Today is the feast of St. Edmund Campion, Jesuit priest and English Elizabethan martyr. His story was told in 1935 by Evelyn Waugh, better known for his fiction, chief of which in my estimation is Brideshead Revisited. Waugh wrote in the Preface to Saint Edmund Campion that he was not attempting a scholar’s approach to his subject.
All I have sought to do is to select incidents which strike a novelist as important and to put them into a narrative which I hope may prove readable. The facts are not in dispute so I have left the text unencumbered by notes or bibliography. It should be read as a simple, perfectly true story of heroism and holiness.
I’m marking the saint’s feast by re-reading Waugh’s book about him. When we think of English Catholic martyrs nowadays, I think most thoughts turn to St. Thomas More – a man worth remembering, to be sure. Campion more than holds in own in such company. His apologia to the Queen’s Privy Council as he was undergoing persecution is provided by Waugh as a final chapter, too important to be designated an appendix. These are Campion’s own words, written as he knew his execution by the anti-Catholic government was a foregone conclusion:
And touching our Societie, be it known to you that we have made a league – all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practices of England – cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the Faith was planted; so it must be restored.
…I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almightie God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us His grace, and set us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in Heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.
My edition of Saint Edmund Campion is a reprint from Sophia Institute Press from about twenty years ago; I’m sorry that the book is no longer listed in the publisher’s online catalog. Amazon.com steps into the breach with at least two editions.
Writing in the mid-1930s, Waugh in his Preface to Campion wrote presciently about how the sixteenth-century martyr would speak to us in our own day.
We have seen the Church driven underground in one country after another. The martyrdom of Father [now Blessed] Pro in Mexico re-enacted Campion’s. In fragments and whispers we get news of other saints in the prison camps of eastern and southeastern Europe, of cruelty and degradation more frightful than anything in Tudor England and of the same pure light shining in the darkness, uncomprehended. The hunted, trapped, murdered priest is amongst us again, and the voice of Campion comes to us across the centuries as though he were walking at our side.