St. Ambrose Barlow was one of several Benedictine priests who grace the long list of the English Catholic martyrs of the Reformation. Baptized Edward, he was the son of a prominent knight of Lancashire. Though baptized a Catholic, he conformed to the State Church until 22. Then he returned to Catholic practice and entered the English Catholic seminary at Douay, Belgium. On a vacation back in England he was arrested as a Catholic and imprisoned for several months. When released, he went back to Douay, joined the English Benedictines there, took the name Ambrose, and was ordained a priest in 1617. Then he was sent as a missionary to his native Lancashire.
The peril of death that had hung over Catholic missionaries in England since the days of Queen Elizabeth was not quite so heavy in the days of King James and Charles I, but it was still a threat since there were many English penal laws that hobbled Catholics. Like most of the priests of the English mission, Father Ambrose concealed his identity by using aliases, especially “Radcliffe” and “Brereton”. His 24 years of life as a missionary priest were geographically restricted, necessarily wary, and very intense. He became much loved for his zeal for souls, for his love of poverty and of the poor, and his wonderful priestly example. Although never in good health, he did not bother to consult physicians. Often wronged, slandered and threatened, he brushed off these injuries with a smile and a joke. In fact, one of his penitents said that St. Thomas More must have been much like Father Ambrose, so great was his wit and good cheer in the face of difficulties.
In 1628, Father Barlow administered the last sacraments in prison to Father Edmund Arrowsmith, a secular fellow missionary of his in Lancashire. After the martyrdom of St. Edmund, on August 28, 1628, he appeared to Father Barlow (who did not yet know he had died) and warned him that he, too, would be called on to give up his life. “Say little,” he counseled Barlow, “for they will endeavor to take hold of your words.”
Father Ambrose lived 13 years waiting for the prophecy to be fulfilled. He was imprisoned four times during that period, but each time released. Then in March 1641, Parliament practically forced King Charles I to order all priests out of the country under penalty of treason. A few weeks later, on Easter Sunday, the local Anglican vicar led a party of 400 men armed with swords and clubs to arrest Father Barlow. They seized him as he preached after the Easter Mass at a private house at Leigh. The Benedictine had lately suffered a stroke, so a man had to sit behind him on the horse to keep him from falling off as they rode to the jail.
Father Barlow was held in prison four months before being called to trial. Brought into the courtroom, he acknowledged straight out that he was a priest. The judge asked him why then he had not left the country as the law ordered. Barlow replied that the law had referred to “Jesuits and seminary priests”, and he was a Benedictine. Anyhow, he had been too ill to travel that far. Asked, then, what he thought of the penal laws against Catholics, he replied boldly that they were unjust and barbarous. He was nevertheless promised freedom if he would stop “seducing the people”; that is, seeking to bring them back to Catholicism. “I am no seducer,” he replied firmly, “but a reducer of the people to the true and ancient religion. I am in the resolution to continue until death to render this good office to these strayed souls.” (As one who had himself “strayed” in his youth, this seems to have been for him a most urgent concern.)
The trial took place on September 8, 1641. Five days before that, unbeknown to Father Barlow, he had been elected a monastic prior by his companion monks at Douay. But he was condemned to death on the day of his trial – to a “traitor’s” death of hanging, drawing and quartering. Before he mounted the scaffold he prayed the psalm, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness” (Ps. 51). In circulating his death notice, his brother monks asked that his friends, instead of offering requiem Masses for him and prayers for the dead, celebrate Masses of thanksgiving and recite prayers of thanks. He had died for a priesthood that he had truly honored by his life.
Father Ambrose Barlow was proclaimed a saint by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
–Father Robert F. McNamara