St. Edmund Campion SJ
Born: January 25, 1540 in London, England
Martyred: December 1, 1581 at Tyburn (now part of London), England
Feast Day: December 1
Patronage: British Jesuit Province
A Martyr’s Death?
As he was about to pass through the door of his cell in the Jesuit House in Prague, Fr. Edmund Campion looked up and saw a hand-written scroll with the words P. Edmundus Campianus Martyr, accompanied with a garland of red roses, fastened to the door frame for all to see. How had it come to this? Was his destiny to die a martyr, affirming the vision he had recently had in Brunn, where the Virgin Mary herself had told him his blood would be spilt to bear witness to his fidelity to Christ and His Church? What had brought the once illustrious scholar of Oxford and favorite of Queen Elizabeth to this pivotal crossroads where his very life was being asked of him if he was to return as a Catholic priest to his homeland?
Like the martyrs of ancient days, Edmund pondered whether he was ready to die a martyr’s death and obtain the imperishable prize of immortality that had been won by Sts. Peter and Paul and countless men and women throughout the ages. For that was the price of those who had been faithful to Christ and His Church when a path of compromise could so easily have saved them from death. For Edmund, it was not the lions of the Coliseum that awaited, but the dreaded rack and subsequent public execution in his beloved England.
A Star is Born!
Born in 1540 to a Catholic family of booksellers in London, Edmund spent his childhood in an England still coming to grips with the legacy of King Henry VIII and the establishment of the Church of England. As a young child, Edmund lived under the reign of Queen Mary who desired to restore Catholicism to a wounded and increasingly divided England. It was in this time of turmoil that he began to shine as a skilled orator and keen scholar, so much so that Edmund was even privileged to offer Queen Mary a salutary address in Latin as she arrived to hold court in London.
In 1560, he was admitted to Oxford and quickly became its uneclipsed sun, winning both the admiration of academics, the doting popularity of fellow students and the attention of Elizabeth, the new queen of England. As his fame and popularity grew, Edmund was faced with a challenge that would be presented to countless Catholics in England. Would they continue to practice the faith of their ancestors or begin to adhere to the Church of England? Elizabeth had, in her estimation, proposed a position of compromise that sought to appease both those still attached to the trappings of Catholicism and those embracing the theological reform of continental Protestantism.
Loyalty to the Pope or the Queen?
While Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII had desired to become head of the Church of his realm and acquire the vast wealth of England’s monasteries and religious houses, he nonetheless desired the deposit of faith to continue, the sacraments to be left unmolested and the faith of his forefathers followed. Elizabeth, on the other hand, sought a middle road, blending much of Catholic theology with the more radical thought of Luther and other continental Protestants to create a religion that had a foot in each ecclesial world.
It was into this new religion of compromise and appeasement that Edmund succumbed and pledged his loyalty. Desiring to maintain his fame and position of influence at Oxford, he took the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging Elizabeth as head of the Church of England and was ordained an Anglican deacon. All was now in place for him to rise in both the clerical and academic world. Yet something within Edmund caused doubt and guilt to gnaw at his soul: Was it worth gaining the whole world to lose thy immortal soul?
All Roads Lead to Rome!
After a period of profound doubt, Edmund realized that he was no longer able to reconcile with his choice to leave the Catholic faith. He resigned his position at Oxford and moved to Ireland, hoping to teach at the Dublin University, the ancient papal university that had been shut down by order of Queen Elizabeth. In time, he returned to England but aware of mounting persecution against him and English Catholics in the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s excommunication by St. Pope Pius V in 1570, he escaped to the town of Douai in France.
Douai had become the centre for training Catholic priests who would later return to England and be forced to exercise their ministry covertly or face certain execution for their treason. It was here that Edmund reconciled himself with the Catholic Church, then began to study theology and was ordained a subdeacon. From Douai, he knew his heart was set on Rome, and so –barefoot- he set off to the Eternal City to ask entrance into the Society of Jesus[i].
A Seditious Jesuit
Once he was accepted into the Jesuits, Edmund continued to teach and study till he was ordained to the priesthood in 1578. With fellow English Jesuit, Robert Parsons, he was selected to take part in the English Mission. This would allow him to return to his homeland to covertly exercise his priesthood and use his intellectual prowess to fortify Catholics who were wavering in their faith and hopefully bring Anglicans back to the Catholic Church.
