‘He must be rejoicing from heaven at what has been achieved,” Lord David Alton reflected on the life of Edmund Campion during a drive between the U.S. Capitol and Georgetown University. Campion was a Jesuit priest who was “hanged, drawn and quartered” for his religious faith in 1581. Alton, a longtime member of the House of Lords, was alluding to the fact that while Campion was killed for his Catholic faith, today 10 percent of the British population is Catholic, with over 850,000 children educated in Catholic schools.
Alton has been in the U.S. telling the stories of English martyrs and the history of the Jesuit Stonyhurst College, which many of them attended at a time when Catholicism was outlawed in England. His first stop was St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where the capital’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, kissed a cross that belonged to St. Thomas More, which Alton had brought with him from overseas. The gold cross was believed to have been with More as he awaited his execution in 1535 for refusing to compromise his Catholic faith.
With that cross on display at a breakfast with the Librarian of Congress on the second morning of government shutdown, the political impasse became a bit of a retreat for some politicians. Both a historic artifact and a religious relic of reverence, the cross was a reminder that religious faith and civic duty mean something.
The martyred Campion would not be rejoicing at our relative silence in the face of religious persecution today. Or at the laziness, indifference and political manipulation with which many Americans have been treating religious liberty, both abroad and at home.
While threats to religious freedom are very real to business owners, university presidents, and religious leaders who run schools and hospitals here in America, people are opening themselves to martyrdom by simply going to Mass in Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria and elsewhere. “Remaining faithful to conscience and faith” is literally a life-and-death issue in 16 countries listed as “of concern” by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Alton points out. “People of different faiths — from Baha’is to Sufi Muslims — are being persecuted for their beliefs ... the only group to be persecuted in each and every one of the 16 countries is Christians.”