Saturday 4 February 2023

Thomas Leverous, Bishop of Kildare: 'an example of fidelity to God and man worthy both of honour and of imitation.'


Although his name is not to be found on the Official List of Irish Martyrs, the courageous witness of Thomas Leverous, Bishop of Kildare (d. 1577), is among those cases documented by the martyrologists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of the works in which he features is the De Processu Martyriali published in 1619 by David Rothe, Bishop of Ossory. The exact year of Thomas Leverous's birth has not been preserved but he was, as we shall see, a close contemporary of Gerald Fitzgerald, ninth Earl of Kildare (1487-1534), with whom he was raised as a foster-brother. The future bishop was thus closely involved in the political machinations surrounding the Fitzgeralds and eventually accompanied his foster-brother's heir into exile in France in 1540. There Father Leverous enjoyed the patronage of the English Cardinal Pole until he returned to Ireland and received a royal pardon in 1549. With the accession of Queen Mary in 1553, Cardinal Pole was in a position to reward those Irish Catholics who had not compromised with the new state religion. In 1555 Leverous was offered the vacant bishopric of Kildare and appointed Dean of the restored cathedral chapter of St Patrick in Dublin. With his former young charge returned from exile and confirmed as eleventh earl of Kildare, Leverous acted as one of his senior advisors and at that point the future must have seemed very bright indeed. All was overturned, however, with the accession of Queen Mary's half-sister Elizabeth in 1558 and Bishop Leverous quickly became a thorn in the side of the authorities. In the Irish parliament of 1560 he spoke out against the plans to introduce the royal supremacy over the church and courageously followed through on his words by refusing to take the oath of supremacy when it was tendered to him on February 4. Although the concept of any monarch exercising spiritual authority over the Church was anathema to a Catholic, the fact that the new monarch was female presented Bishop Leverous with particular grounds on which to base his opposition. For did not the historic witness of the Church, from the Scriptures to the Church Fathers, preclude a woman from exercising such authority? Having been swiftly removed from his episcopal office as a result of his refusal to take the oath, the former Bishop Leverous earned his livelihood by keeping a grammar school in the village of Adare, about ten miles from Limerick. As a schoolmaster he continued to witness for the Catholic faith until his death in 1577.  Below is the account of Bishop Leverous from De Processu Martyriali, as translated by Myles O'Reilly:

Anno 1577


I GIVE his life, translated from the work of Dr. Roothe, Bishop of Ossory.

"The memory of those deserves to be preserved who have left to posterity an example of fidelity to God and man worthy both of honour and of imitation. Such was the Right Rev. Thomas Leverous, who was born in a village of the county Kildare, of a family bound by old ties of clientship to the illustrious family of Kildare in the same county.

"In the reign of Henry VIII., when schism was already impending over England, Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare and Viceroy of Ireland, was summoned to England at the instigation of his enemies and by the advice of Cardinal Wolsey, who was then all-powerful and not at all favourable to the Geraldines. The earl was accused of being unfaithful to the king, and of having in his office of viceroy connived at rebels and disturbers. He was thrown into prison, and the news inflamed the youthful mind of his eldest son, Thomas Geraldine, who had been left by his father to exercise his power in his absence. When he received the news of his father's arrest, he handed back the sword of state to the chancellor and privy council, and, with courage worthy of a man, but the folly of a child, took up arms against the king, (A.D. 1534.) But this furious outburst was soon quelled with the death of its author and five of his uncles, the only one of the family who was saved being Gerald Geraldine, the youngest son, who was hidden by a faithful nurse from the rage of his enemies. But as it was said that this escape was favoured by Leonard, Lord Gray, he afterward paid the penalty of this connivance with his head. But how could so young a boy take to flight, or, if he did, how could he effect it successfully, at so young an age and surrounded by so many dangers? Nor could any common man give a shelter to a youth of so noble a race without it being remarked. But the affectionate care of his nurse shone forth in this emergency, and she had as a partner in her trouble, and the guide of her flight, the Thomas Leverous of whom I now write.

