By CAROLE BRESLIN
Some people are raised Catholic by very devout parents or at least one parent. When the child grows and becomes independent, then he rejects the faith. Some never come back, but there are those who, having failed to remain faithful to the teachings of the Church, come back with great zeal and drive to spread the Truth. St. Augustine comes to mind. There is a martyr of the English Reformation who also comes to mind: St. Edmund Campion.
Edmund was born to a bookseller and his wife on January 25, 1540 in London, England. Edmund Campion showed great promise as a child. He was a star in the darkness of that era; he was not only brilliant and loquacious, but also charismatic in his appeal to the learned and to the lowly. Sir Thomas White sponsored Campion to be a junior fellow at St. John’s College in Oxford. Edmund was only 17 at the time.
In this position, his skills of oratory and intellect were further developed. He came to give more and more speeches, winning debates, and impressing even the queen. By 1568, Edmund had earned two degrees. After the college made him the proctor, he was in high demand to give eulogies at funerals as well as other speeches. He became so successful that those at the college came to imitate his dress, his mannerisms, and his way of speech. This group became known as the Campionists.
At this time Queen Elizabeth made a pilgrimage to Oxford where she sat through many presentations by different organizations in the college. However, it was Edmund Campion, one of the last to speak, who enthralled her. In fact, she and her associate, Cecil, met with him and informed him that they would give him anything that he desired.
The purpose of her visit was to recruit capable men to populate the hierarchy of the Church of England. They saw in Edmund the perfect example of the men they would like to recruit. The break with the Catholic Church and the subsequent persecution of the Catholic hierarchy had left a vacuum in religious leadership. Bishop Richard Cheyney was one of the few bishops of the new church. Along with the Queen, he persuaded Campion to become a deacon of her church.
Although raised Catholic, Campion did not have the spiritual resources and foundation to resist the accolades of the age. The praise and adulation of being recognized as the greatest person to be a member of the college in the history of Oxford went to his head. His poise and wit, his insights and personality were not to be matched. The danger of worldly praise led him to betray his faith.
Blinded by his meteoric rise in popularity, he took the Oath of Supremacy. Thankfully, his conscience and his integrity in seeking the truth led him to question the principles of the English church. He challenged the rationalizations against the one true Catholic and apostolic Church. Finding himself in a delicate position by his questioning of the queen’s religion, he left England and went to Ireland where he worked with Sir Henry Sidney.
Together they sought to reopen Dublin University. Sidney took a great interest in the prodigy Campion. Although the reopening did not happen, Edmund became close friends with the family. However, as Campion became more and more open about his viewpoints, people realized how Catholic they were. As a result, he had to flee the public eye and hide in various homes around the Emerald Isle.
While doing this, he wrote a history of Ireland. This “history” was later severely criticized for being slanted and inaccurate. Perhaps being raised in England led him to tell the story from a purely English point of view, ignoring the great suffering endured by the Irish.
Urged by his friend Gregory Martin, Campion returned to England. However, because of his Catholic leanings, he changed his name, donning a disguise, to avoid any trouble. He arrived in London, providentially, at the time of the trial of John Story, who was one of the first Oxonian martyrs.
Perhaps it was the blood of Story which was the seed of Campion’s final decision to return fully to the Catholic Church. Hearing a call to the priesthood, he left for Douai to enter the seminary. When the Queen’s man, Cecil, learned of his “defection,” he remarked to the Earl of Leicester, “England has lost one of the diamonds.”
The emigrant was singular in his focus. He soon completed his studies in theology and earned his lesser degree. Then he set out on his barefoot trek to Rome to enter the Society of Jesus. In April of 1573, St. Edmund Campion received his first orders.
At the time of Campion’s Ordination, the Jesuits did not have a province in England, so Edmund was sent to Bohemia. He spent his novitiate in Prague, his probation year at Brunn in Moravia, and then he returned to Prague to teach and write sacred dramas.
After his 1578 Ordination in Prague, where he took the four vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and fidelity to the Holy Father, he and Fr. Robert Parsons were assigned to London. Before Campion left, he received a vision from the Blessed Mother revealing to him his martyrdom. His comrades painted a garland of roses in the cell in Prague where he had received the vision.
Parsons and Campion left for England, stopping in Rome along the way where they met with St. Charles Borromeo. In London, they received food, shelter, and clothing in order to begin their mission of winning Catholics back to the faith.
Campion, full of zeal and possessed of compelling oratorical skills, won many back to the faith and converted many Protestants as well. Such success made it necessary for him to flee to the North from the enemies of the Catholic Church.
While there, he wrote his ten arguments, or Decem Rationes. He soon returned to London, but once again was forced to flee, having been betrayed by George Elred, a steward of the Roper family. He was finally arrested at Lyford Grange in Berkshire on July 17, 1581.
Much was made of the arrest of the “seditious Jesuit,” who was subjected to public ridicule. His captors tried as hard as they could to get him to renounce his Catholic faith, but he remained faithful. Campion maintained his great wit and charity to the very end. As he was martyred, his blood splashed on Henry Walpole, who later became both a Jesuit and martyr. And so the chain of the seeds of the Church continued. St. Edmund died on December 1, 1581.
Dear St. Edmund, help us to unwaveringly defend the one true faith. May we never stray from it. Should we do so, help us to return — as you did — with ever-greater zeal for the glory of God. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ. She is celebrating her 20th anniversary with the organization.)