Until last October, when the BBC surprisingly and erroneously gave him a prominent role in the Gunpowder Plot, few people had heard of Fr John Gerard SJ. Strangely, the publicity surrounding the BBC’s decision to apologise and re-edit the documentary has received far more attention than the programme itself.
So who was the real Fr Gerard? He was one of those courageous Catholic priests who, after training on the Continent, returned to their native land to work on the English Mission, helping to keep Catholicism alive during the years of religious persecution in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. These brave men operated undercover and lived in continual fear of capture, imprisonment, torture and the most barbaric forms of execution.
There were competing claims to the English throne, and numerous plots to unseat the monarch often involved Catholics, and sometimes even priests, rebelling against the intolerable repression of their religion. Protestant England was surrounded by hostile Catholic powers and it is hardly surprising that Catholics were viewed as a potential threat. Indeed, it suited the authorities to represent Catholic priests, particularly Jesuits, as agents of foreign powers.
It was in these dangerous circumstances that Fr Gerard, a tall and dashing young Jesuit, landed by night on the Norfolk coast, shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, when anti-Catholic feelings were at a high. Disguising himself first as a falconer and then as a country gentlemen, he met contacts in Norwich who introduced him to a network of Catholic sympathisers across Norfolk and nearby counties.
Moving from one country house to another, Fr Gerard managed to persuade their owners, at substantial risk to themselves, to use their houses as centres for building local Catholic communities. In the process he made numerous converts to the faith, at least 30 of whom subsequently became priests themselves.
He was far from the only priest operating in this way, but he was certainly one of the most successful. His conviction and commitment, combined with great charisma and intelligence, made him a persuasive advocate for his faith. Fr Gerard was also exceptionally courageous and resourceful, which helped him to escape capture on numerous occasions. But after six years he was seized and imprisoned. He spent three years in the Clink prison, where, remarkably, he managed to turn a cell into a chapel, said daily Mass for Catholic inmates, administered the sacraments and inspired yet more conversions. Many Catholics came to the prison to visit him and receive the sacraments.
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