Tuesday, July 29, 2014

'to see a fellow-native die': the martyrdom of St David Lewis SJ

Reading an article about the adventures of Jesuit priest Fr John Gerard in Elizabethan England and his remarkable escape from the Tower of London in Crisis magazine (here) put me in mind of a post I did a couple of years back about a brother Jesuit of his who did not have the good fortune to escape, but instead went to the gallows for his faith: St David Lewis, the last martyr of the Reformation in England and Wales. I'm re-posting the piece below (which is the sermon I preached on him shortly after visiting his grave in Usk, Wales); his last words from the gallows can be found here  (the title of this post is taken from that speech) and another short piece I posted on him here

Mr Baker: his interesting life & extraordinary death

David Lewis
David Lewis (1616 – 27 August 1679) 

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is perhaps an occupational hazard for clergy that we enjoy going into churches and graveyards … and so, of course, I had a fine time on my recent holiday in Wales popping into several churches in the towns and villages that we passed through … and in case you starting to feel sorry for my family, thinking it was surely not much of a holiday for them, don't worry – we did other things as well as visit churches!

One of those we visited was the Priory of St Mary in the town of Usk, near the English border (not too far from Chepstow, famous for its race track). We had spent the day visiting an attraction about an hour from where we were staying; Usk was on the way back and we stopped to stretch our legs and have a little wander around. As it was evening the church was closed, but we had a look at it from the outside and at a few of the headstones.

One in particular caught my eye. It was a large marble stone, laid flat on the ground, near the church door. It looked fairly new, with some flowers on it. What caught my eye first was the name: Saint David Lewis. My first thought that it was a rather odd name … but as I read further, I realised that it was the grave of a reformation martyr, a Catholic priest who had been executed as a result of the religious intolerance of his time.

But how very strange, I thought, that his grave was in the local Anglican graveyard … and so close to the door of the church. There was more to this story than met the eye, I decided, and I determined to try and find out a bit more about this man when I got back home to the rectory.

The internet is a wonderful thing, and it didn't take me long to find out quite a lot about his story. He was a local man, born not far from Usk into what we would call a 'mixed marriage' with a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. He was raised a Protestant, but in his late teens was drawn to the tradition of his mother. Later he travelled to the continent where he trained as a priest and was ordained. He held some posts in Rome, but Wales seems to have always held his heart and he returned home to spend the next 30 years, the remainder of his life, quietly ministering to the spiritual needs of the Catholic community of the area in which he had grown up.

He lived under the name of Mr Baker and his public persona was that of a gentleman. But as he was a local, I find it hard to believe that this was not merely a polite fiction and that the non-Catholics of his community did not simply wink at his pretence. It was, of course, a capital offence for a Catholic priest to administer the sacraments at this time. But it was something that Fr Lewis thought important enough to risk his life to do… and despite the law, something that the non-Catholic part of his parish were content for him to do.

Alas, events far away were to have a tragic impact on the quiet and peaceful little town in Wales. In London what came to be called the Titus Oates conspiracy stirred up anti-Catholic feeling in the Capital. This might have made little difference, were it not for the fact that a reward was issued for anyone involved in the plot. Greed got the better of a couple of local servants … fifty pounds was a lot of money in those days … and Mr Baker was unmasked to the authorities as Fr Lewis. He was taken to London and questioned in relation to the conspiracy and found blameless … but there was no denying that he was a Catholic priest and for that he was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered.
He as returned to Usk for the gruesome sentence to be carried out. It was a public execution, as was the custom of the day, and he was allowed to speak from the gallows, as also was customary. He affirmed that he committed no crime – and that he had been found innocent of any criminal conspiracy – and that he was to die only because he was a priest who had done his duty and administered the sacraments of the Church to his people. If this was something that he had to die for, then he died willingly, because he could not have done otherwise.

And so Fr Lewis was executed. But there is much about his death that speaks well not only of him, but also of the people of Usk. The local executioner could not be found to carry out the deed. He had run off rather than be the one who would kill the holy man. History records that a 'passing miscreant' was employed for the grim task. A local Protestant held Fr Lewis' hand as he was hanged and would not let go until he was sure the priest was quite dead, thereby sparing this 'local boy' the agonising horror of being drawn and quartered. And after it was all over, his body was taken for decent burial in the local churchyard, where it rests in a place of honour near the church door to this day.
St David was to be the last martyr of the reformation in England and Wales. His story is inspiring in many ways. The first is that the actions of his local, Protestant community show a quiet religious tolerance, remarkable for its day, accepting of Fr Lewis during his life, and doing their best for him at the time of his death. The second is that of Fr Lewis himself, risking his life to bring the sacraments to the Catholic people of the land he grew up in, and finally giving his life for having done so. And doing so cheerfully, a price he was willing to pay, because it was something that he saw as being that important.

I can't help thinking of the importance St David attached to the sacraments after our Gospel reading today: think about what Jesus says here: 'Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ 

These are Christ's own words - 'unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life'No wonder, perhaps, that Fr Lewis thought it right to risk his life to bring this life saving flesh and blood to his flock … no wonder that, believing Christ's words to be true, as he stood on the gallows, moments before the terrible death to which he had been condemned, he could calmly say that he could not have done otherwise and would do so again if he could. It was his task, his duty, his God-given vocation to bring the flesh and blood that brings eternal life to those he had care over and he could not and would not shirk that duty whatever the cost.

How many of us regard the sacraments with equal importance? How many of us would risk death to receive them or to bring them to others? St David died a martyr's death as witness to his faith in their importance, their necessity, in living a Christians life. And while I do not wish a martyr's death for anyone here, I do pray that we would all be inspired by his example to the extent that we would have even a fraction of the devotion to the sacraments Christ gave his Church … so that with God's grace we too may enter into the eternal life Christ promised all who followed him ... in the Name of the + Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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