Father Philip Sheldrake S.J. looks at the relevance of Campion's story in today's world.
SOME 30 years ago, Evelyn Waugh said of St Edmund Campion that current events made the tale of a hunted priest peculiarly contemporary. The 1980s present an even bleaker picture of every kind of persecution on a world-wide stage. To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Campion's death reminds us how little our world has grown up in the intervening centuries.
The contemporary ring of so much of Campion's story should not blind us, however, to the danger of anachronistic comparisons. Sixteenth century martyrs did not die for our understanding of freedom of conscience. The present exciting prospects for Christian reunion could hardly be envisaged in 1581 except by people of the deepest faith. Our context is different and the memory of the martyrs should not make us irrationally fearful of betraying what Campion fought so hard to preserve. Despite these dangers there is much to learn from this anniversary about the nature of Christian vocation and mission.
The so-called 'brag', which Campion composed in a mere half hour, apart from remaining a stirring and moving piece of prose, is an honest statement of how he saw his work: "1 never had in mind and am strictly forbidden by our Father who sent me. to deal in any respect with matter of State or Policy of this realm ...
... My charge is, of free cost to preach the Gospel. to minister the Sacraments, to instruct the simple, to reform sinners, to confute error ..."
To "crie alarme spiritual" and not "political" was for Campion the centre of his mission.
Preaching the Gospel remains the only means for any lasting renewal of the temporal order. And yet there is often perforce a very thin line between preaching Jesus Christ and an implicit involvement in politics. Campion was tried for treason: the Nazis banned the sale of Bible in Norway as "subversive literature". and there are plenty of regimes today which find the work of Christians equally subversive.
The temptation to conform remains as great today as it was for Campion wrestling with religious doubt at Oxford and later in the Tower when confronted with attractive offers of royal patronage. And it was precisely external "conformity" which Queen Elizabeth and her ministers sought above all else. This is the context for the perennially discomforting challenge of martyrs.
Yet the story of Campion's conversion, vocation and mission is not one of arrogant certainty and dogmatism. The title "Brag" (which he himself disclaimed) is not accurate for his apologia nor as an indication of his general attitudes. The document reveals that Campion was more concerned to work for the needs of people than to indulge in bombastic propaganda. His mission was essentially a quiet, persistent apostolate of preaching, administering the Sacraments and dealing with the many difficulties of ordinary Catholics.
The call to be a Jesuit and ultimately to be "rewarded with rigour" was, for Campion, a continual struggle with a deep inner reluctance. He tarried long at Oxford after the onset of doubts. He allowed himself to accept deacon's Orders in the established Church on the advice of his good friend, the con
servative Bishop Cheney, Even after his flight from England, Campion hoped to be left in peace with his scholarship in the quiet haven of Dublin. The implications of God's call were only slowly revealed to him and accepted only at great cost.
Campion was undoubtedly one of the great figures of that extraordinary Elizabethan age. Yet what makes him so attractive is, in the end. his victory over very human frailty. He contended with religious doubts and even in the later stages of history there is a good deal of struggle.
To leave Prague, where he was very much at peace, on a summons from Rome in 1580 was to tear himself reluctantly away from a busy and fulfilling life of preaching, writing and teaching in school and university. In the midst of much enthusiasm and wild optimism about the likely outcome of the mission to England, Campion appears to have remained full of doubts and even pessimism.
Ultimately Edmund Campion was able to live and die as he did, not because of super-human qualities for all that he was admitted by friends, pupils and even enemies to be of
extraordinary calibre intellectually and socially. Rather, like every Christian, he reached his perfect fulfilment in the hard school of renouncing self and subordinating personal reluctance to a greater enterprise.
As in his "Brag". so at his trial. Campion made it clear that it was in committing everything, including his life, to God in perfect trust that he found that total freedom which enabled him to be not only one fo the most extraordinary men of his age — "one of the diamonds of England" in the words of William Cecil — but of continued significance in our age which is so far distant from his own.