Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In the Bleak Mid-Winter

It is the first of December, and for the Church in England, today is the feast of one of her most illustrious martyrs: after SS John Fisher and Thomas More, St Edmund Campion is a star of the English Church.  I have a great regard for the English martyrs, while in Ireland we have many who gave up their lives for their faith, here Catholics were in the majority, and our people hid our priests, so we managed to save many of them. In England, however, Catholics were a minority and it was harder to protect their priests.  There are many heroic stories of laypeople even sacrificing themselves to protect their priests. St Margaret Clitherow, St Anne Line and St Margaret Ward, the three women martyr saints among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, are heroic examples of devotion to the priesthood, even to the point of laying down their lives to protect it.  My own connection to these martyrs is St Edmund Arrowsmith, a Jesuit priest from Lancashire, executed in 1628 for his priesthood. He was betrayed by Catholics in an irregular sexual union after he had defended marriage.   I have had a devotion to him for many years.  More about him another time.

St Edmund Campion's life story is most interesting, and he has a connection with Ireland.  St Edmund was born in London on 25th January 1540.  He was brought up in the Church of England, and he emerged as a  brilliant scholar and orator.  He studied at St John's College in Oxford.  There he came to the attention of a number of members of the court, and thus began relationships which brought him to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I.  He was persuaded to become a Protestant minister, seeing it a means of promotion: he was ordained a deacon.  Thanks to his abilities and benefactors, he was soon seen as a possible future Archbishop of Canterbury.  Things, however, were about to change.

In 1569 he came to Ireland as tutor to the son of the Speaker of the Irish Parliament. Here was involved in founding the University of Dublin (more famously known as Trinity College).  By this time he was having serious doubts about Protestantism, and was inclined to Catholicism.  Rumours of this had being circulating before he left for Ireland, and when in Ireland those rumours grew to a point that he needed the protection of a Mr Barnewell to escape capture, torture and interrogation by certain Protestants in Dublin.  During this time in Barnewell's house he wrote his History of Ireland.

In 1571, St Edmund managed to escape from Ireland and went to Europe.  He had heard of the English Catholic seminary in Douai, and making his way there he sought to be received into the Church and accepted as a candidate for the priesthood.   He was accepted and studied for his theology degree there, while teaching rhetoric.  In 1573, however, he left and went as a pilgrim to Rome.  There he encountered and then entered the Society of Jesus.  He was ordained priest and served in Rome, Vienna and Prague.  In 1580, the Jesuits began their mission to England, and St Edmund was keen to return.

Accompanying the new superior of the Society in England, Fr Robert Parsons, St Edmund entered England on the 24th June 1580, feast of the birth of St John the Baptist - it would prove prophetic.  From the start, the zeal of the man was unbounded, and very soon his fame spread throughout England.  A gifted writer, he wrote several works defending the Catholic faith and revealing the shortcomings of the new State Church.  The most famous of his defences, his Challenge to the Privy Council became known among his enemies as Campion's Brag.

He was soon the most sought after man in England: by Catholics for his preaching and holiness, by Protestants for his head - by Queen Elizabeth by his betrayal.  Elizabeth I knew how to hold a grudge, and those who offended her would feel the fire of her wrath - she was saving it up for Edmund Campion.   On the 15th July 1581, he was caught in Norfolk by a spy and arrested.  Sat up on a horse, hands tied, he was paraded to London wearing a paper hat which bore the slogan, "Campion the Seditious Jesuit".

St Edmund expected no mercy from Queen, Privy Council or judges, and he received none.  He was interrogated before Queen Elizabeth who asked him if he acknowledged her as the rightful Queen of England - he said he did.  Thinking she could win him over, she offered him wealth and titles if he only rejected his Catholic faith: he refused.  After months of torture, he was brought to Westminster Hall where he was condemned to death: it was there that he delivered one of the greatest speeches in the English language where he reminded his accusers: "In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England -- the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter."  He was hanged drawn and quartered on the 1st December 1581, at Tyburn, in London.   He died with two other priests that day, both of whom have also been canonised and share his feast day: St Ralph Sherwin, a secular priest, and St Alexander Briant, also a Jesuit.  Though we are in the bleak mid-winter, these Saints and their faith light a comforting and, yes, a challenging fire for us in these times.

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