An Elizabethan jewel repolished: definitive life of Edmund Campion
by Richard Simpson
Revised, edited and enlarged by Rev Peter Joseph
(Gracewing, 2010, 687pp, $60.00. ISBN: 978-0-85244-734-5. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Fiction could never have produced a tale as astonishing as the life of St Edmund Campion. The effort simply to relate the facts of his life risks the judgment of disbelief, yet those facts are beyond question and few lives have been so rigorously investigated as in this superb biography updated by the Sydney-based priest and author, Fr Peter Joseph.
Readers familiar with Fr Joseph's masterful representation of the classic work Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine by Archbishop Sheehan will be delighted that he has found a new vehicle for his passionate enquiry and devotion to the Faith for few stories render so much fruit for religious inspiration and sheer excitement.
St Edmund Campion was born in London to a Catholic family just as the brutal process of the Protestant Reformation was being imposed in England. He was a gifted young man and a dazzling career at Oxford gave promise of much future greatness, but combined with his natural talents were two qualities which would shape his own future and many other lives: a passionately honest intellect and great personal courage.
He was persuaded to be ordained into the Anglican ministry, but religious qualms about the basis of the Church of England kept him from making a full commitment - for example he never took communion in that church. And as his doubts about the new church grew he left Oxford and his friends and patrons to undertake historical research in Ireland.
The paranoid new establishment became increasingly disturbed by the eloquent objections he began to raise and in 1571 he finally fled Ireland for the exiled English Catholic College of Douai, then in Spanish Flanders, today in France. As he passed through England in disguise, he witnessed the trial of the martyr Dr John Storey and was deeply affected.
Upon arrival at Douai he was reconciled to the Catholic Church and taught and studied for a while before entering the Jesuit Order in Rome. It was a thrilling time to be in Europe. The full vigour of the new Society of Jesus and of many other fresh Orders was being applied to the urgent task of winning back Catholics who had been lost to Protestantism over the previous fifty years. St Edmund was in the thick of it.
Working in Prague, he was recruited by Fr (later Cardinal) Allen and sent together with Fr Robert Parsons in 1580 to start the Jesuit mission to England. The Cardinal had chosen wisely. All accounts agree that St Edmund was a rare combination of all the best qualities: highly intelligent, famously eloquent, good looking, athletic, charming, chivalrous, yet devout and humble. He was a formidable creation of God for the mission.
As they set out from Rome they were given moving encouragements by many who felt, as Campion himself had been led to believe in a vision, that they were going to their martyrdom. On the way they called on St Charles Borromeo and disputed with the famous Protestant theologian Theodore Beza in Geneva.
Their arrival in England was the stuff of pure drama. Travelling always in disguise and being careful of their company, they visited Catholic houses and confirmed in the Faith those who were starting to quail before severe governmental persecution.
Risking denunciation and death at every step, Campion was fearless in preaching openly wherever he could, to the fury of the authorities who pursued him from one end of England to the other. Near misses and thrilling escapes added to his legend.
Sensitive to the false accusation that his activities were intended as political sedition, Campion wrote what we would call a "Manifesto" which became known as "Campion's Brag". In it he stressed the religious and peaceful nature of all his activities. This, together with his "Decem Rationes" ("Ten Reasons") or critique of Anglicanism, became his chief written works.
Betrayed and captured at last, St Edmund had his finest hour in the Tower of London enduring endless interrogations by his theological opponents and answering their false arguments with a display of eloquence and burning conviction surely unparalleled to this day. And all this after having been tortured, deprived of food and sleep, and even of any physical support.
Despite his frailty he was immune both to threats and to enticements - even from Queen Elizabeth who was kept informed of his interrogations on the rack and offered him rich rewards for abandoning the Faith.
The testimony he gave during his defences itself reconverted several wavering Catholics and at the last the very blood of his martyrdom struck the clothing of an onlooker and inspired him to the Catholic priesthood (and eventually to Jesuit martyrdom as well).
In reproducing those dazzling conversations, in which the saint gave brilliant testimony unaided by notes, Dr Peter Joseph has made available a spiritual treasure of immense value. The amount of research that has gone into checking and rechecking dates and events, comparing antique texts and uncovering previously forgotten details establishes this as unquestionably the definitive biography of Saint Edmund Campion.
It has been a labour of love for Fr Joseph and we must be grateful for his devotion. He has chosen to take a classic work, Edmund Campion: Jesuit Protomartyr of England, by the convert Anglican minister Simpson, and revise it completely, such was his respect for the scholarship of his venerable predecessor.
He was more than capable of composing his own and it is an act of great humility to take this classic and present it afresh. In doing so he has taken a jewel and re-cut it to reveal many more facets and depths than the original showed. As a result its beauty and its gleam shine brighter than ever.
Fr Anthony Robbie is a priest of the Sydney Archdiocese and has a Licentiate in Church History from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome.