|St. Edmund Campion|
Campion, like so many of his contemporaries, was a man marching toward martyrdom. His mission--like so many of the priests who trained in Europe for the purpose of returning to England, was solely for the purpose of ministering to the faithful remnant of Catholics who hungered for the Sacraments. Their mission was not about making converts, but about tending to a flock besieged by wolves. Traveling in disguise throughout the English countryside, they lived a life of constant risk. All it would take was one spy to bring them to an horrific end. But, Campion risked it all.
The persecution of Catholics wasn't initially so bloody. Catholics were still considered good neighbors and--even if many of their Catholic practices were outlawed--the punishments were often warnings, fines, or short imprisonments. There were obviously also certain positions that could not be held by Catholics. But, things could be worse. In fact, things could be much worse. And so they became. Only a few decades earlier England had been a Catholic country. In a very short period of time, to confess your sins to a priest or to assist at Mass had become treasonous acts bringing with them horrific punishments. When Campion and his companions clandestinely crossed the English Channel and began their travels throughout the English countryside, hearing confessions, offering Mass, and offering spiritual counsel, they were well aware that they were now hunted men.
While there are many spiritual, temporal, and political realities that contributed to the rapid dissolution of the Catholic Church in England, one cannot overlook the collaboration of the clergy with the government. In their efforts at self-preservation, those who were ordained to be shepherds after the heart of the Good Shepherd instead acted as hired hands when the wolf appeared. Who knows, maybe they thought that it was the best course of action? Maybe it wasn't out of self-interest and self-preservation that they went along. Maybe they thought that in cooperating a little bit, they'd save something of what was essential. I don't know. But that's not what happened.
Last week, the people of Ireland voted in referendum to redefine marriage. In response, there has been a lot of hand wringing by Catholic commentators--clergy and lay alike--that this is a lesson to the Catholic Church that she needs to change the way she communicates. While I agree with that, I suspect that what they mean by that is different than what I mean by that. Some act as though every Sunday, priests all over Ireland and all over the world, are climbing into their pulpits and berating people about abortion, contraception, homosexuality, fornication, and adultery. With all due respect, where exactly is that happening? Maybe my sense of Ireland is mistaken. (I truly mean that perhaps I am wrong). But, I suspect that while there may have been such activities in the past, the vast majority of priests and bishops have not spent an inordinate amount of pulpit time, taking about any of these things. There's a good chance that many of them have never uttered a single word from the pulpit about any of them.
But, what if priests and bishops in Ireland and throughout the world had spent the past several decades discussing St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body? What if they had spoken from the pulpits on occasion about the full truth about marriage? What if they had spoken about the beauty of the Church's teachings on the permanence of marriage, the beautiful, anthropological and theological reasons why marriage is between a man and a woman? What if they had spoken about why openness to life was actually something helpful to marriage and not a punishment? What if bishops and priests had spoken about the struggles that every human being experiences in living the virtue of chastity, how to combat temptation, and all of the magnificent gifts that the Lord gives to us--including, most especially, the sacraments--to aid us in our struggles? What if priests and bishops occasionally explained why every human life is sacred?
To yield to the caricature that priests and bishops are daily lambasting the faithful with ominous threats of eternal damnation is not only absurd, it is also playing into the hands of the enemies of the Church. When we admit to such things as though they are factually common and true, we become members of the enemy's propaganda machine. Are there priests and bishops who daily preach about going to Hell? Probably. But, come on. They are undoubtedly a very small minority. If anything, the clergy have utterly failed to preach positively about those things that might actually help people live a holy life. We live in a moment, for instance, when pornography is rampant, a constant source of temptation, and responsible for the destruction of countless marriages. But, how often do we hear a bishop or a priest acknowledge that? Wouldn't the People of God be better served if--on an occasion--they heard this mentioned in a homily? Does it need to be an entire homily? Not necessarily. But, it could be something as simple as, "Today Jesus healed a leper. Lepers were ashamed of their disease and were forced to be set apart from the rest of the community. Undoubtedly, someone here at Mass today is struggling with pornography. Perhaps you feel all alone in this struggle, unclean, and beyond help. Jesus wants to heal you too." Instead, many bishops and priests are afraid to talk about these realities.
