John Gerard, Elizabethan Jesuit Missionary

The life of John Gerard, an English Catholic and Jesuit missionary priest, well illustrates what is at stake when the power of the state is enlisted against the Catholic faith and church. The persecutions of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I meant that the English government hunted down John Gerard as though he were a common criminal. The crown likewise imprisoned him as if he had committed a heinous crime. Gerard, who never advocated violence or subversion against a regime of persecutors, was, rather a patient and courageous servant of the Catholic church and her people.

John Gerard was one of a host of young English regular and diocesan clergymen who ministered to the dwindling Catholic population of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Despite the risks, these heroic servants of God ministered under a cloud of fear and suspicion, as the royal regime inflicted a virtual reign of terror on Her Majesty’s Catholic subjects. Over the course of her reign, Elizabeth I (1558-1603) executed eighty-seven Catholic priests. They had been convicted of treason for refusing to submit to her Act of Supremacy, which declared the monarch head of the Christian church in England. A religious secret police, known as pursuivants, was ordered to find priests and arrest them.

John Gerard’s vocation had been nurtured from birth; his parents were faithful Catholics. He was removed from their home as a young boy, for his father had been suspected of involvement in a plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots, from prison and execution. He was sent to the house of a Protestant relative, but was eventually reunited with his father. At the age of fourteen, Gerard received permission to study in France. Education in that Catholic country opened his mind to the richness and wisdom preserved in the Catholic intellectual tradition. In particular, he studied the works of St Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Bonaventure. He met a Jesuit in Paris and became interested in the charism and mission of the Society of Jesus. John Gerard decided to become a Jesuit. Before ordination, he returned to England to dispose of his property and was there arrested for the first time for being a Catholic. In 1588 he was in Rome, where he was ordained and formally became a Jesuit. The timing could not have been worse. The English had just defeated the mighty Armada of King Philip of Spain, and Protestants associated Catholicism even more closely with betrayal of queen and country.

Gerard_John_1545-1612Upon returning to England, Gerard worked to win converts for Catholicism. Many of those he received into the church already had Catholic contacts (family members, for instance). He was convinced that none of the persons he received into the church relapsed into Protestantism, which gave him great satisfaction. He also spent a good deal of time trying to avoid arrest. He wore lay clothes, and lived with Catholic families and sympathizers. Several times he was compelled to spend long hours in tiny “priest holes” built by homeowners in which to hide Catholic priests from pursuivants. Inevitably, however, he came under suspicion and was arrested in 1594. In prison he was tortured, suspended by the arms for long hours with a weight attached to his legs. In spite of it all, John avoided bitterness and tried to find God in all things. When his torturers relented, he counselled other Catholics he met in prison. He sometimes said Mass.

After three years in prison, John escaped by climbing down a rope thrown over the prison wall. He then spent the next few months hiding and recovering his physical strength. He traveled between city and country, north and south to avoid being taken by pursuivants. He had to act the country gentleman, so as to avoid suspicion, particularly by Puritans, who liked nothing better than to denounce a priest to the authorities. John now sometimes shunned the company of Catholics, because he did not want fellow believers to get in trouble for having been known to associate with him.

The danger for John Gerard escalated with the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Catholic conspirators plotted to blow up Parliament. They secretly placed kegs of explosive in the Parliament cellar. The conspirators thus hoped to destroy the government and reestablish the Catholic religion in England. Although he was in no way involved, a number of the conspirators were Gerard’s friends. The discovery of the plot made every Catholic Englishman a subversive. Once again, Gerard barely evaded arrest, although many people who helped him were apprehended. He left England for good in 1606. He then first lived in Louvain and worked at the English Catholic seminary there. He died in Rome in 1637, having lived the last period of his life in peace and freedom from persecution.


Robert W. Shaffern is a Professor of Medieval History at the University of Scranton and the author of The Penitents’ Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom, 1175-1375.

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