Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 7th Day, 10th March 2010

An Act of Parliament (1571) during the reign of Elizabeth made it high treason to question the queen’s title as the head of the Church of England. Through this Act, the practice of Roman Catholicism was rendered treasonable. The Act also authorised the confiscation of the property of Roman Catholics. Between 1577 and 1603, 183 English Catholics were put to death for their faith. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, some 600 Catholics died in the persecutions; some were executed for offences as trivial as obtaining a papal licence to marry.

It is to this unfortunate period of Christian history that we encounter our Saint for the 7th Day of the Novena of Grace: St Edmund Campion—the most famous of the English martyrs.

Campion was born of Catholic parents who later became Protestants. He attended St. John's College, Oxford, where he gained renown as a lecturer and a following of students who called themselves "Campionites." When he was 26 years old, he gave a speech of welcome in Latin to Queen Elizabeth on her visit to Oxford; he made such an impression on the queen that she and Lords Cecil and Leicester tried to recruit him for her service. He probably took the Oath of Supremacy, and was ordained a deacon for the Established Church. But, the more he studied to be a priest, the more convinced he became that the Catholic Church had the true faith. He moved to Dublin in 1569 in an effort to find a place to live as a Catholic, but the Irish capital showed an anti-Catholic feeling that drove him back to London. In June 1571 he left England for Douai, Belgium where the recently founded English College trained seminarians for England.

Campion finished his degree in 1573 and set out soon after for Rome with the intention of becoming a Jesuit. Within a month of his arrival in Rome, he was accepted into the Society. At that time there was neither an English province nor an English mission, so he was assigned to the Austrian province and went to Prague and Brno to make his novitiate. He remained in Prague after he took vows and was ordained there, expecting to spend the rest of his life teaching in that city. He wrote and directed plays for his students and won renown as an orator.

When the Jesuits decided to open a mission in England, he was one of the first to be assigned to it. English spies in Holland learnt of his impending departure and informed the English ports of entry, who awaited their arrival. He disguised himself as a Mr Edmonds, a jewellery merchant. He was questioned by port authorities but managed to slip through their surveillance.

In London he wrote a manifesto of his mission which became known as “Campion’s Brag”. The intent of the mission was religious, not political. It was so well-written that copies were made and widely distributed to confirm Catholics in their faith. He moved on to Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. He would stay at a Catholic house for one or two nights or visit households where Catholics were employed. The pattern of his visit was to arrive during the day, preach and hear confessions during the evening, and then celebrate Mass in the morning before moving on to the next location. He composed a book addressed to the academic world entitled Rationes decem ("Ten Reasons") which gave arguments to prove the truth of Catholicism and the falsity of Protestantism.

His freedom to minister to Catholics soon ended when he was betrayed by a professional priest-hunter pretending to be a Catholic. He was caught with two other priests.

The three were taken to the Tower of London on July 22, where Campion was put in a cell so small he could neither stand upright nor lie down. After three days there he was brought to Leicester house, where he met Queen Elizabeth for a second time. She offered him the opportunity to renounce his Catholic faith and become a Protestant minister, with the offer of great advancement. He refused and was returned to his cell; five days later he was tortured on the rack. The government determined that he should be executed, but they needed a stronger charge than the fact that he was a Catholic priest. They cooked up the charge that he had conspired to take the life of the queen, and had exhorted foreigners to invade the country and had entered England with the intent of fomenting rebellion to support the invaders. At his trial Campion attempted to defend all the priests by pointing out that their motives were religious, not political; but they were found guilty of high treason and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The priests joined in singing the Te Deum when they heard the verdict.

Campion remained in chains for another 11 days, and then was dragged through the muddy streets of London to Tyburn. With him were Alexander Briant, a Jesuit and Father Ralph Sherwin, a diocesan priest. There they were executed.

Edmund Campion together with Alexander Briant, Edmund Arrowsmith, David Lewis, Henry Morse, Henry Walpole, Nicholas Owen, Philip Evans, Robert Southwell and Thomas Garnet, all Jesuits, belong to the group of Martyrs collectively known as the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales canonised in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. These 40 Martyrs, which the Church in England celebrates every year on 25th Oct, died between 1535 and 1679.

