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Saint Robert Southwell - Jesuit Saint

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

My apologies for breaking up your regular order. As you probably gathered, my life is not that regular, it is very unpredictable. Our saint for this evening is St. Robert Southwell, the English Jesuit, poet and martyr. He was born in 1561, died in 1595 at the ripe old age of thirty-three. He was canonized – took a long time, in 1970. His family on his mother's side was related to the Shelleys', the other English poet. By this time the Catholic faith was proscribed in England – English Catholics, had to go into hiding. If they wanted a catechetic education they had to leave the country. In case you haven't been told, it's getting closer and closer to that in the United States. He was therefore sent to Douay, which as you know, is the place where the first and official English translation of the Bible was made, Douay, later on revised, the Douay-Reams.

It was while studying at Douay that he first met some Jesuits, including the famous Leonard Lesius (spelling), a great Jesuit theologian, who's best known work is on the 'Attributes of God'. Then he went on to Paris and by this time, he was just seventeen. Incidently, young people matured much earlier in those days. It is thirty-one years that I have been working with the daughters of St. Mary of Providence in Chicago. As you know their special apostolate is caring for the handicapped, say, the retarded. I would say this is a very common phenomenon. In other words, that young people nowadays are really young. It takes them a long time to grow up – thirty years old and they behave like young adolescents.

When Southwell applied to enter the Society of Jesus, he was seventeen. They turned him down because he was too young. Well, just before his eighteenth birthday, they figured, he qualifies. He was ordained in 1584 at the age of twenty-three. Two years after his ordination, by that time he had taken his final vows, he was sent back to England to try to reconvert his fellow ex-Catholic, English people. The actual time span of his attempted evangelization mission work would be about six years, that's all. He got himself a position as chaplain to a certain Anne who was Countess of Arundel. Her husband suffered a great deal for defending priests who were trying to hide out from those who were trying to root out the Catholic faith. It's well to know that the hostess who hid Robert, her husband, had since been declared blessed. What is remarkable about St. Robert Southwell, is that although he worked quite openly in the sense that it was not a big secret that he was a priest. He did, of course, try to work in disguise, but, he was allowed extraordinary freedom. A number of factors were in his favor, he was naturally of a gentle disposition, he was quiet. In other words, he did not make unnecessary noise or create a scene or you might say, irritate those who were out to destroy the Church. He avoided, as much as he could, controversy.

As I reread a short biography of St. Robert Southwell, well, I was reminded how over the years, there are certain of my confreres that have stood out as models for me to try to imitate, Robert Southwell was one. There are not too many of us, Jesuits, who have survived nationally, mainly of course, God's grace, but one reason I think, is avoiding as far as possible, controversy. Keep proclaiming the truth, keep insisting on what the faith really teaches and avoid either unnecessary exposure as a critic of those who don't go along with the Church's teaching – in a word, keeping as much as you can, in the background, so as not to irritate those who are still nominally Catholic, but My Lord, who have lost their faith.

In 1592, Robert Southwell was arrested by an infamous spy by the name of Topcliffe who had to his credit many English martyrs, including Robert Southwell. Significantly, it was a young girl in the household of this Countess of Arundel, one of her daughters that betrayed the priest. Topcliffe brought Southwell to his own home – we have record of nine separate severe, cruel tortures. You may have seen pictures or descriptions of some of the machinery in which the people were tortured. For example, they would be stretched over a barrel, either way, either face down or back down, of course the back down would break your back and the two hands were made to touch the two feet and they would keep twisting and twisting until the one under torture couldn't stand it any longer and then would confess, as the expression goes, to what his torturers wanted to get out of him. What did they want to get out of Robert Southwell – they wanted him to betray his fellow Catholics, who were in hiding; those who had hidden him, those that helped him escape, those who helped him work in disguise. He refused. We don't know how many times he was tortured, all we know is many times during three years in prison. One reason they kept torturing him is because they were hoping to break down his resistance and get him to implicate many other Catholics to really root out the faith. Topcliffe was a very successful torturer in the quaint English of those days, remarked, 'I never did take so wavey a man if he be rightly used.' In other words, 'if we could break down Southwell's resistance, he would be very useful.'

Being three years in prison, he finally insisted that he should be tried or freed. In other words, it was a request he made, 'either put me on trial or get me out of prison', so they said, "all right." They put him on trial and they found him guilty and he was condemned to death because of his priesthood. The opposition didn't even attempt to disguise his martyrdom on political grounds. He was hanged and drawn – that means cut into pieces and quartered into four pieces on February the 21st, 1595, which has, over the centuries remained his feast day, February 21st.

The bystanders that watched his being martyred by hanging pleaded with the executioners to let him die on the scaffold and only then, that is, after the body was really dead, to then cut him into pieces, which was as you know, the familiar English form of execution – John Fisher, Thomas More and here Robert Southwell. Just to remind ourselves, I like the date. Thirty-three years old, exactly my age at ordination. In fact, I was ordained on my birthday.

