I remember it well. During the summer of 1960, the Democratic Party nominated U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a Catholic, for president. For many American Protestants, life was about to end. Frantic that the separation of church and state would be set aside, and the Catholic pope and bishops would run this country. Protestant ministers from Hawaii to Maine ranted and raved.
Curious about this furious anti-Catholic reaction, a classmate in my Catholic high school and I went to a huge rally in a major Protestant church.
Nervously, we took our seats. The minister called all to order and announced that we would begin the meeting with a hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers.”
When school resumed a few weeks later, my classmate and I hurried to tell one of our priest-professors about the meeting. We told him about the hymn. The priest laughed. The hymn, he explained, is about English Roman Catholics who were martyred for their faith when King Henry VIII took English Christianity out of the Catholic Church. In the hymn, the Protestants are the oppressors!
Each time I hear this fairly popular Catholic hymn, I think of that rally years ago, and I am reminded of the heroic English martyrs, including St. Edmund Campion, with whom I would like to claim kin.
The first English settlement to endure in North America was in Jamestown, in modern Virginia. At least publicly, the first English colonists in Jamestown were Protestants, formally attached to the Church of England that Henry VIII had founded when he broke with the papacy. Maybe, apparently, however, at least one or two, perhaps more, were secret Roman Catholics.
Little if anything remains of the original settlement at Jamestown, but the site is well-known, and for a while archeologists have been looking for anything to be found from the first colony.
This past summer, four graves were uncovered. With one set of remains was what seems to be a Catholic reliquary. It is not the first item found at Jamestown that suggests that some English people tried to hold onto their Catholic religion.
Many, as noted, kept the faith “in spite of dungeon, fire and sword,” to quote “Faith of our Fathers,” but many others, it would appear, simply were Catholics at heart but in secret.
Reading about the feverish attempts by the English government to eradicate Catholicism is fascinating, but accounts most often deal with kings and queens and politicians and the martyrs.
What about those secret English Catholics, likely including some at Jamestown, the simple people, pursuing everyday lives?
They clung to their faith, as obviously the martyrs clung to their beliefs. Why? It was the most important possession that they had. It rewarded them. It guided them. It energized them. In it, things made sense.
So it has been for Catholics all over the world for 20 centuries.
I think of this historical fact when I hear of people today, especially young people, who have Catholic roots but drift away from the Church or outright reject the Church.
Each case is different. Experiences are different. Perceptions are different. God alone can judge.
Still, the Catholic Faith has given meaning and joy literally to billions over all the years. Not just in England have martyrs died. The Faith has uplifted and brightened and softened Western civilization itself more than any other influence.
People who desert it plunge into dark, unknown waters alone and vulnerable.
“Faith of our Fathers, living still!” Thanks be to God!
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.