A farmer’s zeal

Today, 20 April 2012, is the memorial of Blessed John Finch, one of the 136 English martyrs beatified in 1929. As a convert, married man of middle age, farmer and catechist, his life has many parallels with our own, and begs the question, ‘How far am I willing to go to witness to the truth?’

Blessed John Finch was born around 1548 into a farming family of Eccleston, Lancashire. Although his family had been staunchly Catholic for generations, he was raised as a conformist to Protestantism. As he reached marriageable age John was restless enough to go away from farm and country life and to spend nearly a year with his cousins in London. Farmers are observant types, because they have to pay attention to the subtle changes in crops and the health of flocks and cattle, so John paid close attention to the differences in the ways Protestants and Catholics conducted themselves. He saw the courage of the Catholic martyrs and persecuted laypeople and he saw the splintering of Anglicanism into other Christian sects. Returning home he resolved to be reconciled to the Church of Rome and to proudly show that allegiance by following the days of fasts and abstinence.

John soon married, and grew step by step in active faith. He began to frequent the Sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of Penance. He began to take on the role of catechist, giving instruction to those who wished to reconcile with Rome and to those preparing to receive sacraments of initiation. He went further and actively spoke to others of his Catholic faith, inviting them to convert. He began to use his strength and vigour to safeguard the passage of Catholic missionary priests from hidden Mass centre to hidden Mass centre, and to both give and arrange hospitality for them. Needless to say John soon became a thorn in the side of those who wanted a quiet peaceful like under the reign of Protestant Queen Elizabeth I.

Just like Jesus, John was betrayed by someone close to him – his own brother*. Caught in a well laid trap at Christmastime 1581, John and two priests were taken prisoner and conducted to the Earl of Derby. Rumours were then deliberately spread that John had betrayed the priests and was willingly telling the authorities all about the Catholic network of believers. Actually he was in the Earl’s dungeon being alternately tortured and bribed to make those lies come true. John held fast. He did not give in. After two years of this John was transferred to the Fleet prison at Manchester.

Here, the authorities tried again to make him give up his Catholic faith. Forcibly he was dragged ignominiously to a Protestant church. When that failed he was put on trial during the Lenten Assizes and condemned to death for upholding the Pope’s jurisdiction over the Church in England. Valiantly, even after his conviction, John continued to preach to his fellow prisoners about the truth of the Catholic faith that comes down to us from the Apostles. The penalty for John was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Joining him in martyrdom that day was Blessed James Bell, a priest.

This guesome death took place on 20 April 1584 at Lancaster. John stayed firm in faith until the end. He was only 35 or 36 years old. To discourage other faith-filled laity, the quarters of John’s body were dispersed to the four main towns of the county.

This holy farmer was captured by the love of Jesus and the truth he experienced in the Catholic faith. May the witness of Blessed John Finch and his intercessory prayers before the throne of God win the grace of the journey home to the Catholic faith for many souls and the grace for many tepid souls to become fervent.

Blessed John Finch, pray for us.

* This information about the betrayal comes from Butler’s Lives of the Saints – New Full Edition, April Volume, April 20, page 143, ISBN 0 86012 253 0