Edmund Campion had an illustrious career in front of him. He was a rising star at Oxford University and had captured the favorable attention of the Queen of England. Elizabeth I. All that was necessary was to recognize the Queen’s supremacy in religious matters and to accommodate the new religious forms. Even if one could not attest to these forms in his heart, he might practice the old Faith in secret, while professing the new religion with his lips. The advantages of accommodation for one such as Campion were numerous and attractive: fame, fortune, comfort, accolades; the good life.
As time passed, Campion found it harder and harder to equivocate. Finally, he abandoned fame, fortune, comfort, and accolades, left his beloved England, and was ordained a Jesuit priest, accepting poverty, the revilement of Protestants in Europe, and the vilification of most of his countrymen. All of his natural gifts and education he put at the service of the Church.
When Campion was ordered back to England, he did not go gloomily, he did not go with resentment toward the English authorities who persecuted the Church, or toward the Queen who was enriching herself at the expense of age-old institutions of learning and charity, or government agents like Richard Topcliffe, who were murdering men and women who were following their consciences. Campion went home to England with a generous heart, saying:
Whereas I have come out of Germanie and Boemeland, being sent by my superiours, and adventured myself into this noble Realm, my dear Countrie, for the glorie of God and benefit of souls…I should either sooner or later be intercepted and stopped of my course…I never had mind and am strictly forbidden by our Father that sent me, to deal in any respect in matter of State or Policy of this realm…Many innocent hands are lifted up to heaven for you daily by those English students, whose posteritie shall never die, which beyond seas, gathering virtue and sufficient knowledge for the purpose, are determined never to give you over, but either to win you heaven, or to die upon your pikes…cheerfully to carry the cross you lay upon us, 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…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.
Now comes modern American culture, not the rack and rope (yet), but a culture steeped in relativism, philosophical materialism, agnosticism, skepticism, and, as for the arts, nihilism. This is the soil in which Catholic Americans are planted, where abortion and homosexuality are widely accepted and endorsed as liberating lifestyles (“I will do it because I want to do it, and I can do it”), where a culture of death is embraced, even as death itself is an icon of terror, where government and industry seek to depersonalize the person and make him an instrument of production.
What shall the followers of the Christ of the Gospels do? Shall we retreat into a Catholic ghetto and associate only with those who believe what we believe? Shall we succumb to discouragement and lose hope? Shall we be consumed with anger or hatred toward those who promote a culture of death? Shall we accommodate the new secular “religion”, as many Catholics did in 16th century England and have done today, and reap the benefits?
With the sure knowledge that he would face tribulation, if not martyrdom, Campion crossed the English Channel. Others, bishops and priests among them, equivocated and found ways to remain in safe harbors. It was no easier then than it is now to follow Christ’s injunction to take up our crosses and to love our enemies.
What does crossing the Channel mean in 2013 America? Christ told his disciples that when they are weak, they are strong in Him. Today, crossing the Channel means trusting that God will sustain us, no matter how intimidating or threatening an environment we enter. It means boldness instead of discouragement, a boldness based on grace and not on our own talents or the American ethos of self-sufficiency. It means heroic generosity, like Campion’s generosity, and not anger or hatred toward those who seek to oppress the Faith. Didn’t Blessed John Paul II and Blessed Mother Teresa come from a battered and bruised Church in Eastern Europe? Did the misery and terror they experienced discourage them?
Practically speaking, what can we do? Few of us are elected officials, or champions of industry, or publishers of newspapers, or university presidents. We must re-commit to prayer, and then action: determine to be a public witness, always keeping charity in the forefront; be prepared and willing to give up secular accolades, and to be vilified for witnessing to the truth; engage the media via letters to the editor or op-eds, tailoring our message to an audience that has largely abandoned a religious perspective; contribute to the arts (literature, poetry, visual arts, music) from a Catholic perspective; and, especially, strive to raise children to become faithful Catholics like St. Edmund Campion. Let the Richard Richs and Richard Topcliffes, who persecuted the Faith in 16th century England, have their day. It is a passing day, and pray for them as Campion prayed for his persecutors.