Is St Edmund relevant? For the matter of speaking, are the forty canonised so recently, relevant? For example, the “Rationes decem gave arguments to prove the truth of Catholicism and the falsity of Protestantism”. Such language is no longer used today, certainly not in official Catholic teachings. In fact, the Church has made great strides in ecumenical dialogue with the Anglicans and Lutherans. The polemical language of the past has now given way to conciliatory language of the present. Apart from the occasional hiccoughs, like the Declaration Dominus Iesus, [1] the general tone of ecumenical relationship is markedly peaceful.

His relevance is perhaps found in this maxim: peace is not the absence of war. His brag, even though arrogant in tone, was manifestly a declaration that his stance was religious and not political. He wanted to defend his faith in the Catholic Church which he had come to recognise to be the best representation of what the Church of Christ should be. A good way to understand this is through question. For Fr Campion, the Catholic Church is the answer to this question: “Where in history can one locate the Church founded by Christ”? Thus, you can appreciate that his defence concerns the truth. Where is it to be found?

In the context of today, defence of the faith—the search for Christ’s Church—is through dialogue. This is a primary method of reaching the truth. Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue are both instruments of the defence in the sense that we no longer need to use force to justify our stance but instead we must rely on the unforced force of the better argument. However, if we were to go deeper, truth is more than just a better argument. Where is the truth to be found? In our case, this is an important question because the truth is not an idea, it is not democratic, it is not an ideology, and it is not relative. Truth is a person because Christ Himself declared: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. Therefore, in Christianity, Truth is a person. Truth and Christ are synonymous because Truth does not hover behind Christ. Christ is Truth. This truth comes to us in history as Man [the Incarnation] and in the new economy [dispensation] of salvation through His Church—namely through teachings [creed], governance [code] and sacraments [cult].

No less relevant to this dialogue is apologetics. The unfortunate reality is that Catholic apologetics have been relegated to the dung heap of relativism by a false notion that every expression of faith is the same as long as we declare Christ to be Saviour. Thus, there is a great need, even in the time of peace, to know why we are Catholics. Do we stand up enough for our faith because it is true? The Society of Jesus, of whom Edmund Campion was a member of, was founded precisely for that: to strive especially for the defence and propagation of the faith. Pope Benedict XVI in his allocution to the Society of Jesus at their General Congregation 35 says this: [t]he Church is in urgent need of people of solid and deep faith, of a serious culture and a genuine human and social sensitivity, of religious priests who devote their lives to stand on those frontiers in order to witness and help to understand that there is in fact a profound harmony between faith and reason, between evangelical spirit, thirst for justice and action for peace. Only thus, will it be possible to make the face of the Lord known to so many for whom it remains hidden or unrecognisable.

Thirdly, and this is where we begin to realise that there is something antithetical between faith and the world as expressed by the Evangelist John: We are in the world but we are not of the world. Thus, one must be ready to die for one’s faith. The circumstances surrounding Edmund Campion’s death may be unfortunate because the question of faith became entangled with politics and it was often settled by torture and murder. But, the fact was that loyalty to Christ and his Church was incompatible with loyalty to King. Just like the first reading, when we choose God, we will find opposition from the world. Part of life’s conversion is to come to this. Only then can we speak of martyrdom.

In conclusion, these men who died for the faith must be a challenge to each and every one of us to know why we are Catholics in the first place. Sentiments aside, there must be a determined desire to go deeper into the reason for being a Catholic. Otherwise, those who defended and died for the faith would have done so in vain.
[1] Every now and then the Church comes up with official pronouncement which seems to throw a spanner into the ecumenical work. For example, when Pope Benedict was the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Declaration Dominus Iesus created a major furore when it made the distinction between true particular churches and ecclesial communities. This in effect reduced the co-called Lutheran church into an “ecclesial community”—it was considered to be some kind of condescension.