Thursday, 2 February 2012

Saint John Southworth

Saint John Southworth: The Parish Priest of Westminster, written by Fathers Nicholas Schofield and Gerard Skinner, is an illustrated biography of one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

Although one of the "Forty", Southworth is one of thousands who have given their life for the Catholic faith through the centuries. However, the story of his life, a life lived during the time of the greatest persecution the Catholic Church has faced in this country, makes him stand out as unique amongst the English martyrs. The Introduction to the book explains why.

Visitors to Westminster Cathedral can hardly fail to notice the body of St John Southworth in the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs. He is dressed in priestly vestments and a silver mask covers his face. He was one of the many English Catholic priests of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who laboured secretly before being imprisoned, tried and executed, simply for being priests. In this sense he is a representative of several generations of English priests.

However, as the famous convert and writer, Mgr Ronald Knox, noted in a 1954 sermon at the Cathedral, St John Southworth also stands apart: ‘the only one of our English martyrs to suffer under a dictatorship [of Oliver Cromwell]. The only one who notoriously pleaded guilty to being a priest. The only one, so far, whose body is preserved to us entire.’ He was also the last secular priest to be put to death in England.

As with so many of the English martyrs, so much of St John Southworth’s life and work is known only to God and to those for whom he laboured. However, the story of his relics must be amongst the most intriguing and well documented accounts of any martyr of the time.

Fr Nicholas Schofield is Parish Priest of Our Lady of Lourdes and St Michael, Uxbridge and Archivist of the Archdiocese of Westminster. Fr Gerard Skinner is the Sub-Administrator of Westminster Cathedral. Their book, with previously unpublished photographs, will be available from 21st February from all ST PAULS and other Christian bookshops or online here.