St Henry Morse, S.J.

Priest and Martyr (entered heaven in 1645)

Dear Hank,

I can understand your discouragement.  But even though it seems right now to be a losing battle, you mustn’t give up.  You mustn’t!  Remember, it’s not your job to change hearts; it’s just your job to bear witness to the truth, in word, deed, and example, in all the circumstances of you life.  And if you do your job, God, in his own way and at his own time, will work through you to move the hearts, even stubborn, anti-Catholic hearts.

So I’ve reminded you of the principle, but you need more than a principle to dissipate your discouragement. Today’s saint can do the job – he shows the principle in dramatic action.

You remember that the 1600’s in England were a rough period for Catholics.  The English Reformation had taken firm root, and it was determined to eradicate Catholicism from the country.  At the same time, a faithful remnant of Catholics was tenaciously clinging to the ancient faith, regardless of merciless and often brutal persecutions.

Henry Morse was born into the volatile atmosphere of this turbulent era.  His parents were Protestants.  They gave him a solid upbringing, including an education in law at Cambridge.  There he studied more than law, however; he also studied his faith.  And he gradually came to recognize that Christ had founded only one Church, and that Church was under the vicariate of the Pope, not the King of England.  So he decided to return to the way Jesus wanted him to live out his faith, and he became a Catholic.

At the same time, he felt called to put his God-given talents at the service of helping his fellow countrymen discover what he had discovered, so he entered the seminary.  No Catholic seminaries were left in England, so he had to travel to France and prepare for ordination at Douai.  He finished his studies in Rome and was ordained there.  Inspired by the sterling example of the Jesuits he met during these years, he asked to join that burgeoning religious order.  He was granted permission to do so once he returned to England, where he longed to go in order to carry out his ministry – even though it meant putting his very life at risk (being a Catholic priest was illegal in England at that time; it was a crime punished as treason).

When he got to England he began a covert ministry in London.  Eventually, he was arrested and imprisoned in York.  It just so happened that he shared his dungeon with another Jesuit priest, Fr John Robinson.  In this marvelously unorthodox way, the three years in prison served as a chance for Henry to do his Jesuit novitiate, under Fr John’s direction.  When he was eventually released in the wake of a general amnesty, therefore, he emerged as a Jesuit.

All priests were thereafter expelled from England, so the future saint went to serve as a chaplain for the English troops serving the King of Spain in Holland.  But his heart was still in England.  As soon as he had the chance, he returned, took a pseudonym, and lived a clandestine ministry that coincided with a horrible plague, during which he ministered to hundreds of Catholics and Protestants in and around London.  When the plague subsided, he was betrayed and once again arrested.  He was tried and found guilty of being a priest.  But the Queen of Spain paid his bail, so he was once again released, which freed him to go to southern England and work to build up the Church there.

Eventually, he obeyed another injunction that banished priests from English soil, left to become chaplain to more English soldiers, and two years later returned again to his beloved England to lead the stray sheep back to the fold.  Arrested again during a sick call, he escaped, only to be apprehended a final time a few months later.  This time there was no escape, and he was hanged, drawn, and quartered for being a priest.

Besides a stunning example of perseverance (getting back into the ring that many times is truly heroic), it shows that hearts can change.  Not only did Henry’s, but so did the hearts of hundreds of Protestants who met him through the years.  You could say that in the end he failed, because all of England didn’t convert.  But would that be a fair assessment?  The next time you feel like a failure, take a second look.

Your loving uncle,


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