Archbishop Lori Honors St. Edmund Campion During U.K. Trip

Baltimore’s archbishop says the 16th-century Jesuit's martyrdom is an important witness for the Catholics of today.

St. Edmund Campion
St. Edmund Campion (photo:

STONYHURST, England — In 1581, St. Edmund Campion, an English Jesuit,  was convicted of treason and subjected to a brutal death sentence, yet his enduring power to inspire courage under fire affirms the fruitful legacy of Catholic martyrs, said Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore.

Archbishop Lori celebrated the courageous example of the English convert and martyr during a “Campion Day” Mass at Stonyhurst College, a British Jesuit school, during a visit this week to the United Kingdom.

St. Edmund Campion, “without exaggeration, was one of the greatest heroes in the history of the Church,” said the Baltimore archbishop, who noted that the saint turned his back on a brilliant career and chose instead a life of almost certain death as a Catholic priest traveling secretly to celebrate the sacraments, in violation of English law during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Relics of St. Edmund Campion, St. Thomas More and other English martyrs are housed at the Christian Heritage Centre, a new educational initiative and museum established on the grounds of Stonyhurst College by Lord David Alton, a Catholic member of the House of Lords.

The center has relics of many holy Catholic men and women who chose death rather than violating their deeply held religious beliefs, and Lord Alton and other supporters of the new initiative hope the collection of religious artifacts will be used to educate and inspire young British children to reclaim their faith tradition.

Last year, Archbishop Lori invited Lord Alton, a prominent advocate for international religious freedom and the right to life of the unborn, to Baltimore. There, local Catholics were able to pray before several Stonyhurst relics, including a crucifix that belonged to St. Thomas More and a reliquary containing a piece of the clothing Father Campion wore when he traveled through England in disguise, seeking to elude state authorities.


Link to Present-Day Catholics

“The persecution, violence and intolerance which the English Catholic martyrs endured is directly linked to the contemporary suffering of Catholics in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, North Korea and many other parts of the world,” Lord Alton told the Register, making a connection between Campion’s martyrdom and recent reports of Iraqi Christians who refused to recant their faith in Jesus, despite the threat of death at the hands of Islamist militants.

Further, Lord Alton presented St. Edmund’s witness as a model for Catholics in the West, where there has been an upsurge in threats to the free-exercise rights of Catholics who defend Church teaching on life and marriage.

“The courageous faith of Thomas More, John Fisher, Margaret Clitherow, Edmund Campion and many others helped to secure the religious liberties we enjoy throughout the English-speaking world today,” said Lord Alton.

“Their heroic lives and deaths should stir us into a far more determined and robust defense of religious freedom and into championing the suffering Church and those persecuted Christians who face martyrdom every day of their lives.” 


Carroll Connection

During his Dec.1 “Campion Day” homily, before a congregation of dignitaries, alumni and students, the Baltimore archbishop noted an important historical connection between the storied Jesuit school and the Baltimore Archdiocese, the first archdiocese established in the United States, which just celebrated its 225th anniversary.

“The first archbishop of Baltimore, and the first Catholic bishop in the United States, John Carroll, was, as you know, an alumnus of St. Omer’s, the lineal antecedent of this venerable school,” said Archbishop Lori, who added that the archbishop’s cousin, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, was also an alumnus of St. Omer’s.

St. Omer’s was a Jesuit school established in Europe to educate English Catholics during the height of the anti-Catholic persecutions in England. It would become a repository of precious relics and other religious artifacts given to the school for safekeeping by English Catholic families.

During the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603), St. Omer’s offered safe haven for English Catholic boys and the Jesuits who ran the school. But many members of the Society of Jesus chose to remain in England to keep the faith alive, and Father Campion was among them.

At the time of his conversion, noted Archbishop Lori, “Edmund Campion was a young man of truly exceptional talent and intelligence,” whose gifts as a writer and speaker brought him to the attention of Queen Elizabeth.

He had taken the Oath of Supremacy and was a deacon in the Anglican Church.

Yet Campion soon felt the pricking of his conscience, which inexorably drew his attention to the claims of the outlawed Roman Catholic faith.

“Within the space of a decade, the grace of God brought Edmund Campion from England to Ireland, to Douai [France] and, finally, to Rome,” said Archbishop Lori, who underscored the full consequences of that fateful decision.

He quoted from the saint’s own writings, which marked the definitive turning point: “The expense is reckoned; the enterprise is begun. It is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.”


Hunted Priest

Msgr. Ronald Knox, the influential English-Catholic author, described Campion’s momentous decision to embrace the Roman Catholic faith and then to enter the Society of Jesus as evidence of his own penchant for unstinting personal commitment, noted Archbishop Lori.

“He joined the society,” wrote Knox, “for what is, I suppose, the best reason for joining the society; he read the [<i>Spiritual] Exercises</i>, and they said to him, ‘This means you.’”

After his ordination, Father Campion returned to his homeland to become one of the most hunted priests during a time of near totalitarian persecution of Catholics. He was finally arrested and convicted in 1581.

After his conviction, Campion had the last word: “In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient 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.”

The convicted man was subjected to one of the most brutal sentences of that time: He was hanged, drawn and quartered. But even at this moment of death, said Archbishop Lori, the potency of the blood of martyrs was evident.

“As the executioner dismembered his body, a drop of his blood splashed onto a young bystander, Henry Walpole,” explained Archbishop Lori, citing accounts from that time.

“So great was the effect of that martyrdom and of God’s grace in the soul of Henry Walpole, that, thereafter, he, too, became a Catholic, a priest, a martyr and a saint.”

The Baltimore archbishop traced the powerful witness of St. Edmund, as well as other holy men and women who have died for their faith in recent times, to the experience of the early Church, where martyrdom was often embraced: “As Tertullian said in the first Christian centuries, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’”


Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.