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CHESTER’S LOCAL HERO

Father Francis's picture
Saint John Plessington

Let's try to imagine what it was like being a Catholic in 1679 when Saint John Plessington was martyred ...

For well over a century Catholicism had diminished. There were no churches and gradually Catholic families had fallen away from the faith. But the Church survived in Cheshire, in neighbouring Lancashire (from where John Plessington haled) and in North Wales centred round the great shrine of Holywell where the practice of the faith had never died out.

Yet there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon: the King's brother and heir had become a Catholic. But then in 1679 something dreadful happened. A man called Titus Oates had gone abroad to train as a Jesuit priest, been rejected because of his immorality and had conceived an intensely bitter dislike of the Church. Returning to England he announced that there was a Catholic conspiracy led by Jesuits against the king. He claimed to have remembered meetings with many prominent people among the plotters. Despite the lies Oates was believed and used by politicians who did not want a Catholic to succeed to the throne. Many were accused on his supposed evidence and put to death at Tyburn.

But rumours of what was going on in London spread into the provinces and into Chester.

Fr. John Plessington was a holy Catholic priest at the house of the Catholic Massey family at Puddington Hall near Chester where local people attended Mass. But within the household were some who bore grudges. So Our Lord's words in the Gospel were realised, “A man's enemies will be those of his own household." He was betrayed to the Chester authorities. They knew about the London politics, about the so-called Titus Oates' plot, and dare not reprieve him: the main charge was simply that he had said Mass. Although everyone agreed he was a good man, he was tried, condemned to death and dragged through the main streets to be hanged, drawn and quartered outside the walls of the city. On the scaffold, like his Master, he forgave those who had betrayed him and prayed for them. Catholic witnesses of the execution steeped cloths in his holy blood.

What happened after this? Local people soon forgot him as the Church in North Wales and Chester for which he had striven declined and virtually disappeared. His death seemed meaningless.

Now, in 2015, what is it like being a Catholic, where St John Plessington lived his priestly life? We can go to Mass on Sunday without threat of imprisonment. We have our own schools. He would find this amazing, a vindication of his wildest dreams. But there are clouds on the horizon. The Church is declining across the world and there is a huge problem of the transmission of the faith to the next generation. It is easy to feel gloomy.

But there have been worse times than ours. St John Plessington's ministry and death seemed wasted. We read of no miracles in relation to his life. His faith and hope were not vindicated by any remarkable conversions. Yet today we celebrate him as a great saint of the Catholic Church, a sign to us of fidelity in difficult times and a sign of readiness for whatever the Lord asks of us - even if it does not seem to make sense or bring quick rewards.

How wonderful it is that the people of Chester should have so great a forbear who gives them an example of steadfastness, perseverance to the end, and living faith. He is now in the company of the saints, anxious and willing to intercede on our behalf, a powerful patron to us who live in a country where the Christian faith means little or nothing to many.

Saint John Plessington … pray for us.

THE BALLAD OF JOHN PLESSINGTON

(set to the tune of Amanda as sung by Don Williams)

Just outside Chester on Barrelwell Hill,

Father John Plessington was cruelly killed.

The sun shone on Chester that day in July,

But the law had condemned him and John had to die.

John Plessington, hear when, we call,

Look down on Chester and pray for us all.

John lived in England in perilous times

When being a Catholic was the worst of all crimes.

He trained for the priesthood in faraway Spain,

And in spite of the danger he came back again.

John Plessington, hear when we call,

Look down from heaven and pray for us all.

John was a holy man, his faith was his rock

And he gave his life willingly to serve his small flock.

In Wales and in England He kept faith alive,

And helped to ensure that Our Church would survive.

John Plessington, hear when we call,

Your country still needs you, please pray for us all.

John's secret mission was brought to and

When he was betrayed by disloyal friends

Blessing his enemies with his last breath

Brave Father Plessington was faithful to death

John Plessington, hear when we call,

Remember your people and pray for us all.