Courageous Friar Who Died For His Faith

Blessed John Forest

Feast Day: 22nd May

Living during the turbulent times of the English Reformation his fidelity to the Catholic faith cost John Forest his life.

At the age of 17 he entered the Franciscan Order at Greenwich Friary and nine years later went to Oxford where he probably took his doctor's degree.

Had he been living in a friary away from the capital his life might have been very different. But he was in London and came to the attention of Cardinal Wolsey, who sent him in 1525 to preach at St. Paul's Cross to his fellow Franciscans, to remind them that all religious under solemn vows who left their monasteries incurred the penalty of excommunication. This must not have been an easy talk because it takes strength of character to reprimand one's peers.

Both King Henry VII and his son, Henry VIll, had a liking for the Franciscans. In 1526-7 John Forest was confessor to Queen Catherine of Aragon and she became so attached to the friars that she expressed a wish to be buried in one of their churches. But his involvement with the daily life of the royal family meant it was impossible to escape the political and religious controversies of the time.

When Henry VIII declared himself to be head of the Church in England John was asked to sign the Act of Supremacy and accept Lutheran teaching because the King could see how useful Lutheran doctrine would be to excuse his own actions. For Luther taught that Christians are justified by faith alone; it did not matter how you lived as long as you believed that you could be saved by the merits of Christ. In Henry's mind defying Rome, divorcing Catherine, dissolving the monasteries and confiscating their land could all be excused because he had faith!

As a true son of Rome who boldly refused to subscribe to this heresy, John was thrown into prison and condemned to death for treason. On this day, 22 May 1538, he was sent to Smithfield and burnt at the stake. His death was slow and agonizing. Many prominent men witnessed his death, among them the Lords of the Privy Council, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London. Latimer preached a sermon exhorting him to recant, but John Forest pointed to the example of Bishop John Fisher and the Lord Chancellor Thomas More who had each renounced their office rather than lose their immortal souls.

Throughout his painful execution John prayed in Latin. His last words were “Domine, miserere mei." (“Lord, have mercy on me.”)

Various letters of his to Catherine of Aragon are still extant. He begged her to pray for him and to keep herself free from the doctrine of the heretics. We know that she followed his advice and suffered for her devotion to the true faith.

What about us? Do we take our faith for granted, forgetting what it cost our martyrs? They were prepared to shed their blood so that the Church could be kept alive and we could practice our faith in freedom. The best tribute we can pay to our martyrs is to love our faith for which they so generously gave their lives.

Blessed John Forest, pray for us.