by Fr Shane Sullivan
Edmund Campion was born in 1540 in Henry VIII’s enthusiastically Protestant England. He became one of Oxford’s best scholars and received the order of deacon within the Church of England. Edmund was a very unlikely Catholic martyr and hero, yet he became the first and best-known Jesuit to lay down his life for the ancient Faith in England.
Moved by Study and Heroic Witness
Even as Edmund experienced great success in University his mind grew uneasy. He took the Oath of Supremacy in 1564- solemnly affirming his belief that the Queen was the head of the Church in England- as was required to receive his degree from Oxford. But his closer study of the issue and the Church Fathers undermined his allegiance to the new church. He withdrew from Oxford and disrupted his career to study and reflect at a remove in Ireland. There he came under increasing suspicion for Catholic sympathies. He returned to London in 1571 where he witnessed the torture and execution of one of Oxford’s former dons- Bl. John Storey. Storey’s heroism through trial and on the scaffold confirmed Campion in his resolution. Not long afterwards he made for Douai to begin his formation under the direction of William Allen. From there Campion travelled to Rome to join the Jesuits. He was ordained in 1578 and taught in Bohemia until being summoned for a new and unexpected mission in 1580.
The English Mission
William Allen secured a number of Jesuits for the English. Sailing under false names they landed and set about their work. The Catholic population was under terrible pressure; unable to worship publicly, subject to demanding financial penalties and facing obstacles in their careers. Many Catholics, including priests from the Old Rite, found themselves buckling under the pressure and demoralised. It was to strengthen these Catholics that the Jesuits principally came. Their enemies depicted them as political agents and traitors. In his famous ‘Brag’ or public letter to the Queen and her privy council he made it clear that not only was he sent only “for the glory of God and benefit of souls,” but was forbidden by his superiors from engaging in any political activity or debate.
But he also made it clear that nothing could make him nor his Jesuit confreres abandon their mission. He ended his brag saying:
“And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league -all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practices of England- cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the Faith was planted: so it must be restored.”
He visited homes of recusant families who hid him, there celebrating the sacraments and encouraging them. He penned another letter, called the Rationes Decem or “The Ten Reasons,” to all the academics of Oxford and Cambridge, in which he articulated the truths of the Catholic Faith.
Martyrdom and Legacy
In 1581 he was captured ministering to one of those families, discovered in hiding by a notorious criminal turned priest-hunter and was brought to London for trial. He was offered his freedom, many privileges and wealth if he would only renounce his Catholicism, but he declined and was tortured mercilessly. Like Thomas More a generation before him they could not convict him lawfully and so had to manipulate witnesses to justify their desired sentence. In the cart on the way to Tyburn he reverenced a displayed statue of Our Lady and prayed at the scaffold for the Queen under whose authority he was being put to death. Some drops of his blood fell onto a young man in the crowd named Henry Walpole, who would join the Jesuits and himself give his life on the gallows.
The Church in every age does well to note how God brought his man of such impressive human potential to realise it gloriously in service of God’s Kingdom: study, contact with heroic witnesses, fellowship/fraternity ordered toward the mission and a solid formation in prayer.