Around the world today we celebrate the life and death of Jesuit priest St. Edmund Campion who was, in 1970, declared a saint and martyr of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Paul VI. Born into prosperity, and having read at St. John’s College, Oxford, at the age of seventeen Campion successfully embarked on what, by all accounts, was a sensational career honouring two successive queens of England with his well-known oration, while at the same time receiving praise from both his students and powerful patrons among the English aristocracy. It is said, however, that in his heart, the then young deacon of the Church of England, was deeply drawn to the Roman Catholic faith, and for this reason left England in 1569. After a brief time in Ireland as a private tutor, Campion embraced the Church while on pilgrimage in France, and then walked to Rome, where in 1573 he was admitted to the Society of Jesus. After just over five years of training, Campion was ordained a priest, then took a post lecturing in rhetoric and moral philosophy at the Jesuit college in Prague.
Despite his success as a professor, Campion was not to be long departed from his native land, for, in 1580, he returned to England, disguised as a wealthy merchant, and worked for a year as an itinerant priest to English subjects who courageously held to their Catholic faith amidst violent persecution. During that time, he also wrote "The Challenge to the Privy Council", or "Campion’s Brag", that directly disputed state-wide rumours that the mission of Jesuits in the realm was in fact seditious and a key component in a larger Catholic plot to overthrow its excommunicated queen, Elizabeth I.
Captured by an undercover ‘priest-hunter', it was now Campion’s honour, not to receive accolades from his countrymen, but rather derision as he entered London wearing a parchment on his head that read, “Campion, the seditious Jesuit.” For almost five months the priest was held in the Tower of London, deprived of food, tortured on the rack several times, psychologically harangued, and even bribed, all with the hope that he might recant. During his trial, some of the Church of England’s best theologians were summoned to challenge Campion’s ecclesiology--but to no avail. Then, in November of 1581, he was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. It is said that Campion accepted this sentence with joy and when, on the day of his execution, he faced deriding crowds who denounced Pope Pius V for excommunicating Elizabeth I, he calmly spoke out saying, “Dear friends … [tis] your queen and my queen …”
Both the life and the death of St. Edmund Campion engenders for many a great admiration and offers us two very important points for our own prayer. First, not only in life was he blessed with superior intelligence, extraordinary communicative skills, and worldly favour, but more importantly with the courage to follow Jesus Christ into a faith that, if embraced at that time, was fraught with danger and the need for personal sacrifices. Though the challenges which come from following our Lord today may seem far from dire, still, deep in our hearts, Jesus is calling each of us to something. His loving will beckons us on, so that perhaps we might pray with Campion for the courage to embrace that will when it somehow becomes known to us. Second, in his death, the saint reveals, how more important than riches, honour, or glory is the love that we have for Christ. Since, on that cold day by the Tyburn, Campion did not embrace death, but rather the Son of God.
Fr. Michael Knox, S.J. is presently doing graduate studies at Campion Hall, Oxford.
For Further Reading:
Haydon, Alexander. Edmund Campion. London: Catholic Truth Society, 2003.
Holleran, James V. A Jesuit Challenge: Edmund Campion’s Debate at the Tower of London, 1581. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.
Martindale, C. C. Blessed Edmund Campion, London: Catholic Truth Society, 1964.
Waugh, Evelyn. Edmund Campion. London: Cassell, 1987.