November 30, 2017

Saint Edmund Campion, English Martyr

Saint Edmund Campion

The feast of Saint Edmund Campion (1540-1581), the Jesuit priest and English martyr, is celebrated on December 1st. He was born the son of a bookseller in Paternoster row, just behind Saint Paul's Cathedral in London. He grew up amid the religious strife of the 16th century following the dispute between King Henry VIII and Rome. He is venerated among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

Campion enrolled in the local grammar school and then, at age 12, attended the new Christ's Hospital school for orphans and the poor. In August 1553, he was selected to deliver a ceremonial address to Queen Mary as she passed through London. Campion was able academically and went to St John's College, Oxford, at the age of 15. He was awarded a degree in 1564 and became a fellow of the University. In 1566, he was again chosen to make a formal speech of welcome before the new Queen, Elizabeth I, as she visited Oxford. Much impressed with Campion, Queen Elizabeth ensured he had friends and patrons within the Court.

Ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church, Campion came to believe that the Protestant church was not the true continuation of the Christian faith and that only in the Catholic Church would he find a home. He soon resigned his position at Oxford. Traveling to Dublin in 1570, he helped establish a university there.

With the excommunication of Elizabeth I by Pope Pius V in 1570, Catholics and people like Campion who wavered in their religious affiliations were persecuted. Campion became a Catholic and went to the new seminary for English Catholics at Douai in France. He was ordained subdeacon and then walked, barefoot, to Rome to become a Jesuit in April 1573. Campion pursued his studies and taught in the Jesuit College in Prague. Finally, he was ordained a priest in 1578.

Campion was persuaded, against his better judgment, to join the new mission to England. On June 16, 1580, Fr Robert Persons S.J. landed at Dover, the Superior of the mission. On June 24th, Campion followed, disguised as a jewel merchant. He moved between the houses of Catholics (the Recusants) who practised their religion in secret. At one such house, Lyford Grange in Oxfordshire, Campion was betrayed and arrested on July 17, 1581, a year after he returned to England.

He was imprisoned and tortured in the Tower of London and tried at Westminster Hall in November 1581. Condemned for treason, he was dragged on a hurdle to Tyburn where he was martyred with Fr Alexander Briant SJ and Fr Ralph Sherwin. He was hanged and then, before he was dead, his genitals cut off, his entrails ripped out and burned before him, his head hacked off and his body quartered.

The feast of Saint Edmund Campion is solemnly observed among many English Catholics. With him are remembered his fellow martyr Saint Alexander Briant SJ, and Saint Robert Southwell SJ who was martyred on February 21, 1595. All were made saints by Pope Paul VI in 1970 along with thirty-seven others (the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales). O God, who gave light to your Church through St. Edmund Campion, grant that we may follow him to know your eternal Beatitude.

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