Robert Southwell, on the grounds we have so far seen, was not unlike other martyrs whose lives either we've talked about or that we are familiar with. His age of course – he was a young man, but what makes Robert Southwell stand out among Jesuit saints and among the Church's martyrs, is the fact that he has left us so much for a man of thirty-three, has left us so much in writing that has made world literature. Southwell, he is called, is one of the great writers of the English-speaking world. He wrote prose, he wrote poetry.

Just a few statements to I think to be exact from his prose writing touching on the spiritual life. Remember, he was turned down when he applied for the Jesuits because of his age, sixteen is young, but once he was admitted, here's what he said: How great a perfection is required of a member of the Society of Jesus. He should be ready at a moment’s notice to go to heretics, pagans or barbarians. That moment’s notice is almost a quotation from St. Ignatius. As I think I told the people this afternoon, you may have heard, the priest who was to have conducted the day of recollection, forgot. So somebody else pinch-hitted until I got there. Lucky I took my cassock along, on general principles. But I told the people and I can tell you because that's what this is all about. All we have to know, that's all, what is God's will and in a moment’s notice, with the twinkling of an eye, you do it. As weak human beings our temptation is to hesitate, or in Christ's words, "We turn around." and the key is, the moment we know God wants us don't even put a comma – do it. It is dangerous to speculate, once you know that God wants something, because then human reason, being very shrewd, they'll find reasons, otherwise known as rationalization for not doing it.

The second quotation, we should be prepared for being cast into chains – I like this – by the heretics. The worst persecutors of the Church have not been native born pagans, they have been Christians who have lost their faith. The vicious hatred of the Communists is born of God's punishment for having rejected Christ. We should be prepared for being cast into chains by the heretics, starved by hunger, seduced and tortured. I like that combination-seduced and tortured. Between the two, I would choose torture to seduction. What Southwell is saying is, that in his day and, of course in ours, your rub eye, shake our head and we can't quite be sure we're seeing right – people we've known, whose faith we've admired; priests, for example, who may have been instrumental in leading us closer to God, who allow themselves to be seduced or are afraid of being starved by hunger and, my friends, the deepest hunger of the human spirit is not for food but for recognition.

Pray acceptance – take it from a man who knows. Southwell knew and that's why I thought I picked some choice quotations and I ended up with those two. Almost from the time that he entered the Jesuits, he felt that he would be a martyr. He was getting constant reports from home about one more being put to death for the faith or languishing in prison. Long before he was martyred himself, the account of the first Jesuit English martyr, St. Edmund Campion, was already in print. He read it, admired it and hoped to die the same. Among his many letters, I should keep reminding us that he was only 33 when he died, his run to the superior in England, Father Parsons – you couldn't write an ordinary letter about things religious, so being educated Jesuits they could read between the lines; they have their own crypto-language. Here's a quotation, see what you make of it: Robert Southwell is writing to Parson, superior in England, he is writing about Edmund Campion who had already been martyred – he doesn't mention Campion's name, but he says, I quote: He has had the start on you – Parsons later on was also martyred – he has had the start on you in leading his vessel with English wares (a business letter) and has successfully returned to the desired port. Day by day we are looking for something similar from you, unquote.

In 1586, two years after his ordination, he wrote to the father general, Aquaveva (spell.) by name, I quote: I do not much dread the tortures as I look forward to the crown. I like that. During his .?. hidden somewhere inside the wall of Lady Arundel's house, that's where these priests, as I'm sure you've heard, and the Jesuit brothers were very clever in constructing walls in such a way that a person could live there and survive a few days. It's not in my notes, but I think I can say it. It touches a little bit on this, but it's a good story; it has to do with a wall. Another Jesuit and myself heard about a multi-millionaire in Purchase, N.Y. When amassing his millions – lost his faith. His sister with her brother, both are unmarried, lived next door to our Jesuit provincial residence in (?) Park in Chicago. Lilly was the sister's name. I worked with our provincial, off and on, for about nine years. In my spare time, I would go to a park to take care of things, so I got to know Lilly and she would often ask me to pray for her brother, the long lost brother, lost that is, to the faith, Julian by name. So I used to pray for Julian. Then I got myself, partly because I had planned it, a retreat near Purchase, N.Y. and I had Lilly write to her brother ‘would he meet a Jesuit priest.' Well, he didn't want to meet any priest, Jesuit or otherwise, but to please Lilly, 'all right, he'd meet this bum that she was sending him.' So the day before I finished the retreat I thought I'd call up my friend because he agreed his sister told me, he will see me. So I called him up – I got one secretary, I couldn't reach the great mogul, himself. She put me in touch with a second secretary, I'm not exaggerating, the second secretary put me in touch with a third secretary, by that time I was duly impressed. Yes, I suggested when I would be available. He told me when to show up. Hours after I was really all ready, ready to see him, but I thought I'd wait, anything to save a soul. So finally, I showed up – pardon me for the story, but, it does touch on Robert Southwell. You'll begin to see where I get some of my inspiration. I showed up, waited on the porch for him to drive up – chauffeured, long sleek Cadillac. He was in the back of the car. He pushed a button and the door opened. I walked in, we drove around ten miles of garden, finally, we had dinner together. I came with my stole fully armed to convert this apostate. I got no where. I would talk about God and he'd start talking about money. After about three hours of this sparring, he was ready for me to leave – arranged for his chauffeur to take me down to the train station and this is where the wall comes in. He was a man up in years, had one cane against which he rested with one hand, with the other hand, he shook mine, I shook his hand as he withdrew his hand, the wall behind him opened and this smarting figure stepped backwards into the wall. I was a little surprised. I still had my hand out, the wall closed, my friend had disappeared. As that wall had disappeared I thought to myself, well, this is the English martyrs in reverse. Instead of hiding a priest behind the wall, there was an apostate walking into the wall, running away from a priest. He won't get away with it. Open walls are not – I'm ready to get that soul. I've been in search of the women. There were nine women waiting on him hand and foot. I found his first secretary and by God's grace, she was a Catholic. I told her, 'you know why I'm here', oh, she says, "I know." Now, I gave her very explicit instructions, she took notes. Father Hardon worked on this, what shall I call him, elderly gentleman 'and if anything happens to him, get a priest and if need be, call me up long distance, I'll take the next flight to take care of him.' Eighteen months later, he had a stroke. She called a priest. He was unconscious, priest gave him conditional absolution. I told her, 'Now, be sure, if he's unconscious, be with him day and night and if there be one minute of consciousness, ask him if he is sorry for his sins, if he wants to see a priest. He was conscious for about an hour. She asked him, 'do you want to see a priest?' He said 'yes' when at the hour the priest came, absolved him as he died. Whatever success I have in the ministry, I put it down to the graces of my Jesuits in Heaven. They're working together. Now back to Robert Southwell.

