‘He must be rejoicing from Heaven at what has been achieved.” Lord Alton was reflecting 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 British Parliament, was pointing to the fact that while Campion was killed for ministering as a Catholic priest, today 10 percent of the British population is Catholic, with over 850,000 children educated in Catholic schools. Alton’s is a message of hope and duty.
While he doesn’t pretend that all of these schools are making saints like Campion, they do preserve and pass on a tradition that exists to commit everything “to the greater glory of God,” to form women and men to do all that they can do and to live for others.
David Alton has been in the U.S. telling the stories of English martyrs through the history of Stonyhurst College; 18 of them were graduates of the boys’ school and were martyred after Catholicism was banned in England and Wales in 1571. Alton is visiting here, in part, to introduce Americans to Stonyhurst’s Christian Heritage Centre and the history preserved there. His first stop was St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where Cardinal Donald Wuerl kissed a cross that had just traveled from Stonyhurst through Heathrow. It belonged to St. Thomas More and is believed to have been in his possession in the Tower of London as he awaited his execution for putting his service to God before his service to the king. It’s a permanent part of Stonyhurst’s Christian Heritage archives.
With that cross on display at a breakfast with the librarian of Congress in the U.S. Capitol building on the second morning of government shutdown, the political impasse provided the opportunity for a little bit of a retreat for some members of Congress. Both a historic artifact and a religious relic of reverence, the cross was a reminder that religious faith and civic duty mean something. We all have stewardship obligations and choices to make.
Alton is fond of the Churchill pronouncement “All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.”
But he also quotes C. S. Lewis to me — “They make men without chests” — acknowledging the reality of our cultural state. And this is why he is here in the U.S., to remind us of our common roots and responsibilities.
Campion would certainly not be rejoicing at the state of our culture, or at our relative silence in the face of religious persecution around the world today. Or at the laziness, indifference, and political manipulation with which many Americans have been treating religious liberty even here at home.
Today, while threats to religious freedom are not at all academic matters to business owners, university presidents, and religious leaders who run schools and hospitals and other bulwarks of civil society here in the U.S., people in Pakistan, Egypt, and Nigeria are opening themselves to martyrdom just by going to Mass. “Remaining faithful to conscience and faith is not a theoretical issue if you live in one of the 16 countries listed by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom,” Alton points out. “In each of these countries people of different faiths — from Baha’is to Sufi Muslims — are being persecuted for their beliefs. Uniquely, the only group to be persecuted in each and every one of the 16 countries is Christians.”
How can we be silent? “Is it because we who have free speech and the privilege of living in a democratic society have forgotten who we are?” Alton asks.
He cites the prophet Isaiah: Never forget “the rock from which you are hewn.”
Knowing who we are can make all the difference. “Knowing who you are gives self-knowledge, security and confidence; the absence of this knowledge sows seeds of insecurity and instability,” Alton contends.
“If people don’t know where their faith comes from, if they don’t know the price people have paid, they are not going to hold that faith in very high esteem, very close to their hearts.”
We talk a little bit about Pope Francis and why so much of what he is saying and doing is so fundamental: “If we don’t re-evangelize . . . we’re not going to win the legislative battles. If we don’t change people’s hearts and minds, we’re not going to change the world around us. The heart of the human problem is the human heart. We have to soften hearts and challenge minds.”
Campion died praying for his executioners: “I recommend your case, and mine, to Almighty God, the Searcher of hearts, to the end that we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.”
All the world is a conversion opportunity — as a spiritual matter, as an intellectual and political matter. When we forget this, we shut down.
In the ups and downs of campaigns and headlines, we so often just don’t think things through. The challenges seem too great, the biases too hardened. But what does that lead to? Cheerleading for a so-called Arab Spring that created a situation where one could steal a bulldozer and demolish a church with it, all in plain sight of the military, as Coptic Bishop Anba Angaelos put it during a visit to Washington, D.C. The West has been sobered. Death and destruction have been known to do this.
His Grace was in Washington for a congressional hearing on minorities in Egypt — which wound up being cancelled on account of the government shutdown. Still, the trip to D.C. gave him an opportunity to become “fast friends” with human-rights champion Representative Chris Smith, among others. He plans to return for that hearing once the government is open for operations again. And the trip gave him an opportunity to say on behalf of what he estimates to be 10 to 15 million Christians in Egypt: “Out of pain and suffering comes identity.” He says that the Copts in Egypt “are not broken.” They are “resilient,” and in their challenges they ask only that a new Egyptian constitution respects everyone’s dignity and religious freedom. Here at home, we had better be good stewards of these gifts.