Saint John Roberts: Law Student, Priest, Martyr

One of the Forty Saints of England and Wales canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI bore the same name as the current Chief Justice of the United States. This earlier John Roberts was a Welshman, born and raised as a Protestant. He studied first at Oxford, but left without a degree to enroll at the Inns of Court to pursue a career in law. While subsequently traveling in Europe, he converted to Catholicism through the influence of one of his traveling companions.

Roberts took his new faith seriously, entering the college in Douai, the study hall of the English martyrs, which enrolled 160 of its seminarians in the scroll of martyred Catholic priests and lay persons executed under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Once again, as had been the case at Oxford, Roberts left Douai before graduation to pursue a vocation with the Benedictine Order. He went to Santiago de Compostela in Spain to complete his studies, and was ordained a priest. After his profession, he left for England at the end of 1602. For the next eight years, Roberts was engaged in a cycle of serving English Catholics, being caught, arrested, sent to prison, or banished to the continent. In all, Roberts was exiled from England four times. After his third banishment, he returned to Douai, where he started a Benedictine house, which later became the Monastery of  St. Gregory in Douai.

After returning to England in 1607, Roberts was caught yet once again, and imprisoned. Keeping his lucky streak alive he escaped, but was recaptured. He was able to avoid execution only through the efforts of the French ambassador, and was banished from England once again.

When he again returned to England he was recaptured, and tried and convicted of the capital crime of ministering as a Catholic priest in England. As with many of the other Catholic martyrs of England and Wales, he was hung drawn and quartered. His execution on December 10, 1610, occurred almost eight years to the day that he first reentered England as a Benedictine Catholic priest. His body was sent to St. Gregory’s Monastery in Douai for burial. He was 35 when he died.

Roberts’ fascinating story has several important lessons. Here are two of them: First, we see the importance of personal witness and friendship in evangelization efforts, for his conversion to the Catholic Faith was a direct result of the example of his unnamed Catholic traveling companion with whom he toured Europe after his time at the Inns of Court. Second, Roberts’ life of service as a priest and his resulting gruesome martyrdom provides another example of the strong faith and fruitful service of Catholic converts.

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