs round the rope, leaving it free to slide between my shins.
I had gone three or four yards face downwards when suddenly my body swung round with its own weight and I nearly fell. I was still very weak, and with the slack rope and my body hanging underneath I could make practically no progress. At last I managed to work myself as far as the middle of the rope, and there I stuck. My strength was failing and my breath, which was short before I started, seemed altogether spent.
At last, with the help of the saints and, I think, by the power of my friends’ prayers below drawing me, I moved along a little way and then I stuck again. Now I thought I would never be able to get down. But I was determined not to fall into the moat as long as I was still able to hold the rope. I tried to recover a little strength and then, using my legs and arms as well as I could, I managed, thank God, to get as far as the wall on the far side of the moat. But my feet just touched the top of the wall, and the rest of my body hung horizontally behind, with my head no higher than my legs—the rope had become so slack. I don’t know how I would have gotten over the wall, if it had not been for John Lillie [who had arranged the escape from outside]. Somehow or other (he could never say how he did it), he got up on to the wall, seized hold of my feet, pulled me over, and put me safely down on the ground. I could not stand upright, I was so weak.

I do not say this is an accurate physical description of our own lives now, and I certainly think the example of Fr. Gerard and all the English martyrs ought to inspire and strengthen us to do more and to do better. But taken as a metaphor, it is not at all a bad indicator of the kind of public life we have thrust upon us today, especially in the way we must use words, which can be extraordinarily discouraging. For very frequently we must walk a tightrope. Just as frequently we cannot stand upright. And sometimes—though surely, in prudence, not always—it is because we are so weak.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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