Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster reflected on St John Southworth, a martyr of 17th century England, in a pastoral letter on the priesthood Sunday, and challenged the laity readily to support priests.
“Today I ask you to pray for all our priests,” he said in his June 24 pastoral letter. “Our lives may not be as dramatic nor as full of public conflict as the life of St John Southworth. Yet we priests strive to express in our daily ministry exactly the same dedication to the mission of Jesus Our Lord as he did.”
“Like him, we depend on the support and love of faithful people. For St John Southworth that was literally a matter of life and death.”
The letter was read at Mass June 24, about a week before the archdiocese will ordain six new priests. The cardinal focused on the courageous priestly ministry of St. John Southworth, a Lancashire priest whose feast day is June 27.
Saint John Southworth was ordained a priest in 1619 at Douai, an English college based in what is now France during a time when Catholicism was illegal in England. After he graduated, he started his ministry in Lancashire.
Here, the priest was first arrested and jailed in London. In 1630, he was deported to France but returned to attend to those sickened by the plaque. The priests was then arrested in 1637 and continued his ministry in and out of jail until his execution in 1654.
During his trial, St. John Southworth refused to hide that he was a priest and was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered in Tyburn.
Cardinal Nichols said that while England no longer experiences this level of persecution, priests still need support from parishioners.
“Over the centuries a marvellous tradition has remained of genuine love for priests and a readiness to support them, through thick and thin. I ask you, today, to continue that tradition and share it with your families.”
Cardinal Nichols also apologized for the weakness of priests and his own sins. He asked for patience and forgiveness, stating the whole Church is compelled to support each other in Christ.
“Of course, we priests and bishops are sinners. There is no hiding our mistakes and faults,” he said. “Today I express my sorrow at our failings and I ask for your patience, forbearance and, indeed, forgiveness.”
“In the Church, we are bound together in Christ Jesus. He is full of mercy. We can only strive to show that mercy to each other, always and everywhere.”
Saint John Southworth’s body is interred at Westminster Cathedral, and his relics will be moved to the center of the church for his feast day.
“We bring his body into the central aisle of the cathedral not only for his feast day but so that he is there among the candidates for the priesthood on the day of their ordination,” the cardinal wrote.
“During the singing of the Litany of the Saints, they will prostrate themselves, face down on the floor. In their midst will be the prostrate body of the Martyr. But he lies face up, reflecting the glory of God shining in him as he now enjoys the fullness of God's grace in heaven. He is indeed our special patron.”
This year also marks the 450th anniversary of the establishment of Douai College, which he called “a crucial part of Catholic survival and heritage,” noting that Pope Francis has set aside June 28, 2019, the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as a day for priestly renewal. Cardinal Nichols also invited all diocesan priest in England and Wales to say a Mass commemorating the anniversary at Westminster Cathedral.