Jesuits In Conflict: Or Historic Facts Illustrative of the labours of the English Mission and Province Of The Society Of Jesus. In the times of Queen Elizabeth and her successors. By a member Of The Society Of Jesus.
GEORGE GILBERT, S.J. PART XII.
His great desire of martyrdom produced a corresponding devotion to the martyrs. And hence, amongst his other benefactions, says Bombinus, he covered the walls of the church of the English College in Rome with the pictures of the English martyrs, in which he went to great expense; but the painting, the subject, and the order of the whole thing, he left to Father William Goode, who at that time was the English confessor in the College. The Annual Letters of the English College, 1583, say that these martyrs included all from the first conversion of England. Father Bartoli says that Mr. Gilbert gave to the same church of the English College the painting of St. George the Martyr, Patron Saint of England, and his own Patron, whose history is represented in the Church, and this work he himself superintended; and if the artist succeeded in producing a picture so to the life, it was due to George Gilbert's constant watching him till the work was finished.
In the meantime, the holy Pontiff Gregory XIII. frequently summoned Mr. Gilbert to his presence upon a matter of business, which was generally believed was one of high import to the interests of the Catholic religion, in the transacting of which it was necessary for him to go to France, though it was currently believed that his journey really tended towards England.
Whilst he was preparing to execute this commission with all possible despatch, the very day before he should have mounted his horse to depart, it pleased God that he should be seized with a fever so violent as to carry him off in seven days; in which brief space many remarkable things were observed in him exhibiting proof of his deep devotion and piety, and of edification to the whole College.
In being carried on his bed to another chamber more convenient, passing by the door to the church, he begged the bearers to carry him inside ; for which, permission being obtained, he became so completely absorbed in God that nothing but an order of obedience from the Father Rector, who was called in on purpose, could induce him to consent to be removed. Lying on his bed, he esteemed nothing so grievous as that he was departing this life like a sluggard (to use his own words) in bed. Hence he ardently desired that his life might be spared for this end only—to consummate it by a violent death in the defence of the Catholic religion. But on the Father Rector telling him that such was not the will of God, and desiring him to turn his mind for the short moment left him to God and spiritual things, he immediately became calm and resigned, and henceforth banished from his heart all thoughts and desires of a longer life.
Having received the consolation of the last Sacraments of Holy Church, Extreme Unction and Viaticum, and beholding the students of the College who surrounded his bed, and by whom he was so singularly beloved, weeping and showing uncontrolled signs of affliction at this rapid and premature death of so distinguished a youth; "Cease those tears," he said, " it rather befits me to weep, who alone am most wretched of all, being thus taken away without shedding my blood." And then, addressing each one singly according to their various dispositions, to one he said, "What have you to weep for, for whom may be reserved chains and prisons ?" " Why you" he said to another, "who may have to endure scourgings and fetters, and to whom is still left the full hope of martyrdom, whilst I, who for two years was panting after it, and often close upon it, die this sluggish death in bed ?" Then taking in his hands the wooden crucifix which the blessed martyr, Father Alexander Briant, had carved for himself for the purpose of animating his desire of dying that dreadful death at Tyburn for his Lord, he exclaimed, "O cross, O rope, O sword, O most desirable death, why was I, wretched man, unworthy to enjoy you, and through you to pour out my blood? Who will give me to be treated with the treatment of these holy martyrs? O most beloved, most venerated Sherwin and Briant, aid me by your prayers that I may obtain pardon for my sins, which exclude me from so great a favour, and cause me to die here idle. Who will give water to mine head and a fountain of tears to mine eyes?" 1 He then began to address the blessed martyr, Father Campion, his former most affectionate friend, familiarly as though present, greatly lamenting his lot that he was not found worthy to be his companion when dragged on the hurdle to Tyburn gallows. 2 Then when he had offered to Christ our Lord, the sweetest Son of the most Blessed Virgin Mother, the merits of His most holy Passion, and the sorrows that most blessed of mothers endured in life, with the excess of joy wherewith she was flooded at her death, and begging the prayers of his good Angel Guardian, and his Patron Saint, for protection in the awful passage, he offered himself as an holocaust to God, and begged of Very Reverend Father General Claudius Aquaviva to admit him to the Society of Jesus he so greatly loved and honoured, and for which, as Bartoli observes, he could not have done and suffered more had he always been a member of it; and as a last request that he might be buried in the Church of St Andrea, the church of the Roman Novitiate, his voice became feeble. At that moment the Father Rector Agazzari, who had gone to the Gesu to obtain from the Father General the necessary leave and faculties to admit him to the Society, and the vows of religion, returned to the College and imparted to him the joyful news. Returning hearty thanks to God, the Master of all vows, exerting himself he pronounced the formula of the vows with a most ardent affection of love, and then uttering the most holy names of Jesus and Mary, and in fervent colloquies with God, closing his eyes as one asleep, he rendered up his happy soul into the hands of his Creator at the fourth hour of the night, on the 6th of October, 1583. At first the bystanders thought he was sleeping, but when they saw that he was really dead, they kissed his hands and feet, bathing them with their tears.
Being well known at the Court of Rome as a man of distinguished virtues, his loss was there deeply regretted, so much so that the Sovereign Pontiff, Gregory XIII., himself, who so fully appreciated both his virtues and his talents, was deeply grieved at his premature death, declaring it to be a great loss to England. He was carried to the Church of St Andrea, and there buried amongst the novices, according to his desires and the wish of the Father General.
He left a legacy of eight hundred scudi to the Novitiate of St. Andrea, which Very Reverend Father General gave to Dr. Allen towards the heavy expenses of his College at Rheims. The following is an extract of a letter from his Paternity to Dr. Allen dated 10th October, 1583. 3 After relating the holy death of George Gilbert, and expressing the good hope they had that being now in Heaven he would much more successfully promote the affairs of the Catholic religion in England than before, he adds, " Besides this, the same Mr. George, who as he long ago, and especially at the close of his life, devoted himself to our Society (a fact well known to your Reverence), and on this account wished to be buried in the church of the Novitiate of St. Andrea; so for the relief of the poverty and needs of that house he has left by his will, eight hundred scudi. Which charity and benefaction, although most gratifying to us, nevertheless, considering the great needs of England, we believe it will be to the greater honour and service of God to employ the whole for the benefit of that nation. I therefore consider that it may be more useful for your Reverence at Rheims to employ it for your College, or else to relieve the poverty of some afflicted English exiles, or to form a fund towards the support of some that would live in Rome. It remains for your Reverence to determine, and whatever course you deem best shall be willingly executed."
1 "Quis dabit capiti meo aquam, et oculis meis fontem lacrymarum ?" etc. In Bishop Kennett's Collection, vol. iv., lviii., Lansdowne MSS., No. 982, British Museum, in "some additions to Mr. Wood's account of Alexander Briant," it is stated that " Alexander Briant had shaved his crown himself, and made him a crosse of a peece of a trencher, which he held in his hand openly, and prayed to ; which, when he was rebuked for, he boldly and stoutly made answer that his crowne was of his own shaving, and he had good hope to doe it againe."
2 The print at the commencement of this Life represents the above scene, with Father Campion appearing to him.
3 Quoted by Father Bartoli, Inghil., 1. iv., p. 76. " Nel registro di Francia," October 10, 1583.