Thursday, December 01, 2005

Notes on the Memorial of SS. Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and Companions.

Today the Church remembers Jesuits Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and their Companions, known collectively as the Martyrs of England and Wales. During the 16th and 17th centuries, hundreds of English Catholics - secular priests, members of religious orders, and laypeople - were killed for refusing to renounce their allegiance to the Church of Rome. In 1970, forty of these martyrs, including ten Jesuits, were raised to sainthood by Pope Paul VI.

Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell are the best known of the martyrs we remember today, in no small part because both were gifted writers. A brilliant student and later a noted lecturer at Oxford, Campion studied to become an Anglican priest but found himself increasingly drawn away from the established church and toward Catholicism. Spurning an invitation from Queen Elizabeth I to enter into royal service, Campion ultimately entered the Society of Jesus instead. While exercising a clandestine priestly ministry that found him constantly on the move, offering Mass and hearing confessions in the homes of Catholic sympathizers, Campion also found time to write a number of apologetic works of which his Brag is the most famous. When captured by the royal authorities, Campion faced yet another offer from the Queen: if he agreed to renounce his Catholic faith and become a minister of the established church, he would be allowed to go free. Predictably, Campion said no to Elizabeth a second time and was hanged at Tyburn on December 1, 1581. Five years later, Robert Southwell returned to his native England after completing his Jesuit formation in Europe and followed in Campion's footsteps as an underground priest. During his secret ministry and later in prison, Southwell produced many letters and poems which would, when published, give the priest a considerable literary reputation. After his inevitable arrest, Robert Southwell died in the gallows of Tyburn on February 20, 1595.

Notwithstanding their obvious literary and historical associations, the stories of Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell have a grittily contemporary quality to them. I can't read about long-ago martyrs like these without thinking of those in more recent times who have endured the same trials and often given their lives serving the faithful in countries where Catholics cannot practice openly. In these modern witnesses, we can find an example every bit as heroic as that of Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell. So as we remember the Martyrs of England and Wales, let us also be mindful of the martyrs of our own time. AMDG.


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