A Message from Father Nick 23, 23rd August 2020
A saint of our own
22nd August is the memorial day of St John Kemble, a pastoral priest who ministered to his people for many years and finally suffered martyrdom in their service. Martyr saints have always had a special place in the life of the Church. As the 2nd century writer Tertullian put it, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”.
So, we would in any case honour him, but what makes John Kemble even more special for us is his connection with this place. He was born at Rhydycar Farm, St Weonards, in 1599 (the year when Shakespeare wrote Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet). Queen Elizabeth still reigned, and a new century was about to begin. That century would produce a tumult of philosophical, scientific and political ideas. Caravaggio was at the height of his artistic powers, and Rembrandt would be born within the next ten years.
Reformation fault-lines were still shaping the countries of Europe, and even in St Weonards these could not be ignored. John Kemble came from an old recusant family which had produced four other priests. He studied at Douai College, in France, where he was ordained 23rd February, 1625, and returned to Monmouthshire/Herefordshire in June of that year. As the world’s big events – including the horrors of the English Civil War – continued to unfold, this would be his field of mission for the rest of his life.
Accounts testify to the love and respect in which he was held on both sides of the Reformation divide. His moment of crisis came with the notorious Titus Oates Plot. Oates had studied in Valladolid and St Omer, where he spied on Catholic seminarians. He and a friend concocted the story of a Catholic plot to overthrow Charles II and replace him with his Catholic brother James. A kind of panic ensued and the last great persecution of priests began.
Our relics of John Kemble movingly record his life of humble integrity: his altar-table and missal; a letter written to him when he had been taken as a prisoner to London; a piece of his coat; a small clump of his hair; a twist of the noose that killed him (no one had wanted him to suffer the full dreadful quartering included in his sentence). He is remembered for having received permission to smoke a last pipe and drink a last cup of sack before his execution. He suffered martyrdom on 22nd August, 1679.
Honouring him this weekend, we might remember two things:
His simple consistency in a time of upheaval and major events – in all circumstances, he continued to serve as he always had done. The details of our own lives are inevitably different, but we too can follow his example of faithfulness.
His significance as a reconciler – John Kemble loved all his neighbours. He was also one of the very last priests to be martyred in Britain. Quite simply, deaths such as his caused revulsion among people who were learning to live together with their differences. He was nobody’s enemy and he reminds us still how important it is that we too love our Christian brothers and sisters.