The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest: Review

The-Autobiography-of-a-Hunted-PriestThe Autobiography of a Hunted Priest is the report of a Jesuit priest active in England during the sixteenth century, mostly during the time of the Elizabethian persecution, and ending about the time of the Gunpowder Plot to destroy Parliament. Despite the heavy looking sepia-toned cover with a picture of a priest being tortured, it was light easy reading that was not graphic or overly technical. Fr. John Gerard (the original author) and Fr. James Schall  (the translator) are pleasant and easy to read.

In part, I wanted to read this book because this time period is one that English-speakers learn about from a Protestant perspective. English culture and English history is largely Protestant, with Catholics (until modern times) remaining a despised and (in England at least) legally circumscribed minority. In school students learn about “Bloody Mary” (who persecuted Protestants) and “Good Queen Bess” (who persecuted Catholics.)  On November 5th, people traditionally burned the Pope in effigy to celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. Active Protestants often receive an additional layer of religious instruction about this time, but it is (naturally enough) limited to martyrs who died for their Protestant faith, and does not include Catholics who died for their Catholic faith. (This is an observation, not a criticism.) Modern secularism is no kinder to Catholics, so we don’t often hear the Catholic side of things.

The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest is an interesting insight into what was for me an unfamiliar part of the picture of this time. It is the autobiography of a 16th century Catholic priest in England. As a Jesuit, his mission is to convert heretics (Protestants) and schismatics (Catholics who attend a Protestant church due to persecution) as well as strengthen Catholics in their faith. The autobiography grew from a report written to his superiors about his time in the English mission field and was initially intended for private, Jesuit consumption.

John Gerard grew up in England as the child of known Catholics. He was taken from his parents when he was five years old and for a short time placed in a Protestant home, because his father was arrested for a plot to restore Mary Queen of Scots to the throne. When he was twelve, he went to study at Exeter College, but was unable to complete his studies because “at Easter time they tried to force us to go to church and receive the Protestant sacrament.” (Page 1) At fourteen he went to France and studied for four years, both French and Scripture. There, he decided that he wanted to join the Society of Jesus.

On a trip home, he was arrested but then set free thanks to his family’s connections. He was released to the custody of a Protestant relative, in the hopes of converting him. When that failed, he was imprisoned by the Bishop of London, though he was treated kindly. Initially resistant to efforts to talk about faith, he found himself surprised that the Bishop’s chaplain could not put up “even a passable defense. It was easy to convince him of his error.” (Page 4) After this, however, he was sent to prison, where he “met a large number of Catholics and several priests who with a light heart were awaiting sentence of death or execution. The place was like a school of Christ” (Page 4/5) Gerard, however, was merely fined 2,000 florins for refusing to attend church. Eventually, he was freed and traveled abroad again to be educated in Rome and ordained.

The bulk of his autobiography is about his subsequent mission to England. Father Gerard has to be smuggled into England. Once there, he and the other priests concentrate most of their efforts on converting the gentry. They are the ones who have the necessary connections with the authorities, the resources needed to construct hiding places for priests and the space to conduct Mass and set up “house churches” as it were. Once the lord and lady of an estate are converted, their servants can be converted or Catholic servants can be found for them, and the whole estate can live a life of Christian piety. These tactics seem to be adopted of necessity. To evangelize the very poor first would have been death to the mission, for there would be nowhere for the priest to hide and no protection if trouble happened.

Much of Father Gerard’s autobiography is a tantalizing peek at how this whole system worked. Father Gerard works hard to pass himself off as a gentleman, make connections, and works carefully on a particular person to prepare them for conversion. Once they are ready, he reveals his true occupation, and receives them into the Church. Once they are received, as often as not they want a priest in their house and Father Gerard finds one to place with them.

At times, he is in danger – there are “priest-hunters” in England at this time, who go looking for Catholic priests. These seem to follow a standard pattern: a neighbor notices unusual traffic or that the occupants of a house do not attend Protestant services or a servant decides to inform on his master. Having received the tip from the informer, searchers are dispatched to the house. They give no notice of their arrival and enter immediately, trying to see the house before the priest has time to hide and before objects used for Mass can be cleared away. If the priest is lucky, his host(ess) can stall them at the door, or some advance notice is obtained. He clears his things away and takes them with him to a prepared hiding place constructed for this purpose. If he is lucky, the searchers are only there a short time. If he is not, they have a stronger suspicion. They may take the occupants of the house into custody, or may spend days searching, tapping on walls and measuring distances to try and detect hiding places. If the hiding place is concealed well, the priest is safe from discovery, but he must also hope that he has stocked enough food and water to survive.

If taken into custody, the priest is interrogated to establish whether or not he is a priest and also to discover accomplices. He may be tortured – a particularly nasty priest hunter named Richard Topcliffe had several inventive methods for torturing uncooperative Catholics. In the end, if there is not sufficient proof that he is a priest, he may be released or fined. If he is proven to be a priest, he may be deported… or he may be executed for his faith.

I won’t spoil the details of Father Gerard’s journey – this is very readable, and a primary source, so anyone at all interested in this sort of history ought to read it. It contained many enjoyable, intriguing moments and is deeply personal. The particular translation I read contained good footnotes providing a bit of context, and a set of appendicies giving a good deal more. All in all, it was well worth the time.

The Good

+ Easy to read and follow, not too technical or “old” sounding

+ Fascinating story, one rarely learned about (at least in my upbringing)

+ Set in a truly interesting time period

+ Useful appendicies

The Bad

– Occasionally, Fr. Gerard’s autobiography meanders or tells stories within a story in  a manner hard to follow

– Blunt language (“heretics” “schismatics”) may turn some people off (though bear in mind, using newer, polite terms does not change underlying differences)

Available on Amazon:
The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest


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