We've just finished reading and discussing the remarkable autobiography of Fr. John Gerard, a Jesuit priest in Elizabethan England at the time of “the stripping of the Altars”. We may never know how many Catholics were condemned for their faith during the persecution of the Catholics who remained faithful to the Church. We do know that the standard penalty for all those convicted of “Catholic treason” was execution by being hanged, drawn and quartered. Estimates of the number of executions carried out by Henry VIII range from 57,000 to the 72,000 claimed in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (the mass murder following the Catholic rising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace accounted for many of them). The troops of his son Edward VI massacred more than 5,500 Cornish Catholics in the wake of the Prayer Book Rebellion. Elizabeth I was more sparing of formal executions, though St Margaret Clitheroe was pressed to death at York and Mary Queen of Scots beheaded; but the butchery of Catholics in Ireland was particularly appalling. There, Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene, supported a policy of extermination by artificial famine on a scale that was not exceeded until Stalin in the 1930s.
Father Gerard's autobiography presents a detailed account of the part he played in keeping the Faith alive during this troubled period of our Catholic history. One can only marvel at the incredible bravery of the men and women who supported Catholic priests by sheltering and hiding them in their homes. To be discovered with a priest in your home was to invite immediate imprisonment and often, execution by being hanged, drawn, and quartered.
This book is a "must read" for any young man now considering the priest hood. It describes what it is like to be on the “front lines” of the struggle for the Faith. Father James V. Schall of Georgetown University notes in his introduction to the present edition that he did not believe that the persecution of Catholics during this period of English history could happen here in America when he first read the book as a young seminarian. He then opines, " One is no longer quite so sure. It may, in fact, be a very up-to-date book in its own way." Michael Cohen, a Canadian author and TV personality notes, " Attacks on marriage, disdain for the Church, distortions of morality, lying for power and prestige, abusing the dead. Good Lord, it feels like the sixteenth-century all over again!" Perhaps, Perhaps!
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The Risen Christ is with us always!