"He was as a father to the youth while he grew up, and by constant flight eluded the snares of his enemies; and a guide and counsellor when he grew up and travelled in foreign lands. When he was named to the bishopric of Kildare, he lost nothing of his humility, gentleness of mind, piety, and Christian charity; yea, rather, his lowliness of spirit and contempt of worldly honors and riches increased as he was elevated in dignity and wealth.

"When, after the death of Henry VIII. and Edward VI., Queen Mary, the daughter of the former and sister of the latter, restored the exiled Gerald to his rank and title, his faithful friend and guardian, Thomas Leverous, was established in the bishopric of Kildare.

"That diocese is ample and honorable, the land thereof is rich, the inhabitants numerous, and embrace many noble families; but of these by far the most numerous and most honorable is that of the Geraldines. His bishopric Thomas enjoyed during the reign of Queen Mary, but at her death, when her sister Elizabeth succeeded to the crown by the will of her father, she gave instructions to the viceroy, the Earl of Sussex, to tender the oath of the queen's ecclesiastical supremacy to the bishops of Ireland, and to drive from their sees whoever should refuse to take it.

"When Bishop Leverous was summoned by Sussex to take the oath, and he refused to take it, as being against his conscience, the earl asked him for what reason he denied that the queen was the head of the church, since so many illustrious men, and so many doctors and bishops, both in. England and Ireland, had acknowledged her as such. But he gave for answer only such a simple reason as any common man might understand, namely, that all true ecclesiastical jurisdiction must come from Christ our Lord; and, since he had not given even the smallest share of ecclesiastical power to his Mother, so glorious and so dear, so adorned with virtues and honors, how much less could such supreme jurisdiction be given to anyone of the same sex! St. Paul would not allow any woman even to speak in church: how much more are all excluded from judging, ruling, and presiding! St. John Chrysostom well expressed the mind of our Lord (lib. ii., De Sacerdotio) when he thus spoke of all persons of that weaker sex: 'When the question is of the headship of the church, and of entrusting to one the care of so many souls, the whole feminine sex must, by its nature, be excluded from a task of such weight.' So also Tertullian: 'It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church, nor to teach, nor to offer, nor to claim a share in such offices reserved to men, much less in that of the priesthood.'
"And were it not that they are unfitted by nature and the condition of their sex from such exercise of authority, he who on earth raised his Mother to a dignity above all others, and above all women, and in heaven has placed her on a throne next to himself, would not have lowered her by refusing her an honor fitted to her sex, and which others of that sex might enjoy. But since by nature it was not fitting that women should share in it, it was no dishonor to his Mother not to participate in the jurisdiction which her Son conferred. Hence it followed that Elizabeth could not lawfully take, nor her father Henry give, nor any parliament bestow on women that authority which Christ gave, and which was, as the Scripture says, 'a fountain sealed up ' to those men to whom he assigned it who bears on his shoulder the key of the house of David, and who gave to Peter his keys, by which the gate of heaven is shut and opened.

"The answer of the bishop pleased not the viceroy, who drove him from his bishopric as unworthy of the honor who thus dishonored his queen; yet he, with a sincere mind, sought not to deprive her of any just honor, but only refused her an unlawful title and a vain figment of honor devised by flatterers, and which became not her head, adorned with an earthly crown." Driven thus from his cathedral see, and deprived of its revenues humble and poor like Christ, he sought a strange and distant shelter in a distant district, rejoicing to suffer contumely for the name of Christ. As he had answered the viceroy when he threatened him with deprivation of all his goods and expulsion from his see unless he bowed him to the queen's will, 'What,' said he, 'will it avail a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul' ? Thus he esteemed all things as dirt that he might gain Christ. O generous champion of Christ! who to prepare for the fight threw away all burdens, great was thy faith, great thy zeal for the faith, and great the reward laid up for thee in heaven! Thus was this aged man, of venerable appearance, unfitted for any business save the care of souls and the upholding of ecclesiastical discipline, compelled to turn his aged limbs to tasks fitted only for the youthful;— the labors of a toilsome journey and a distant flight. When he was young, he went into voluntary exile for the sake of another; now, aged, he was compelled to seek his own living in exile. But he could console himself with the wise words of the great St. Leo (Serm, 9, De Quad.): "As it is the occupation of the whole body to live piously, so it is the occupation of all time to bear the cross." No age, no time, no place, no state in this our mortal life, can insure the servants of Christ from bearing the cross; and there is often more danger from a concealed adversary than from an open enemy.

