Today we celebrate Saint Edmund Campion – see Avellina Ballestri’s fine recounting of his glorious life from the archives – one of the most charming in the pageantry of the English martyrs. His sense of optimism and good cheer, even if the face of the most arduous conditions and even torture, are a testament not only to his virtue, but to his trust in the goodness of God, in all things, great and small, good and bad.
Edmund, a witty and brilliant scholar, writer and debater – called the ‘jewel of Oxford’ – was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth’s, who enjoyed the company of handsome, intelligent young men, even though she never married, with the dubious epithet of the virgin queen. That is, he was held in the queen’s good graces until his conversion to Catholicism in 1571 and, what was worse in the eyes of the increasingly anti-Catholic Elizabeth, his ordination as a Jesuit priest in 1578. Pope Saint Pius V had excommunicated the queen, with his decree Regnans in Excelsis, absolving her subjects of allegiance to her, after her own attempt, following her father Henry VIII, at seizing supreme, universal headship over the Church in England. We may debate the prudence of the Pope’s sentence, but perhaps, after the hell of Henry’s reign, the saintly and austere Pope had had it up to his papal mitre with kings and queens usurping papal – which is to say Christ’s – own power and authority. At some point, the spirit of antichrist must be confronted (a message for our own times). And it certainly brought the deep spiritual divisions out into the open.
After his ordination, Father Edmund travelled to England, illegally and secretly, saying Mass, hearing confessions, preaching the Faith – his ‘Brag’ is one of the classic texts of apologetics – and reconciling the lost, until his betrayal in July of 1581. After her excommunication, the queen – or, more properly, her ministers such as Cecil – decreed Catholicism illegal in England, with the saying of Mass, or even harbouring a priest, punishable by death.