Thursday, June 27, 2013

St. John Southworth, Martyr of Westminster

Father John Southworth came from a Lancashire family who lived at Samlesbury Hall. They chose to pay heavy fines rather than give up the Catholic faith.

He studied at the English College in Douai, now in northern France, (and then moved to Hertfordshire, St Edmunds College) and was ordained priest before he returned to England. Imprisoned and sentenced to death for professing the Catholic faith, he was later deported to France, with the help of Queen Henrietta Maria--he had at first been imprisoned with St. Edmund Arrowsmith in Lancaster and witnessed that martyr's death; then he was moved to The Clink in London and then exiled. Once more he returned to England and lived in Clerkenwell, London, during a plague epidemic, working along with St. Henry Morse. He assisted and converted the sick in Westminster and was arrested again.

He was again arrested under the Interregnum and was tried at the Old Bailey under Elizabethan anti-priest legislation . He pleaded guilty to exercising the priesthood and was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. At his execution at Tyburn, London, he suffered the full pains of his sentence and was hanged, drawn and quartered. He was allowed to speak before his sentence was carried out. Among his last words:

“My faith and obedience to my superiors is all the treason charged against me; nay, I die for Christ’s law, which no human law, by whomsoever made, ought to withstand or contradict… To follow His holy doctrine and imitate His holy death, I willingly suffer at present; this gallows I look on as His Cross, which I gladly take to follow my Dear Saviour…I plead not for myself…but for you poor persecuted Catholics whom I leave behind me.

"My faith is my crime, the performance of my duty the occasion of my condemnation. I confess I am a great sinner; against God I have offended, but am innocent of any sin against man, I mean the Commonwealth, and the present Government."

The Venetian Secretary reported on his execution: he was hung, and was not dead when the executioner "cut out his heart and entrails and threw them into a fire kindled for the purpose, the body being quartered . . . Such is the inhuman cruelty used towards the English Catholic religious."

The Spanish ambassador returned his corpse to Douai for burial. His corpse was sewn together and parboiled, to preserve it. Following the French Revolution, his body was buried in an unmarked grave for its protection. The grave was discovered in 1927 and his remains were returned to England. They are now kept in the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs in Westminster Cathedral in London. He was beatified in 1929. In 1970, he was canonized by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His feast day is 27 June but this is only celebrated in the Westminster diocese.

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