The Autobiography of a Hunted PriestAuthor:
Fr. John Gerard, S. J., Translated and Edited by Fr. Philip Caraman, S.J., Foreword by Graham GreenePublisher:
Image BooksTradReviews Rating:
REL, Religiously Themed Book, Worth a Read.Why
: Considering that this is a book which deals with some of the most brutal persecution which Catholics have ever experienced, this is not for small children.Excellence:
4 starsSummary in a Sentence:
In what Graham Greene dubbed "the story of a man who loved his fellows to the worst point of pain
," Father Gerard relates his experiences as an underground priest in Elizabethan England, a time and place when even to be Catholic was viewed as High Treason.
Although this book, written in Latin several years after the author's escape to the Continent, had been used by Jesuit historians for almost three centuries, only one attempt had been made to market it to the general public prior to Fr. Caraman's admirable translation. Fr. Caraman, best known as the priest who recieved Graham Greene and Sir Alec Guinness into the Church, would transform the oscure account of a forgotten priest into a bestseller that exposes the foul underbelly of England's "Golden Age." It is a powerful story which has much to say to our "enlightened" age and is therefore a book which no Traditional Catholic can afford to ignore.
Father John Gerard was born to an aristocratic family from Derbyshire in 1564. "My parents had always been Catholics
," he writes, "and on that account had suffered much from an heretical government,
" (page 27). At the age of 14, his family arranged for him to be sent to one of the many "English Colleges" in Continental Europe for a "proper education." Detecting a vocation to the priesthood and desiring to join the newly founded Society of Jesus, he returned to England in order to dispose of his inheritance. Arrested while attempting to return to France, he was imrisoned in the palace of John Aylmer, the Protestant "Bishop" of London, whose private chaplain was housed with Mr. Gerard in an attempt to convert him to heresy.
"Time and time again I refused to have anything to do with him. I understood my faith and did not want to discuss it, still less to learn from him what I should believe. But as he didn't stop blaspheming and cursing the saints and the Church, I was forced to defend my religion. We spent practically the whole night arguing and to my astonishment I found that he could not put up even a passable defence. It was easy to convince him of his error
After two days the "Bishop" dispaired and told the Queen's Privy Council that Gerard could not be made to "go to church." He was committed to Marshalsea Prison, which he describes as being "like a school of Christ" filled with "a large number of Catholics and several priests who with a light heart were awaiting sentence of death or execution."
"From time to time
," he continues, "our cells were entered and a search made for altar plate, Agnus Deis and relics. Once we were informed on, (almost all of us) by a traitor who pretended to be a Catholic. He disclosed our hiding holes to the prison authorities, who came and almost filled a cart with the books and altar plate that they took away. In my own cell they discovered nearly all that was needed for saying Mass, since next door there was a good priest imprisoned and we had found a way of opening the door between us, and we had Mass very early every morning. Later we made up our losses and it was more than the Devil could do to deprive us a second time of this great consolation in prison
After a year of imprisonment, Anthony Babington, later beheaded for supporting Mary, Queen of Scots, agreed to stand surety to Gerard's temporary release. With Babington's encouragement, Gerard fled to France and proceeded to Rome, where he was ordained a priest with Papal Dispensation for his age. On the Feast of the Assumption, 1588, Father John Gerard was admitted by the Jesuits and ordered to return to England to minister to the persecuted Catholics there.
Alongside three of his fellow Jesuits, Fathers Christopher Bales, George Beesley, and Edward Oldcorne, all of whom would later recieve the martyrs' crown, Father Gerard hired a ship to smuggle them all back into England. He describes his arrival as follows: "After crossing the sea we sailed up the English coast. On the third day my companion and I saw what seemed like a good place to put ashore in the ship's boat. As we thought it would be dangerous to for all of us to land together, we asked God's guidance in prayer. Then we consulted our companions and ordered the ship to cast anchor off the point until nightfall. At the first watch of the night we were take ashore in the ship's boat and dropped there. The ship spread it's canvas and sailed on."For a few moments we prayed and commended ourselves to the keeping of God, then we looked for a path to take us as far inland as possible and put a good distance between us and the sea before dawn broke. But the night was dark and overcast, and we could not pick the path we wanted and get away into the open fields. Every track we took led up to a house - we knew at once when the dogs started to bark. This happened two or three times. Afraid we might wake the people inside and be set upon for attempting to burgle them, we decided to go off into a nearby wood and rest there till the morning. It was about the end of October, raining and wet, and we passed a sleepless night. Nor did we dare to talk, for the wood was close to a house. However, in little more than a whisper, we held a conference. Would it be better to make for London together or separately so that if one was caught the other might get away safely? We discussed both courses thoroughly. In the end we decided to part company and each go his own way."At the first sight of dawn we cast lots to see who should leave the wood first. The lot fell on Father Oldcorne, who was also the first to leave this world for Heaven. Then we shared out our money equally, and embraced and blessed each other."
It is at this point that Father Gerard's account truly becomes fascinating. As he delves deep into the cat-and-mouse game played between the Elizabethan secret police and persecuted Catholics, Father Gerard also describes his personal acquaintence with both the canonized saints and the vilest sinners of this long ago battle. "He was so wise and good, gentle and lovable," he writes of the martyred priest-poet St. Robert Southwell. Not only this, but his jailhouse encounters with Sir Richard Topcliffe, the Queen's pet psychopath, are every bit as frightening as anything in "Red Dragon" or Silence of the Lambs."
As members of the aristocracy began building secret chapels and "priest holes" in their palaces, Topcliffe and his murderous crew of "priest hunters" began recruiting their servants and even their children as informants. It was a world were a hunted priest could trust no one; not his parishioners, not his relatives, not even his fellow priests. It was also a world were the wanton corruption of the Elizabethan authorities frequently worked to their detriment. Prisons could function as "schools of Christ" where underpaid jailers frequently turned a blind eye toward the many visits imprisoned priests recived from England's persecuted Catholics. Other prisons, however, were centers of the most sadistic tortures, as Father Gerard would unfortunately learn inside the Tower of London. Father Gerard's escape from the Tower, by means of a rope thrown over the moat, leaves the reader wondering why this book has never been optioned by Hollywood.
In reading this book, one is often reminded of the words which Our Lord spoke on the way to the Mount of Olives. "If the world hate you, remember it hath hated me before you. If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the world which I have spoken to you: The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will keep yours also
," St. John XV 18-20.
The Psalmist also gives Catholics much food for thought while considering times of persecution. "Let not the foot of pride come to me: and let not the hand of the sinner move me. There the workers of iniquity are fallen: they are cast out, and could not stand
," Psalms XXXV 12-13.