I get this question often. A man recently asked if I was related to St. Edmund Campion, the Jesuit martyr who died as Queen Elizabeth I was trying hard to eradicate Catholicism from English life.
Frankly, I do not know if I am related to the saint. I like to think that I might be. I hope to look into the possibility.
In the meantime, St. Edmund Campion’s life and death has some lessons for us today.
When he was born in London in 1540, England already at least officially had separated from the Roman Church.
From childhood, he showed exceptional intellectual skills. So, he was admitted to Oxford University, where he also excelled in his studies.
By this time, Elizabeth I’s religious — and anti-Catholic — policy was in full force, and opposing her policy was dangerous. She played for keeps.
Attending a Catholic Mass was a major crime. So was going to a Catholic priest for confession. Possessing a rosary or a missal was a crime. Just for being a priest, a man could be arrested, tried, convicted and executed under the most terrible circumstances.
At Oxford, Edmund Campion was presented to the queen. He became friendly with several who had, or were to have, great influence on her. It was said that Elizabeth wanted to groom him for high office in the Church of England, and he indeed might have become a great figure in English Protestantism.
However, something else happened. The more he studied, the more he was persuaded that the Roman Catholic Church was founded by the Lord, and that Protestantism merely was a human invention.
People began to notice that he was drifting toward Catholicism. Since it was so risky to be seen as a Catholic, Campion went to Ireland, where he wrote a history of the Irish people.
But he could not get Catholicism off his mind. So, he went to France, was received into the Catholic Church, and then went to Rome where he joined the Jesuits. He then studied for the priesthood in Bohemia and Moravia, now the Czech Republic, and finally was ordained a priest in Prague in 1578.
The Jesuits were the Church’s vanguard, going into the worst and most threatening conditions on its behalf. Campion himself entered England in 1580, quickly becoming one of the most wanted “criminals” because he could write so convincingly. His compositions in defense of Catholicism circulated in much of the country.
In July 1581, he was captured in a house in Lyford that now is a shrine. After being tortured unmercifully, he was condemned to death. He was hanged, drawn and quartered on Dec. 1, 1581. Pope Paul VI canonized him in 1970.
Here is one lesson for us. The English martyrs believed that the visible Church is essential to salvation. It is not coincidental.
There is another lesson. Enemies of the Church at times and in certain locations can prevail. Despite these martyrs, Catholicism never truly returned in England. At times in fear, but probably also often in indifference, Catholics simply walked away from the Church.
Much has changed in England. Catholics now are second only to Anglicans in numerical strength.
Symbolically, Queen Elizabeth II has visited the more recent popes in Rome and received Pope John Paul II when he visited Britain. She attended the centennial celebration of the great cathedral at Westminster, England’s principal Catholic church. She conferred upon Cardinal Basil Hume, then Westminster’s archbishop, one of the country’s highest honors. She has allowed members of her family to become Catholic.
When Pope Benedict XVI was installed five years ago, the queen sent Prince Philip, her husband, to represent her.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.