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John Gerard

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Jesuit; born 4 October, 1564; died 27 July, 1637. He is well known through his autobiography, a fascinating record of dangers and adventures, of captures and escapes, of trials and consolations. The narrative is all the more valuable because it sets before us the kind of life led by priests, wherever the peculiar features of the English persecution occurred. John was the second son of Sir Thomas Gerard of Bryn, for a time a valiant confessor of the Faith, who, however, in 1589, tarnished his honour by giving evidence against the Ven. Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel. Different opinions are held (by Morris and Gillow) as to the permanence of his inconsistency. John left his father's house at New Bryn at the age of thirteen, and went first to Douai seminary; matriculated at Oxford (1579), and thence proceeded to the Jesuits' College at Paris (1581). Having come to England for his health's sake, he was arrested on 5 March, 1584, and suffered two years' imprisonment in the Marshal-sea. He was bailed out in 1586, and, with the consent of his sureties, once more made his way to the Continent, and was received at the English College, Rome, 5 August, 1586. At first he paid for himself, but in April, 1587, he became a scholar to the pope. Next year, 15 August, 1588, he entered the Jesuit novitiate; but so great was the dearth of missionaries in England that he was dispatched thither in the ensuing September.

His romantic adventures began on landing, for he was set ashore alone on the Norfolk coast at a moment when the country was in a turmoil of excitement after the defeat of the Armada, and when feeling against Catholics ran so high that fifteen priests had been butchered in two days in London, and twelve others sent to the provinces for the same purpose, though half of these eventually escaped death. Gerard, being an accomplished sportsman and rider, succeeded in making his way about the country, now as a horseman who had lost his way in the chase, now as a huntsman whose hawk had strayed. Before long he had won the steadfast friendship of many Catholic families, with whose aid he was able to make frequent conversions, to give retreats and preach, and to send over many nuns and youths to the convents, seminaries, and religious houses on the Continent. Dr. Jessopp, a Protestant writes:

The extent of Gerard's influence was nothing less than marvellous. Country gentlemen meet him in the street and forthwith invite him to their houses; highborn ladies put themselves under his direction almost as unreservedly in temporal as in spiritual things. Scholars and courtiers run serious risks to hold interviews with him, the number of his converts of all ranks is legion; the very gaolers and turnkeys obey him; and in a state of society when treachery and venality were pervading all classes, he finds servants and agents who are ready to live and die for him. A man of gentle blood and gentle breeding - of commanding stature, greate vigour of constitution, a master of three or four languages, with a rare gift of speech and an innate grace and courtliness of manner - he was fitted to shine in any society and to lead it. From boyhood he had been a keen sportsman, at home in the saddle, and a great proficient in all country sport. His powers of endurance of fatigue and pain were almost superhuman; he could remain in hiding days and nights in a hole in which he could not stand upright, and never sleep, and hardly change his position: he could joke on the gyves that were ulcerating his legs. He seems never to have forgotten a face or a name or an incident. Writing his autobiography twenty years after the circumstances he records, there is scarcely an event or a name which recent research has not proved to be absolutely correct. As a literary effort merely, the Life is marvellous. ("Academy", 9 July, 1881.)

In those times of danger, no prudence could always effectually ensure a priest against capture. Gerard was taken prisoner, July, 1594, through a servant, whose secret treachery was not suspected. He passed two years in smaller prisons, and was then sent to the Tower, where he was cruelly tortured, being hung up by his hands, of which torment he has left a very vivid description. His courage and firmness, however, were such, that his examiners lost hope of extracting secrets from him, and he was relegated to the Salt Tower, where he cleverly contrived to say Mass. In 1597, he managed to escape by means of a string thrown one night by a friend from Tower Wharf into the Cradle Tower. By this string a rope was drawn across the moat, and with its assistance he managed eventually to get across, but with great difficulty, as his hands were still helpless from the torture.

Until the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, at the end of 1605, he continued his adventurous life as a missioner in England, but he was then obliged to slip away disguised as a footman in the train of the Spanish Ambassador. The rest of his life was spent in the English colleges on the Continent. He wrote, in 1607, "A Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot", and afterwards his autobiography, "Narratio P. Joannis Gerardi de Rebus a se in Anglia gestis". He strongly befriended Mary Ward in her attempt to found an active religious order for women, and passed the last ten years of his life as spiritual director of the English College at Rome.

About this page

APA citation. Pollen, J.H. (1909). John Gerard. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Pollen, John Hungerford. "John Gerard." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Gerard Loiselle.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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