Edward Campion's mission to England was not to re-establish the Catholic Church's dominance. He was sent to provide the Sacraments to the remaining faithful. In her solicitude for the Faithful, the Church sent shepherds--as the Book of Revelation says--"to strengthen what remains and is about to die" (Rev. 3:2). In the end, it comes down to the Sacraments.
I'm not intelligent enough to predict where things go from here. But, I can imagine. Right now, in the United States, it appears as though the Church is desperately attempting to cling to some last remnants of influence and power. Wherever there is some agreement between the predominant culture and the Church's teachings, the Church seems to be like a little kid running behind the big kids saying, "I'm a big kid too! I'm a big kid too!" It seems rather desperate. As long as the Church keeps its place, those in power are fine with pretending that the Church actually matters. So, even as the Church is compelled, little by little, to violate its conscience, we still dress up and play the court jesters to those who seek to destroy her. This means that ecclesiastics still might get invited to a cocktail party, get the local politician's backing for a building permit for the new parish center, or get to say the opening prayer at the mayoral inauguration. Catholic laity will still be able to attain political appointments. Of course, it is fine and good for the Church to participate in civic events and to work well with the political establishment. The Church and its members should always cultivate a strong relationship with civil officials and work with them in building a just society. But, the price of admission should not be our silence or the appearance of cooperation with evil.
Eventually, those who hate the Church and its Gospel, will expect more concessions. Some will be willing to play the court jesters forever. They'll be willing to concede more and more until the Church is indistinguishable from the predominant culture. But, there will be some who will quietly seek to live their Catholic Faith. They won't really make much of a scene. They won't be the ones writing letters to the editor or railing against the government. They will know that the time for that has long passed.
No, they will desire simply to have a priest come to their home and offer the Mass for them. They will seek opportunities to kneel and beg for absolution. They will call for a priest to come to their deathbed and give to them the Last Rites. They will be people who love the Sacraments. They'll be the people who lost jobs and friends because they refused to go along with the crowd. They will be the people who worshipped God every Sunday.
Who will be sent to care for these sheep? Who will cross the channel of radical secularism, moral relativism, and visceral hatred for the Church and Her Gospel in order to bring the Sacraments to these faithful? Firstly, let us hope that there will be faithful who still long for the Sacraments. And then, let us pray that the Lord will raise up holy priests filled with Faith and Fortitude; priests like St. Edmund Campion whose trial ended with the following decree:
"You must go to the place from whence you came, there to remain until ye shall be drawn through the open city of London upon hurdles to the place of execution, and there be hanged and let down alive, and your privy parts cut off, and your entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your heads to be cut off and your bodies divided into four parts, to be disposed of at Her Majesty’s pleasure. And God have mercy on your souls."
Upon being sentenced to this horrific death, Edmund Campion and his companions sang a hymn of praise to Almighty God for being deemed worthy to suffer martyrdom for God's Glory. Will the persecutions that we see be like the bloody persecutions of 16th Century England or 21st Century Syria and Iraq? Probably not. But, it is clearly becoming more counter-cultural to practice and live the Catholic Faith. For some, the answer is to conform the Catholic Faith to the whims of those in power. But, this approach is doomed to fail.
At this moment in time, the Church in the West ought to redouble its efforts to emphasize the Sacraments. That's what will save us. A good question for our Catholic people to ask is whether they love the Sacraments so much that they'd be willing to die for receiving them. And, a good question for us priests to ask ourselves is: "Am I willing to be drawn through the streets, hanged, taken down while still alive, having my privy parts cut off, and my entrails cut out from me and burned in my sight, my head cut off and my body divided into four in order to care for the sheep?" I doubt that any of us could answer that question with complete and absolute confidence. But, we should cultivate in ourselves that kind of love and devotion to the Sacraments. The point is not to say that those things are on the immediate horizon, but it is to say that we should all love the Sacraments with that kind of devotion because that kind of devotion is what saves what is dying. I need to read biographies like that of St. Edmund Campion. I need to learn daily how to love the Sacraments and the Flock with that kind of total love. Whether the complete cultural collapse is now inevitable, I do not know. But, it's probably a good time for us all to learn from the lives of the martyrs and to love anew the Sacraments.