Rev Dr Andrew Unsworth reflects on the life of St John Almond as the 400th anniversary of his death approaches.
Pastoral Area 2 (Liverpool South) is proud to call St John Almond its patron saint. On 5th December 1612 St. John Almond was martyred at Tyburn, London’s ‘infamous gibbet’. Therefore, this year we celebrate the 400th anniversary of his heroic death at a Mass at 7.00 pm on Wednesday 5th December at St Bernadette’s Church, Allerton.
It seems fitting that we celebrate this anniversary in this ‘Year of Faith’, called by the Holy Father, because it was partly due to their allegiance to the office of Pope as Universal Pastor of the Church that our Catholic forbears suffered persecution and discrimination most especially between 1558 and 1829. This year we have an opportunity to witness to the ‘faith of our fathers’ too. We should perhaps pause and consider their sacrifice, but also give thanks to God that we do not have to suffer as they suffered for that faith which at all times, everywhere and by everybody has been called ‘Catholic’.
St John Almond was born in Allerton, and so the people of St Bernadette’s can rightfully call him one of their own. He was educated in Much Woolton before moving to Ireland, later travelling to Rheims and then on to Rome where he trained for the sacred priesthood. St John was ordained in 1598, returning to the ‘English Mission’ in 1602. The full weight of the penal legislation against Catholics was in place by this time and so according to the 1585 Act ‘Against Jesuits, Seminary Priests and other such like disobedient persons’, as a Catholic priest come from abroad specifically with the intention of preaching and teaching the Catholic faith, celebrating the Mass and other sacraments and reconciling others to the Catholic faith (‘persuading to popery’, as it was known) St John and his fellow priests, were liable to be charged with high treason. Usually after a period of harsh imprisonment for the purposes of interrogation, which was often accompanied by torture, Catholic priests, after sentence, would be hung (briefly in order that choking may occur), drawn (disembowelled whilst remaining conscious), and quartered (beheaded and dismembered).
St John was a distinguished student, gaining a Doctorate in Divinity, and at a relatively early age he was noted for his theological knowledge and his ability as an apologist and defender of the faith. During his trial he debated points of faith with the protestant Bishop of London, Dr King, and even on the scaffold prior to execution he dealt adeptly with attempts by two protestant ministers to humiliate him and rubbish his arguments. He dealt so eloquently with his three opponents that they had to admit that although they disagreed with him, nevertheless, he was indeed skilful in debate. Dr King said of him that he was, ‘one of the learnedness and insolentest of the Popish priests [sic]’. Before his death St John prayed, distributed alms to the poor, and gave his final oration, concluding with these words: ‘To use this life well is the pathway through death to everlasting life’. As we end the Church’s Liturgical Year, what better words are there to meditate upon?
Before the Reformation the Catholics of Allerton and Garston were served by a chantry chapel which was closed in 1552, another casualty of the religious upheavals of the time. This chapel was dedicated to St. Wilfrid. On 1st January 2013 the church communities of Holy Trinity, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Austin’s, Garston and St. Bernadette’s Allerton will become one parish under the title of St. Wilfrid. Soon we will also welcome a new Carmelite Community and purpose-built Monastery within the boundaries of the parish, which will be situated quite near to the birth-place of St. John Almond. We ought not to consider either of these events as happening by sheer coincidence. We know that the Lord, His Blessed Mother and St John Almond are with us in all of these developments. No doubt there will be more celebrations and Masses to follow, marking these historical events, but one thing is certain, St John Almond would, I am sure, most definitely approve.