Recently I came across a book in a Catholic book store that I had heard good things about previously. It was with pleasure that I picked up Edmund Campion – A Life by Evelyn Waugh printed by Ignatius Press. It is always good to read about the saints, but the writing of those who write on the saints is not always good. It is no surprise that one of the great writers of the last century such as Evelyn Waugh would turn out a great book.
Edmund Campion is a biography of the Jesuit Saint Edmund Campion who was martyred in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation and the increasingly severe penal laws in England. This book was written in 1935 only five years after Waugh’s conversion into the Catholic Church. It is a straightforward biography based on the best historical research available at the time. The author does not inject himself in the book in that he tries hard to stick to the historical narrative of what can actually be known and any dialogue in the book is straight from the historical record. This is in no way some syrupy hagiography that diverges from facts with flowery stories or that tries to inflate the actions of Edmund Campion. Though considering the subject this is not much needed when you look at his amazing life.
The book running at a little more than 200 pages is divided into four very appropriate chapters: The Scholar, The Priest, The Hero, The Martyr. I wonder if you have to give a spoiler alert when you are talking a martyr. Evelyn Waugh provides the necessary historical background of the state of the Church and of the politics involved and you fast become involved in the biography as if you were reading a novel. Every time you read about the recusants and those in Church history who were persecuted for the faith it always gives you a greater appreciation of what most Catholics in the modern world take for granted. When we go to Mass we aren’t worried that somebody is going to turn us in or that we don’t need guards to warn is people are coming so that the priest can hide in the priest-hole.
The first two chapters deal with his academic life and his early career as he initially leaves England because of the growing persecution of Catholics and his decision to become a priest and then a Jesuit. The biographic then moves to his returning to England. Like many saints he was not specifically making decisions that would lead him on the road to martyrdom. In fact circumstances could have left him teaching in Vienna and Prague since the Jesuits at the time had no chapters in England. But also like many saints when it became apparent that he would indeed be traveling down that road it was done with joy.
As Waugh chronicles Campion’s year of attending to the Catholics in England you again get caught up in the drama as he and other priests continue to minister to the flock for the good of souls. It is a measure of Campion’s genius that his "Brag" that he wrote in a half-hour’s time to defend himself from charges of treason was printed and reprinted across England. Or that his famous Ten Reasons would provide much annoyance to the authorities at the time. So annoying that once he was captured and tortured they brought him to a series of debates to try to counter it. Waugh does not dwell much into St. Campion’s grisly martyrdom that will be familiar to those that saw Braveheart, but it is quite interesting the stories he describes by those who were converted by Campion in his last days.
Highly recommended and one of those rare biographies that is indeed a page-turner.