St John Southworth: Living & dying to serve London’s Catholics


After St Thomas More and St John Fisher, today we celebrate another martyr, one whose body lies just across the river from where this blog is being written, in Westminster Cathederal.

St John Southworth, known as Westminster’s parish priest, lived and died for the Catholic people of London, in a time when simply admitting you were a Catholic priest meant being hung, drawn and quartered.

Because of the underground nature of the Catholic faith at this time, there are periods of the martyr’s life we know little about, however, as Fr Michael Archer explains in the CTS biography of John Southworth, his first mission in London between 1619 and 1624, coincided with a period of less ferocious persecution, because King James I was negotiating an end to the war with Spain, and torturing and killing Catholics was not what he wanted to be seen doing.

Yet, politics was to play its part later, as the rise of the Puritans led to the English Civil War in 1642, where Catholics ended up on the losing side. Until then, the priest had worked administering the Sacraments in prisons and among the poor of London. As Fr Archer writes:

“A new oath was imposed in 1643, in which a Catholic had to reject papal supremacy and the doctrines of transubstantiation and purgatory.”

He was finally arrested and refused the offer being set free if he denied his priesthood. His speech at the gallows in 1654 has come down to us.

“Neither my coming into England, nor my practice in England, was to act anything against the secular government. I never acted or thought any hurt against the present Protector (Oliver Cronwell) I had only a care to do my own obligation and discharge my own duty in saving my own and other men’s souls. This [Catholic] Faith, is the faith for which I die, O Holy Cause! and not for any treason against the laws.”

His body was returned to Westminster in 1930, and he was canonised in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.

St John Southworth, pray for us.

John Southworthby Fr Michael Archer is available from CTS priced £1.95

Of related interest:

B677 Thomas More – A talented scholar, lawyer and politician, More rose to the highest position in England under Henry VIII. However, when he was called upon to choose between God and earthly power he remained firm in his faith and was executed as ‘the King’s good servant and God’s first’.
B678 John Fisher – His Yorkshire roots ensured a plain-speaking loyalty to the truth that led to his martyrdom. He remains the only British Cardinal to be martyred and the only bishop in England who held out against Henry VIII until the very end.
H505 The Reformation in England – This booklet looks at the events which led up to the Reformation in Europe, and particularly in England. It shows how much that was good was lost in this conflict.

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