The Stations of the Cross and Blessed John Hambley

In spite of his three falls, Blessed John Hambley eventually repented and suffered for Jesus and His Church, uniting himself to the Cross of Christ.

Source: ‘Silar’, CC BY-SA 3.0
Source: ‘Silar’, CC BY-SA 3.0 (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Each Lent I look forward to participating in the Way of the Cross at one particular parish in our diocese which also celebrates a half hour of Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction. This parish uses the reflections and prayer of St. Alphonsus Liguori. We sing the Stabat Mater verses between each station, using the translation by the Oratorian Edward Caswall, one of Blessed John Henry Newman’s converts.

The development of this devotion began in the medieval era when following the actual Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem was impossible because of Arab occupation; it was not safe to be a Christian in the Holy Land. Not all of us, even when it’s safe, can travel to the Holy Land to celebrate the events of Holy Week, so this devotion is a way for us to be there in our imagination. Many meditations have been published to guide us through the Stations, which present a combination of scriptural and traditional events and encounters on the way to Calvary. As the Vatican website explains, the 14 stations we are most familiar with date from the seventeenth century, fostered by the Franciscans in Spain.


The Three Falls of Jesus

Jesus falls three times during the Way of the Cross. In his meditation on the Ninth Station, when Jesus falls the third time, Blessed John Henry Newman says these falls are Satan’s revenge for his own falls:

We are told in Holy Scripture of three falls of Satan, the Evil Spirit. The first was in the 
beginning; the second, when the Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven were preached to 
the world; the third will be at the end of all things. . . .

These three falls--the past, the present, and the future--the Evil Spirit had in mind 
when he moved Judas to betray Our Lord. This was just his hour. Our Lord, when He 
was seized, said to His enemies, "This is your hour and the power of darkness." Satan 
knew his time was short, and thought he might use it to good effect. . . . he smote Him once, he smote Him twice, he smote Him thrice, each successive time a heavier blow. 

When I attend Stations this Friday, however, I will remember Blessed John Hambley, an English priest who was executed on March 29, 1587. He too fell three times before he suffered and died in Salisbury during the reign of Elizabeth I.


The Three Falls of Blessed John Hambley

All the priests who came to England knew that they could suffer imprisonment, torture, and horrendous execution. They had the example of their protomartyr, Father Cuthbert Mayne in 1577, and then of Fathers Edmund Campion, Ralph Sherwin, and Alexander Briant—and others—in 1581. Nearly every year they learned of another priest being martyred. The Venerable English College in Rome, where many priests studied, started the tradition of a seminarian preaching a sermon on martyrdom before the pope on the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr. The founder of the Oratorians, St. Philip Neri, greeted the students in the streets with the salutation, “Salvete flores martyrum” (Hail! flowers of the martyrs).

But Father John Hambley, in spite of all these examples, was not ready to suffer. He had given up everything to become a Catholic and a priest, but the threat of physical suffering undid him, according to the 1914 edition of The Lives of the English Martyrs. He was born around 1560 in an Anglican family, but a Catholic friend encouraged him to read a book by Father Robert Persons, SJ and soon he became a Catholic. Because he had stopped attending Church of England services, he left his native Cornwall and then left England for the Continent. Hambley studied for the priesthood in Reims and was ordained on September 22, 1584. On April 6, 1585 he returned to England as a missionary priest under the guidance of Father John Cornelius, SJ (who would be martyred in 1594).

Before Easter in 1586, he was arrested in Taunton, Somerset, tried for being a priest, convicted, and sentenced to death. To save his life, Hambley promised to renounce his Catholic faith; then he escaped from prison. Recaptured on August 14, he faced the same horrible death of being hanged, drawn and quartered—and he fell again. He not only promised to become an Anglican, but he told the authorities everything he knew. Hambley told them about where he said Mass, who attended, who helped him; he told them the names of 15 other priests serving in England and others who are studying abroad.

Strangely, the judges did not trust his statements, perhaps because he gave them so willingly, so Hambley was held in prison in Salisbury until the next public trials, the Assizes, in March of 1587. The judge asked him again if he was ready to renounce the Catholic faith, and Father Hambley said he was—his third fall. Awaiting release, he was given a letter; after he read it, he changed. The next day, he told the judge that he would not renounce the faith and that he regretted his weakness. This time, the threat of “a most cruel death” did not move him to cowardice, and he suffered execution bravely.

Who sent the letter, what the letter said—these are questions that have never been answered. Father John Gerard, SJ believed that another priest, Blessed Thomas Pilchard, had written the letter to strengthen Hambley’s resolve before his own execution on March 21 the same year in Dorchester.

Both Thomas Pilchard and John Hambley were beatified among the 85 Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope St. John Paul II. In spite of his three falls, at the end Hambley repented and suffered for Jesus and His Church, uniting himself to the Cross of Christ. Blessed John Hambley, pray for us!