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Student Essay: The Education and Intellect of St. Edmund Campion

Posted: 3/24/2018

The book I have read at Regina Caeli Academy that has most influenced my spiritual and intellectual development is the novel Edmund Campion: A Life, written by Evelyn Waugh.  First published in London in 1935, Edmund Campion: A Life is the biography of one of the greatest Jesuit priests and martyrs, St. Edmund Campion.

 Beginning with Campion’s brilliant academic achievements at Oxford and ending with his heroic martyr’s death at Tyburn in 1581, Waugh paints the portrait of a priest who was a scholar first and foremost.  I was struck by the way Campion’s education prepared him not only for his priestly duties, but more importantly for his martyrdom. By highlighting this crucial role that Campion’s intellectual training played in the course of his life, Waugh challenged me to think about my own education in a new perspective.

Many students tend to reduce the aim of education to a focus on vocational training or preparation for the workplace.  Campion’s education, while helping him to prepare for the priesthood, also served a much higher end: a means to glorify God and gain Heaven.  St. Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican preacher and miracle worker of the fourteenth century, wrote in his Treatise on Spiritual Life, “Let devotion accompany all your studies and study less to make yourself learned than to become a saint.”  These words epitomize the true meaning of education in the context of Edmund Campion’s life. His example highlights the highest aim of education, which is to glorify God and gain Heaven.

Edmund Campion was gifted with a brilliant intellect.  He excelled at the distinguished St. John’s College, Oxford, where Queen Elizabeth was so impressed by his oration during her visit in 1566 that she praised him highly and offered him her patronage.  Campion’s education and favor with the queen promised him a shining future.

Edmund Campion had been raised Catholic, but during the religious upheaval of his college years, he joined the Church of England and was ordained an Anglican deacon.  Continuing his studies at Oxford, however, Campion became fascinated with the Church Fathers, whose writings awakened in him serious doubts about the Church of England.  In 1569, Campion left the increasing religious confusion and pressure at Oxford and went to live in Ireland, where he returned to the Catholic Church. He then enrolled in the seminary at Douai, France to study for the priesthood.

After being ordained a subdeacon at Douai, Campion journeyed to Rome, where he was ordained a Jesuit priest.  The priests of the Society of Jesus were the main combatants against the surge of Protestantism and anti-Catholicism in England.  Only two years after his priestly ordination, Campion was assigned to a missionary trip to England, where Catholics were now forbidden to attend Mass, go to confession, harbor priests, or receive any Sacraments.  Priests, in particular, were hunted, arrested and executed.

Campion arrived in England in 1580, hiding his true identity under the false name and profession of Mr. Edmunds, a jeweler.  He traveled from house to house, preaching and administering the Sacraments. His polished sermons were renowned in Catholic circles.  

Campion’s excellent education gave him many advantages in evangelization and combat against rising Protestantism.  In July of 1580, Campion wrote his famous Brag, in which he proudly acknowledged that he was a Jesuit priest, sent to England to minister to the persecuted Catholics without any political motives.  Campion wrote that he was able and willing to defend his Catholic faith, and eagerly anticipated debate with his Protestant rivals. The Brag caused great excitement among English Catholics.  Its publication encouraged and rejuvenated them as they were isolated without any spiritual or physical support.

The next year Campion published his Ten Reasons, a summary of the Catholic arguments against Protestantism.  Campion’s intensive apologetics training at Douai must have assisted him in this endeavor, along with the refined writing style he had adapted at Oxford.  Printed copies of the document were distributed in the pews of the church at Oxford, perfectly timed for the University’s Commencement ceremonies. The Ten Reasons caused uproar in Protestant society.  Campion’s daring in publishing his Brag and Ten Reasons made him the target of one of the most systematic, fanatical manhunts in English history.

One month after the publication of the Ten Reasons, Edmund Campion was betrayed by one of Queen Elizabeth’s informers and imprisoned in the Tower of London.  After a period of solitary confinement, the queen summoned Campion and offered him freedom if he would deny Catholicism.  Campion refused.

During the next four months of imprisonment in the Tower of London, Campion was tortured at least three times.  He was granted four public hearings, but was not given any time or materials with which to prepare. Campion’s physical health was so broken by this point that at the trial of Nov. 20th, 1581, he was unable to lift his own right hand to plead not guilty.  A fellow prisoner kissed the hand and held it up for him. Despite this debilitating pain and mental fatigue, Campion debated the Faith against the Protestant judges and ministers extremely well.  His extensive study of apologetics, Bible texts, and Greek was apparent in his arguments. Without preparation or texts, Campion was solely reliant on his previous education to defend himself and the Church.

Edmund Campion was then charged with treason and executed on December 1st, 1581.  Huge crowds of Protestants flocked to the sickening spectacle as if it was a form of entertainment, but the heroic bravery and holy joy of the condemned priest touched the hearts of those present and ultimately caused countless conversions to Catholicism.  Among the gallant last words of St. Edmund Campion were the following: “I am a Catholic man and a priest; in that faith have I lived and in that faith I intend to die. If you esteem my religion treason, then am I guilty.”

Evelyn Waugh’s novel describes Campion’s unique path to sanctity.  While most widely known as a priest and a martyr, Campion was also an author, a teacher, and a scholar.  Despite his love for study, he was called to a very public vocation. His early success at Oxford provided him with a public platform and access to royalty, and his highly publicized trials became golden opportunities to explain and defend Catholicism.

George Weigel described Edmund Campion as “the beau ideal of a Renaissance humanist—learned, witty, chivalrous—who put those gifts at the service of the Catholic Church in England…” All the years of study spent at Oxford and Douai shaped Campion into the triumphant priest and martyr who would one day be called to defend the Faith eloquently and persuasively in the crucial moment.  

St. Edmund Campion stands out from all of the other martyrs of this era because of the fact that, above all else, he was a scholar.   In reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel Edmund Campion: A Life, I was truly edified and inspired by St. Edmund Campion’s example of how intellect, one of God’s many gifts, may be used to serve Him.  This is the true purpose of education.

St. Edmund Campion, pray for us!  

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