Blessed Father Robert Persons

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Mr. Gregory Tomlin is one of the Students of the Diocese at the Royal English College in Valladolid. Following on from the recent memorial of the English martyrs at the beginning of December, he writes here about the founder of the Royal English College, Father Persons.


"What does a teacher hope for their students to obtain? A good education that enables them to develop and ultimately use their talents for the good of society? Yes, that’s a reasonable assumption. It’s likely that they would also hope that their education would provide them with an area of interest and meaning in their life as well as a means of income so they can sustain themselves. Probably a teacher would also wish for a life of peace and prosperity for them and those close to them. These are very natural and understandable hopes that a good teacher would have for their students, whom they would almost inevitably develop an interest in as well as a care for during the years they spend working with them. But now, think about what it would have been like to teach students in a seminary during the era of persecution, knowing what those students may face when they returned home.

"Blessed Robert Persons (shown in the drawing), who founded the Royal English College, grew up in an England going through the travails of religious upheaval as it changed from Protestant (Edward VI) to Catholic (Mary I) and back to Protestant (Elizabeth I). As a child he showed academic talent which through a generous benefactor enabled him to study at Oxford, and following graduation he became a fellow and tutor. However, his Catholic leanings lead him into conflict and ultimately forced him to resign. He choose to go into exile, and whilst there became a Jesuit priest.

"Five years after his Ordination, he was chosen to lead the first Jesuit Mission to England in order to serve the Catholic population. The most notable member of his party was Edmund Campion. After a year operating underground, Campion was captured and for him there followed six months of imprisonment in the Tower, public disputations with leading Anglican scholars, invitations of significant favour if he should renounce Catholicism, and finally a trial resulting in a death sentence. On the 1 December 1581, Campion, fellow Jesuit Alexander Briant, and, from our own diocese, Derbyshire born Ralph Sherwin were dragged on hurdles to Tyburn where all three were executed. They were canonised as part of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales in 1970. The photograph shows the fetters that were used to tie Campion to the hurdle that he was drawn on to Tyburn. They were obtained by one of the Catholic faithful following Campion’s execution and passed to Blessed Robert who wore it around his waist for the rest of his life. With the authorities closing in on him, Blessed Robert escaped in 1581 to the continent.

"And so, rather than martyrdom, the remaining years of Blessed Robert’s life were spent largely working with the aim to establish and develop means to support the Catholic community in England. His success in gaining the support of King Philip II of Spain to endow the Royal English College in Valladolid was a key part of those efforts. He went on to be Rector of the English College in Rome for the final thirteen years of his life. In establishing and leading seminaries for the training of priests, what was he doing and what was it he looked for? How would he have felt about these men he was training? Undoubtedly he would have developed a respect, care and affection for the young men he worked with and must have had in his mind genuine concern about what would happen to them when they returned home. As well as his own experience of the dangers of missionary work, he had an ever present reminder round his waist of just what it might mean for them. In such circumstances, how was he able to continue this task knowing all that he did about what life in England might mean for a Catholic priest?

"Perhaps the way he managed it was to bear in mind Christ’s love which he sought to reflect in his own life and doubtless would have sought to nurture in others. In the Gospels, we see time and again Christ’s love for His Father and humanity. By teaching seminarians not principally about martyrdom or survival in a hostile English political environment, but rather how to grow their faith as well as in love of God and of the people God created, Blessed Robert could potentially find the support and resilience to continue with this demanding task in a very challenging time. Those who left the colleges he founded or ran would be going back to England on a mission directed towards supporting the faith in the dedicated but threatened Catholic community and reminding them of their love of Christ and his Church. For those carrying out that mission, it would help them keep their focus on God and the people they were serving so although they could not ignore the pressures brought to bear upon them by the authorities, at least it could be ameliorated. The commitment many of them exhibited to the Church over many years is where they displayed and developed that love so that the martyrdom some of them ultimately suffered was not so much the central focus of their life, but rather a reflection of the life they had lived. In modern times, the challenges are not as grave as those faced in the Tudor and Stuart eras, but the answer to the challenges remains the same for all Catholics as it was back then – a dedication to faith flowing from love of God and His people."

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Reliquary containing ropes used to secures the hands of Fr. Edmund Campion in his captivity