Rorate Caeli

The Jesuit Pimpernel: A book review by Fr Konrad Loewenstein, FSSP

FSSP Quarterly
 Summer 2019, Issue N˚42

Fr John Gerard: The Jesuit Pimpernel Fr Gerard S.J. (1564 –1637) could have been the inspiration for Baroness Orczy’s celebrated novel The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) where in 1793 a chivalrous baronet masquerades as a fop to better delude French revolutionaries and save aristocrats from the guillotine. It was English Catholics though, whom Fr Gerard rescued from Elizabethan gaols, and many Anglicans whom he saved from the spiritual dungeon of schism and heresy, reconciling them with the Church of Christ at his life’s peril. Fr Konrad Loewenstein, FSSP reviews a too little-known classic autobiography of this heroic and humorous Englishman.

The book is a memorandum of the exploits of the Jesuit priest, Fr. John Gerard, on the English Mission in 1588, translated from the Latin by Fr. Caraman and first published by him with the title ‘John Gerard, portrait of an Elizabethan’ (perhaps a more felicitous title).

He arrives at night by boat, accompanied by three other priests, all destined for martyrdom. Posing as a falconer in search of a lost falcon, he is soon directed by Divine Providence into the arms of the most outspoken opponent of Anglicanism and the Elizabethan Reform in the county. The latter, an influential member of the local gentry, welcomes him into his home and helps him initiate an apostolate amongst friends and their servants in the other great houses in the area.

Numerous are the people he converts, re-converts, strengthens in the Faith, sends to the Continent for studies, for priestly formation, or to enter convents. His work does not long escape the notice of the authorities. Houses in which he stays are searched unexpectedly by the ‘poursuivants’, whom he eludes often only by a hair’s breadth – on horse-back or in priest-holes sometimes for days on end.

On one occasion he comes face to face with the Dean of Winchester, one of his deadliest enemies, a well-known persecutor of Catholics, who had even written a book against him. Fr. Gerard is speaking on spiritual matters in the dining-room of an Oxfordshire house after dinner. The mistress of the house and maids-in waiting are listening to him, cards spread out on the table to delude any servants who might chance by. Suddenly the Dean is announced and enters the room. In an era prior to the media age his enemy of course does not recognise him.

‘After an exchange of courtesies he began talking volubly. It is all these men can do… so after a lot of frivolous talk, this man came out with the latest news from London: the story of a puritan who had thrown himself from a church tower…

“Poor fellow”, I said “What could have induced him to destroy his body and soul in one fell act?” “Sir”, answered the doctor in a learned and magisterial manner, “it is not for us to pass judgment on any man”… “Quite so” I said, “it is possible, of course, that the man repented of his sin as he was still falling… but it is very unlikely. The man’s last act which we have any means of judging was a mortal sin and merited damnation.” “But,” said the doctor, “we don’t know whether this was such a sin.” “Pardon me, I said, “it is not a case here of our own judgment, but of God’s; he forbids us under pain of Hell to kill any-one, and particularly ourselves, for charity begins at home.” The good doctor was caught. He said nothing more on the point, but he turned the subject, saying with a smile: “Gentlemen should not dispute on theological questions.” “I agree”, I said. “We don’t of course pretend to know theology, but we should at least know the law of God, even if our profession is to play cards.”  When the lady I was playing with heard the retort she could hardly keep a straight face. What would he have thought if he had known whom he was talking to?’

Imprisoned in the Tower of London, he describes his torture in a manner as moving as the Faith which informs it is profound. Never at a loss for a cunning scheme, he sends crosses made of orange-peel to the Catholic prisoner in the tower opposite. On the paper in which he wraps them, he has written a message in orange-juice. When the prisoner holds the paper to the fire, words appear telling him to ask the priest to dinner, which he does.

They plan an escape across the Thames on a rope, which fails the first night due to unexpectedly strong tides thwarting the efforts of his friends in a boat below, but on the second night they succeed, despite the fact that the priest’s hands, weakened by torture, almost let him fall. True to his love for his neighbour and for souls, he also succeeds in rescuing the gaoler and his wife, and finding them a house, and an annuity on which to live for the rest of their days. The gaoler converts, and he remarks: ‘While in prison I had probed him frequently on his faith – his mind was made, but I could not work on his will. My escape was, I hope, in God’s kind disposing, the occasion of his escaping from Hell.’

In these times characterised by disengagement from reality, by an obtuse worldliness, by a tepid indifference to the one true Faith, by an ignorance or complete disregard for the multifarious dangers threatening our salvation, dangers all the greater for their covertness, let this book serve to enkindle or to re-enkindle in the hearts of those that read it that ardour for Our Blessed Lord Who said: ‘I have come to bring fire upon this earth, and would that it were burning already’ (Luke 12:49

The book can be purchased BY CLICKING HERE