August 27th, Feast of St David Lewis, martyr and the last Welsh Jesuit for 322 years

This is the Feast of St David Lewis, a Jesuit priest and martyr killed in 1679 for being a Catholic priest:

David Lewis was born in Abergavenny in the year 1616. He was brought up as a Protestant but later became a Catholic. Both his parents died in 1638 and that same year, David set off for Rome. He entered the Venerable English College on 6th. November 1638 to prepare for ordination to the Sacred Priesthood. David Lewis assumed the name of Charles Baker (A common practice in those days of persecution). He completed his studies, receiving Minor Orders in June 1641 and was ordained to the Priesthood on 20th July 1642.

Father David Lewis entered the Jesuit Novitiate at Sant’ Andrea in Rome on 19th April 1645. After Profession, his superiors immediately sent him to Wales. He was recalled to Rome after only a short stay, to take up the role of Spiritual Director at his old College.

This lasted One Year, as the Mission in South Wales, which had been founded in 1620, petitioned for Father David’s immediate return to his homeland. This being granted by his superiors, Father David was sent back to Wales, to the Jesuit Mission of St. Francis Xavier at a place called ‘The Cwm’ in 1648, where he was to work for the next thirty years. On Sunday 17th November 1678 Father David Lewis was arrested at Llantarnam as he was preparing to say Mass.

At his trial, he was condemned as a Roman Catholic Priest who said Mass, which was considered high treason against the Crown. For this, he was executed at Usk on Wednesday 27th.August 1679

Rather astoundingly, St David Lewis was the last Welsh Jesuit until 2001.  Fr Dorian Llywelyn, who was said Welsh Jesuit, writes interestingly about the discomforting nature of his link with this martyr:

Indigenous Welsh Catholicism effectively died along with Lewis. No more Welshmen became Jesuits until 2001, when I entered the California novitiate in Culver City, Calif.

Being the first Welsh Jesuit for more than 300 years was initially a source of pride. I saw something of myself in Lewis: I, too, have lived in several European countries, embraced Catholicism as an adult and entered the Jesuits as an ordained priest. But as I learned more, that connection became discomforting.

In the police state of Tudor and Stuart Wales, religious faith was political. The Welsh Jesuits, never more than a handful, sustained a network of clandestine Catholics who could practice and pass on their faith to their children only illegally and under threat of persecution. Only the brave or rash stood up and stood out. Periods of quiet religious freedom were punctuated by savage persecutions.

Lewis was in charge of an underground seminary, located in a remote rural area bordering England, that trained Welsh Jesuits. His pastoral solicitude earned him the epithet tad y tlodion — priest of the poor. Yet his gentleness did not save him. His engraving’s rope and dagger are polite visual shorthand. At his execution, his chest and belly were cut open and his entrails torn out. Fortunately, a sympathetic crowd had prevailed on the hangman to first let Lewis hang until he died, rather than undergo the vivisection that most of the seven other Jesuit martyrs of 1678–79 suffered.

Academic research is always, at least in part, an exercise in autobiography. As an immigrant to the United States and a member of an ethnic minority, I’ve often described myself, sometimes ironically, as one of the more diverse members of the LMU community. My mother tongue, Welsh, along with its culture, is listed by UNESCO as “endangered.” Just 5 percent of the population of Wales (some 150,000 souls) is Catholic, and, of those, Welsh-speakers number a tiny proportion. There are some six Catholic priests fluent in Welsh, myself among them. Not surprisingly, my scholarly work as a theologian focuses on the fusions and dissonances between religious and cultural identities.

As the only Welsh Jesuit, and now a U.S. citizen, what is “my take” on the life and death of my predecessor? First, like cultural identity, religious freedom is fragile and precious — something the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador, murdered in November 1989, were witnesses to in our time. I value the separation of Church and State that should preclude wars of religion. But I also wonder if our comparative tolerance witnesses to a faith that is more privatized and indifferent to its wider implications. Lewis’ rope and dagger offer me a challenging suggestion: that our willingness to live our commitments is measured by our readiness also to die for them.


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