The Church recently celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King, a feast to proclaim Christ’s royalty over individuals, families, society, governments, and nations. It could be this great feast (or it could be the release of the latest season of British royal drama The Crown), but I can’t help reflecting on royalty and the lives of the English martyrs. We often hear stories of St. Thomas More or St. John Fisher. But allow me to propose another model saint for our times - Edmund Campion.
Campion was recognized at a young age for his great intellect, talent for debate, and loyalty. Once a trusted friend of Queen Elizabeth I and a cleric of the Anglican Church, Campion left the Church of England in secret to reconcile with his Catholic faith. Emblazoned with a fire for his faith, he entered the Jesuits and began his studies. As Evelyn Waugh wrote in his biography of Campion, his fellow students “were being trained not as scholars and gentlemen, but as missionaries and martyrs.” Mission to England meant almost certain imprisonment or death, yet Campion returned in 1580 to conduct an underground ministry to serve the remaining Catholics in England and preach a counter-reformation.
Not long after his arrival, he was arrested by priest hunters, and on November 20, 1581, Campion and his fellow missionaries were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. He answered the jury:
“It was not our death that ever we feared…. we knew that we were not lords of our own lives, and therefore for want of answer would not be guilty of our deaths. The only thing that we have now to say is, that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are, and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen had.”
“In condemning us you condemn all your own ancestors – all the ancient priests, bishops and kings – all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.”
Heading back to their prisons to await death, Campion and the other condemned men broke into the words of the Te Deum, an ancient prayer of gratitude, now an unofficial battle-hymn of martyrs.
As George Weigel noted, the story of Campion’s life and martyrdom “strikes a special chord in times and place where Christians are frequently reminded that the truth is never cost-free.” As Catholics, we have an important and urgent story to share with the world. It is not one of great political saviors or complicated ideals. It is that God so loved the world that He gave His only son, to suffer and die, that we might have eternal life. This truth is costly indeed, as Christ calls us to boldly proclaim Him and to lay down our lives for Him. Our martyrdoms may not look like St. Edmund Campion’s, but our King gives us the courage and grace to be as fearless as those English missionaries.
In a year fraught with a global pandemic, civil unrest, and political derision, this November’s Thanksgiving celebration might not actually feel like much of a celebration. But let us give thanks today and every day, knowing that no matter our political leader, no matter our current circumstances or what lies ahead, Christ is King now and forever.
Te Deum Prayer
You are God: we praise you;
You are God: we acclaim you;
You are the eternal Father:
All creation worships you.
To you all angels, all the powers of heaven,
Cherubim and Seraphim, sing in endless praise:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.
Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you:
Father, of majesty unbounded,
Your true and only Son, worthy of all worship,
And the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
The eternal Son of the Father.
When you became man to set us free
You did not spurn the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death,
And opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come, and be our judge.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
Bought with the price of your own blood,
And bring us with your saints
To glory everlasting.
Save your people, Lord, and bless your inheritance.
Govern and uphold them now and always.
Day by day we bless you.
We praise your name forever.
Keep us today, Lord, from all sin.
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy.
Lord, show us your love and mercy;
For we put our trust in you.
In you, Lord, is our hope:
Let us never be put to shame.