And so the once-famed son of Oxford returned to England, disguised now as a jewelry dealer, ready to spend the final year of his life journeying from Catholic homes, secretly offering the sacraments, preparing theological tracts that refuted the errors of Anglicanism, and above all else wearing forbidden vestments hidden in people’s homes to offer them the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Edmund and his fellow priests would spend nights hidden in “priest holes” made in the floors and walls of people’s homes, knowing that if they were caught hiding priests, the death penalty awaited….
Come Rack and Rope!
On July 15, 1581, Edmund was betrayed, captured and brought back to his hometown of London to face trial and torture. The once beloved son of England’s capital was now paraded into the city as its greatest traitor, the words “Seditious Jesuit” placed on his head as he approached the dreaded Tower to face his inquisitors. Like so many enemies of the state, he was put on the rack and then forced to engage in theological debates or repeatedly questioned to see if he would admit his treason to Queen and Country. Yet despite the torture he endured, Edmund remained faithful to his conscience and adamant that he was loyal to the Church, the Pope and forever to his Queen. He pleaded not guilty to his crimes, unable to lift his right arm that had been so ravaged by the rack, to swear his innocence, leaving a fellow prisoner to raise his arm for him – the man first kissed in honor of his priestly witness to Jesus Christ.
For Edmund the rack had been endured, and now the sentence was passed. All enemies of the crown were to be hung, drawn and quartered at the execution ground of Tyburn. As he was dragged to his place of execution, it is said he momentarily raised himself up as he passed under the Newgate arch to bow to a statue of the Virgin Mary that still stood there. And as the crowd watched the grim execution of the seditious Jesuit, a young poet named Henry Walpole felt a splash of Campion’s blood fall on his clothing, a relic he would carry with him till he too joined the Jesuits and followed Edmund to win a martyr’s crown in England.
The Martyrs of Every Age
Men like St. Edmund Campion are no longer understood in a time that values compromise, appeasement and worldly success above the values of truth, courage and suffering for the blessed name of Jesus Christ. Martyrs are now seen as victims of political misunderstanding or viewed as obstacles to ecumenical dialogue. Their deaths are seen to be in vain; a waste of talent and potential in their fanatical willingness to endure so much pain when all that was asked was to compromise a little and gain all that this world has to offer. But the spirit of the martyr flows in the veins of every Christian.
We cannot fear to suffer for Christ and, if need be, to even lay down our lives for Him. It will mean that we are misunderstood and often seen as crazy to stand up for truth and our beliefs that are deemed to be archaic, intolerant, divisive and destructive to the spirit of the age. But every Christian must be willing to say, “Yes, Lord, I will die for you if it is asked of me; You will give me the strength to endure; You will help me win the crown of imperishable glory.” St. Edmund did not go looking to die a martyr, but he embraced that cross when it came. Will you do the same, my friends?
– Fr. Nathan Siray
From the Homily of Pope Paul VI at the Canonization of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales: October 25, 1970
To all those who are filled with admiration in reading the records of these martyrs, it is perfectly clear that they are worthy to stand alongside the greatest martyrs of the past; and this is not merely because of their fearless faith and marvellous constancy, but by reason of their humility, simplicity and serenity, and above all the spiritual joy and that wonderously radiant love with which they accepted their condemnation and death.
The high tragedy in the lives of these martyrs was that their honest and genuine loyalty came into conflict with their fidelity to God and the dictates of their conscience illumined by the Catholic faith.
Faced with the choice of remaining steadfast in their faith and of dying for it, or of saving their lives by denying that faith, without a moment’s hesitation and with a truly supernatural strength they stood for God and joyfully confronted martyrdom.
At the same time such was the greatness of their spirit that many of them died with prayers on their lips for the country they loved so much, for the King or Queen, and not least for those directly responsible for their capture, their sufferings, and the degradation and ignominy of their cruel deaths.
May our thanksgiving go up to God who, in his providential goodness, saw fit to raise up these martyrs.
[i] As a note of interest, you may have a Douai-Rheims Bible at home; this was produced between these two cities as an English Catholic Bible that would be smuggled into England to act as a vernacular counterpart to the King James Bible.
All historical information for this article was obtained from the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on St. Edmund Campion: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05293c.htm
For a more complete telling of St. Edmund Campion’s life, I would recommend Edmund Campion: A Life by Evelyn Waugh.
For those interested in reading St. Edmund’s infamous Campion’s Bragge where he defends himself against his accusers, follow this link: http://jesuitinstitute.org/Resources/Campion%20Bragge.pdf