There are two books, prose writings, that Robert Southwell wrote that are worth reading. They are of course written in 16th century English but, powerful, written to encourage his fellow Catholics to remain firm in their faith. The one is called 'Mary Magdalene's Funeral Tears', 'Mary Magdalene's Funeral Tears.' And the other one is called 'Epistle of Comfort'. We would probably call it a letter of encouragement. His poetry – we don't know exactly when he began to write, but it must have been very young, because he wrote a great deal of which we have the record and by now the English speaking world knows Robert Southwell. His two outstanding poems are 'The Burning Babe' and 'The Virgin Mary to Christ On The Cross.' Sister Catherine managed to find a copy of the 'Burning Bathe', which I will read and make a bit of comment on. The best biography of Robert Southwell is by Janelle. The title of the biography is "Robert Southwell, the Writer". Now the poem, 'Burning Babe.'

Remember the time of his writing, you retrace for today and you have to have a dictionary to sometimes decipher just what the English word means, but I think Southwell is remarkably clear ever for 2Oth century Americans.

"As I in awry winter's night stood shivering in the snow, surprised was I with sudden heat which made my heart to glow. And lifting up a fearful eye to youth, to view what fire was near. A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear. Who scorched with excessive heat such floods of tears did shed. As though his flood should quench his flames with which his fears were fed.
Alas, quotes he but newly borne in fiery heat, I fry in none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire, but I, My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns, love is the fire and sigh is the smoke, the ashes shame and scorned. The fuel justice layeth on and mercy blows the coals. The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defiled souls for which as now on fire I am to work then to their good so will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood. With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrank away and straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas Day."

It's not surprising, it's one of the great poems of the English language.

Now some comments on St. Robert Southwell's spirituality. I know of no martyred saint who has left us a longer and more detailed record of his desire for martyrdom than Robert Southwell. One reason no doubt because he wrote so much that he died so soon. In any case what he is telling us, is not only not wrong but, quite all right to pray for a martyr’s crown.

There have been 21 general councils of the Church including the Second Vatican. My business is to read these councils because that's my profession. I know of none that is ever written as clearly and expensively on martyrdom as the peak of Christian perfection as has the Second Vatican Council. I've mentioned this, I'm sure, to you before, it's well worth repeating. The Church has had more martyrs since 1900 than in all the 19 centuries before. We are living in an age of martyrs. You better believe it, because if you don't, you will not measure up to the kind of loyalty to Christ that today's world demands. Ordinary Catholics will not survive, not today. I'm not even asking you to believe it; it's too obvious. So St. Robert Southwell's desire for martyrdom is something we can legitimately ask God to grant us. And among other things that I think I've learned from experience, I'm not sure, not really, which is more demanding – living a martyrs life or dying a martyrs death.

Second feature of his spirituality. Robert Southwell was an Englishman to the tips of his fingers, quiet, gentle, compassionate, and consequently, you would expect that naturally speaking he dreaded what supernaturally he desired, am I clear? He proves what God's grace can do with fallen human nature given strength and courage that is impossible to nature alone.

And finally, Robert Southwell put so many of his prayers into writing, that I recommend that we all, at least, on occasion do the same. It is a wonderful way of praying and a most effective way of remembering the insights that God gives us and even the effort we make to go over and over what we may write in the prayers we compose so they express exactly the sentiments we want to say. With apologies for this late evening conference. We invoke St.Robert Southwell, pray for us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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