"In order, therefore, that he might secure his own safety, and be of service also to others, he went to Gerald, Earl of Desmond, and the Countess Joan, his wife, and the mother of Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond, a wise and prudent heroine; and, being hospitably received by them, he kept himself with all prudence and peacefulness, lest he should bring any trouble on those who sheltered him.
"By his assiduity in his sacred ministry, he abundantly compensated the generosity of his host, and his piety, modesty sobriety of life and fervor in promoting the divine honor made him acceptable to the neighboring nobles and the inhabitants, among whom he sedulously labored to preserve them from the novelties of heresy. He was constant in admonishing and exhorting in all fitting time and place, and performing the work of a bishop; and labored like a simple priest in administering the sacraments, and found such labors sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.
"When, however, prudence required him to abstain from these exercises in places where he was well known or which were near his ordinary residence, his charity could not endure to be idle, but he cheerfully removed to more remote districts, and, like the busy bee, ever sought new fields of work.

"He travelled through various districts, instructing all, both old and young, with the same zeal, with teachings adapted to the age and intelligence of each; and the venerable bishop, in these labors, never thought of his rank or age, and even taught boys, like a common pedagogue, not only the elements of rhetoric and grammar, but even to read; and this not only in country villages, as in the village of Adare, in the territory of Connaught, but in municipal towns and noted places, as in Limerick, where he opened a school, and had for teacher under him Richard Creagh, then young, but who was afterward Archbishop of Armagh and Primate, of whom we have written more at length in the beginning of these notes.

"How noble a school, in which the teachers were so distinguished! how well cultivated the field, in which the laborers were so skilled ! how fruitful the seminary, planted by such noble founders ! how glorious the lecture-hall, in which such great doctors taught! Would that I might enter that school to hear you, Leverous and Creagh, teaching even the rudiments of philology to the tender minds of youth, as a preparation for the higher mysteries of the faith, and forming their souls at once in learning and virtue! I may well address you in the words which St. Augustine uses of Saints Peter and Andrew when called by our Lord: 'Leaving their fishing, they adhered to him, or if they left him for a time, to return again they did as is written: "Let thy foot wear the doorstep of his house; arise and come to him assiduously and learn his precepts." He showed them where he dwelt, and they came and dwelt with him. What a happy day and night did they pass! Who may tell us what they heard from Christ? Let us also build up in our hearts a dwelling for him, that he may come and teach us and dwell with us.'

"Our Lord taught Peter and Andrew, and they taught the world: the same Lord taught Richard and Thomas, and they, by their teaching, made wise unto salvation the little world of Ireland. From their school came forth worthy disciples, zealous laborers, who gathered an abundant harvest into the granary of the Lord: the one labored in the north, the other in the south. Were there no other monument of their piety, their labors in teaching youth were deserving of commemoration. Well hath Plutarch said: 'As the limbs of new-born children should be laid straight, that they may so grow up, so also their minds should be trained to virtue; for that early age is easily moulded, and discipline is better implanted in their minds, which are yet impressionable, while when age has hardened them they are more difficult to change.' What I before said of his colleague [Richard Creagh] is yet more applicable to Leverous, who the more deserves our admiration in that he was a bishop when he thus devoted himself to the labor of teaching youth. Thus did he ever strive to preserve the faith in his country and hand it over to posterity, and after having thus labored to the end, he went to receive at the hand of his Lord and God the crown he had earned by his labors. He died at the age of eighty, and was buried in the town of Naas, which, after the cathedral city, is the principal town in the diocese of Kildare. The towns-people unanimously assert that he has been honored by miracles. He died about the year 1577." — Roothe, De Processu Martyriali.

 M. O'Reilly, Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, (New York 1869), 44-51.

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