Tuesday, February 1, 2011

For His Majesty's Secret Service: Henry Morse, SJ

Last October, I wrote of the martyrs of Douai College. The graduates of that institution were sent on one way missions to minister to the faithful of England, where Catholicism had been outlawed. The tip for that story came to me from the good folks over at Universalis, where I go to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. And that is where I bumped into the fascinating story of a Jesuit martyr named Henry Morse.

What strikes me about stories from the lives of the saints is that guys like Henry seem to have no ulterior motive underlying their choice to serve Christ. Their only motive is to do the will of Our King. The King of All Peoples. The saints realize that, as scripture says, all will kneel to Him, so instead of waiting to do so, they just kneel immediately and then get on with serving Him to the best of their flawed and limited abilities.

Here begins the citation at Universalis that drew me in like a positive version of the siren's song,

Henry Morse was born into a Church of England family in 1595 at Brome, Suffolk. He converted to Catholicism, studied for the priesthood in Rome and was sent on the English mission in 1620.

In order to understand the gravity of this sentence, you have to know that by this time in England, Catholicism had been outlawed. Why did Henry convert then? Why would he defy the conventions of his time? He must have been called into the service of the King,  is the only reason I can possibly think of. Because to do so otherwise would have sudden and distasteful consequences,

York Castle diorama
He was almost immediately arrested and imprisoned in York Castle.

See? And he knew the territory, the climate of state-imposed belief which considered his conduct treasonous. But that didn't stop him for one second, for he answered to a higher law, that of the Word.

So, now imprisoned, what is he to do? You'll really like this part,

He had already declared that he wished to become a Jesuit, and spent the three years he was then in prison as his novitiate.

See, it turns out he wasn't the only Roman Catholic imprisoned at the time, and a Jesuit father by the name of John Robinson instructed him while he was incarcerated. Prisoners teaching other prisoners, oh the horror!

On his release he was banished and went to Flanders for a while before returning to England.

And according to Butler's Lives of the Saints, during this time he was a chaplain and ministered to English soldiers who were serving the King of Spain at the time. Because Our King's people need to be ministered too, just as sheep need shepherds. How many flocks of sheep do you know who don't need to be lead and protected? Sure, there are individual sheep, but if they ignore the shepherds and act like self-willed individuals,  they will quickly become a word that riles the rugged individualist whom you may think you are. That word is prey.

Do you know why I love this Jesuit father whom I'm calling St. Hank (from now on) even more? Because he wasn't content to hang out in Flanders and safely minister to the good folks there. Not when the sheep in his home country were lacking shepherds. He knew where he was needed, and that was back home where he would be an outlaw. So working under the assumed name of Cuthbert Claxton, he went back home to do His Majesty's bidding.

He worked as a covert priest in London, and among plague victims in 1636, when he caught the plague himself though soon recovered.

How is it that Cuthbert, er Father Hank, did not die of the plague? A miracle is what I say, though I don't have the documentation to prove it. Butler says he had a list of 400 families, both Protestant and Catholic, whom he regularly visited and ministered to during the plague years of 1636-37. Guess what? During that whole time, he wasn't preening in front of television cameras (there weren't any), or seeking radio interviews (impossible), or conducting book tours (sorry, this was a top-secret mission). Instead, he just focused on doing the most important job in the world: administering the sacraments to His Majesty's outlawed flocks. Being His ambassador to them.

It should come as no surprise to you that eventually he would be found out,

He was again arrested and exiled but within two years had returned to England.

Remember that post I did on Blessed Raymond Lull, the wacky genius and missionary to the Muslims? He too wouldn't say no when he was rebuffed by the powers that were. He and Hank have a lot in common with all of the saints whom I have ever had the pleasure to meet and write about. They just never give up the fight. "Don't Give Up the Ship" is a phrase that they, I'm sure of this, will heartily agree to. A toast that they will heartily drink to, when you consider that the Ship is the Church. So it is no surprise to me that he asked to be sent back into the spiritual fray.

For a time he ministered in the south of the country, then after a brief ministry in the north he was arrested in Cumberland and although he escaped he was soon rearrested and taken to London, where he was convicted for practising as a Catholic priest and condemned to death.

The whole idea that as Christians, we must just be passive and tolerant to the point of being pushovers, is just grabbed by the shoulders and given a thorough shaking by the actions of this individual priest described in that one sentence. Arrest, escape, evasion, rearrested, trial, conviction. Where St. Hank was tried as a traitor by the "rule of Law" system of English justice. But just like James Bond doesn't work without the support of MI-5 and Her Majesty's Government, the same can be said of St. Hank and all priests as well.

Of course, you and I know that the law he was arrested and found guilty under was an unjust law. Just like the Church knows that the Roe vs. Wade decision, the law of the land now for 38 years here in the United States, is an unjust law as well.

St. Hank's story ends positively only from the perspective of a true believer in Our Lord and Savior.

He was hanged, drawn, and quartered on 1 February 1645 at Tyburn, London.

And on that day, he was received into heaven where he joined the ranks of martyrs that began with St. Stephen, and which continues to be added to up unto the present day.

St. Henry Morse, pray that we may be as resilient and resolute in our duty to serve the King of the Universe as you were while you were here on earth, and beset by the injustices of your day and age. Pray that our priests will serve Our King as you have done. Pray that we too will serve the King, and our brethren, with such charity, tenacity, and fortitude,  as labor in spreading the Good News while we wait in joyful hope for the coming of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Semper Fidelis

You may read the complete account from Butler's Lives of the Saints on the YIMCatholic Bookshelf.

Update: An actual interview with St. John Bosco.