Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Father John Gerard's Autobiography

Ignatius Press has reissued this translation of Father John Gerard, SJ's autobiography made by Father Philip Caraman, SJ , unexpurgated, with an introduction by Father James V. Schall, SJ:

Truth is stranger than fiction. And nowhere in literature is it so apparent as in this classic work, the Autobiography of a Hunted Priest. This autobiography of a Jesuit priest in Elizabethan England is a most remarkable document and John Gerard, its author, a most remarkable priest in a time when to be a Catholic in England courted imprisonment and torture; to be a priest was treason by act of Parliament.
Smuggled into England after his ordination and dumped on a Norfolk beach at night, Fr. Gerard disguised himself as a country gentleman and traveled about the country saying Mass, preaching and ministering to the faithful in secret - always in constant danger. The houses in which he found shelter were frequently raided by "priest hunters"; priest-holes, hide-outs and hair-breadth escapes were part of his daily life. He was finally caught and imprisoned, and later removed to the infamous Tower of London where he was brutally tortured.
The stirring account of his escape, by means of a rope thrown across the moat, is a daring and magnificent climax to a true story which, for sheer narrative power and interest, far exceeds any fiction. Here is an accurate and compelling picture of England when Catholics were denied their freedom to worship and endured vicious persecution and often martyrdom.
But more than the story of a single priest, the Autobiography of a Hunted Priest epitomizes the constant struggle of all human beings through the ages to maintain their freedom. It is a book of courage and of conviction whose message is most timely for our age.

This edition is unexpurgated because it includes Father Gerard's comments about the disagreements between the Jesuits and other missionary priests, including Father William Watson.

One of the most famous excerpts from this story is Gerard's account of his torture, as he was hung by his wrists (as St. Robert Southwell was) in the Tower of London:

My arms were then lifted up and an iron bar was passed through the rings of one gauntlet, then through the staple and rings to the second gauntlet. This done, they fastened the bar with a pin to prevent it from slipping, and then, removing the wicker steps one by one from under my feet, they left me hanging by my hands and arms fastened above my head. The tips of my toes, however, still touched the ground, and they had to dig the earth away from under them. They had hung me up from the highest staple in the pillar and could not raise me any higher, without driving in another staple. Hanging like this I began to pray. The gentlemen standing around me asked me whether I was willing to confess now. 'I cannot and I will not,' I answered. But I could hardly utter the words, such a gripping pain came over me. It was worst in my chest and belly, my hands and arms. All the blood in my body seemed to rush up into my arms and hands and I thought that blood was oozing from the ends of my fingers and the pores of my skin. But it was only a sensation caused by my flesh swelling above the irons holding them.
The pain was so intense that I thought I could not possibly endure it, and added to it, I had an interior temptation. Yet I did not feel any inclination or wish to give them the information they wanted. The Lord saw my weakness with the eyes of His mercy, and did not permit me to be tempted beyond my strength. With the temptation He sent me relief. Seeing my agony and the struggle going on in my mind, He gave me this most merciful thought: the utmost and worst they can do is to kill you, and you have often wanted to give your life for your Lord God. The Lord God sees all you are enduring - He can do all things. You are in God's keeping.
With these thoughts, God in His infinite goodness and mercy gave me the grace of resignation, and with a desire to die and a hope (I admit) that I would, I offered Him myself to do with me as He wished. From that moment the conflict in my soul ceased, and even the physical pain seemed much more bearable than before, though it must, in fact, I am sure, have been greater with the growing strain and weariness of my body... Sometime after one o'clock, I think, I fell into a faint. How long I was unconscious I don't know, but I think it was long, for the men held my body up or put the wicker steps under my feet until I came to. Then they heard me pray and immediately let me down again. And they did this every time I fainted - eight or nine times that day - before it struck five...


  1. John Gerard and quiet heroes like him make me reflect on the extraordinary extent God will go through to save lost souls.

    1. He was indeed steadfast and urgent in his care of souls! Thank you for your comment.