During the reformation in England, the Church was fiercely persecuted, and many faithful Catholics gave their lives for the faith. Some were mothers, others were priests, others statesmen. But they were all so convinced that the Catholic faith was true that they chose death rather than renounce it.
I want to make it clear that these courageous men and women did not die for religious freedom, as is the common misunderstanding. They died because they loved Jesus and the Catholic faith he founded more than their own lives. It’s the difference between dying so a Hindu can worship false gods in his temple and dying because you love Christ and his Church and could never betray either of them.
Today, I want to briefly share the life of one of these men, St. Edmund Campion.
St. Edmund Campion was born around 1540 to a London Bookseller. At the young age of 15, he earned a scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford (these teenagers were hardcore).
Immediately, young Edmund distinguished himself as an academic and especially as an orator. He was invited to speak at many important functions, and eventually, before Queen Elizabeth herself. His extraordinary abilities and winsome personality so impressed the Queen that he immediately won her patronage and support. A member of her court later referred to Campion as “one of the diamonds of England.”
It is an understatement to say that Edmund had a bright future ahead of him. He could very easily have risen to the highest political offices in England or left a lasting legacy as an academic. But God had other plans.
Conversion and priesthood
In the course of his studies, Edmund was required to take the oath of royal supremacy, stating that the monarch of England was the supreme head of the newly formed church of England. It was impossible to receive a degree or pursue a scholarly life without taking this oath. He also became a deacon in the Anglican church and shortly thereafter received an important position at his university.
All the while, however, he harbored deep doubts about the nature of the church of England and its recent separation from Rome. He eventually traveled to Dublin, where he renounced Anglicanism and reconciled with the Catholic church.
In 1573, Campion traveled to Rome to study for the priesthood with the Jesuits. After his ordination, he taught at the in university in Prague.
Mission to England
At this time in history, the Jesuits were newly formed, and they were considered the shock troops, so to speak, in challenging the spread of Protestantism. Wherever the Church was in most need, that’s where the Jesuits went.
Inspired by the Jesuit successes in other countries, Pope Gregory XIII decided to send Jesuits to England. Edmund Campion and Robert Persons were chosen for the task. Both of these men knew that their mission would most likely cost them their lives, as Catholic priests were regularly imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their ministry.
Unsurprisingly, the moment Campion landed in England, he was on the run. After being chased out London, he traveled around the English countryside preaching and making many notable converts. While his mission was unquestionably successful, he was constantly being pursued by spies, and he was almost captured on several occasions.
But he didn’t lose heart. Instead, he decided to write a scholarly treatise challenging the most learned protestants in England to debate matters of religion with him. The publication of this treatise caused a huge uproar, and efforts to capture him were intensified.
Capture and death
On a Sunday morning, while preaching and celebrating mass in the countryside, he was finally betrayed by a spy. He was captured shortly thereafter and taken to London for trial.
During the course of his imprisonment, he was tortured severely and urged by a number of protestant dignitaries to recant his Catholic faith. Of course, he refused. Eventually, he and a number of other captured priests were taken before a court on false charges of sedition and conspiracy to raise an uprising in England.
Ironically, the trial turned into an opportunity for apologetics, with Campion skillfully defending himself and the other priests on trial, destroying the trumped up evidence, and dismantling the arguments the church of England used to justify its separation from the Catholic church.
But despite his efforts, the court still found the priests guilty of sedition and condemned them to death by drawing and quartering (if you don’t know what that is, it’s one of the most cruel forms of execution ever devised). Unfortunately for the jury, the priests weren’t dismayed at all. Instead, they began to chant the great Catholic hymn, the Te Deum.
His last words were:
“As to the treasons which have been laid to my charge, and for which I come here to suffer, I desire you all to bear witness with me that I am thereto altogether innocent…I am a Catholic man and a priest; in that Faith I have lived, and in that Faith do I intend to die. If you esteem my Religion treason, then I am guilty; as for the other treason, I never committed any, God is my judge.”
We live in a time of pandemic religious indifference. The vast majority of men don’t really think religion matters all that much. What you believe is really more of a personal preference, they think, and religion certainly isn’t worth dying for.
But this lukewarm attitude is the complete opposite of our Catholic forebears. These men were made of sterner stuff than most of us are today. To them, being Catholic wasn’t a matter of convenience or personal taste, and they didn’t profess the faith because it was comfortable or easy. They professed the faith even at the cost of their lives because they believed in the core of their being that it was true, and Truth mattered more than anything. Does it matter to us?
Studying the lives of these heroic martyrs should inspire us to passionately love the Faith once delivered to the saints. Let’s be courageous and stand up for what we believe, come what may. St. Edmund Campion, pray for us men!
PS: If you want a great read on the Reformation in England, check out the novel Come Rack! Come Rope! by Robert Hugh Benson.