Campion rediscovered

Published on 19 Jan 2020
Edmund Campion's Decem Rationes. Image courtesy of Jesuits in Britain

by Roger Dawson SJ

On 6th December 2019 Fr Damian Howard SJ, the Jesuit Provincial Superior, blessed and opened the new entrance to St Beuno’s.  This was the original entrance to the house until the late nineteenth century and it will be known to many as the Bellarmine Room, named after the seventeenth-century Jesuit cardinal and theologian St Robert Bellarmine.  This room was full of books and journals, some of them recent and some of them several hundred years old.  It was a major task to clear this room in order to hand it over to the builders and to decide what to keep – what was of use, of interest or of value.  For example, we have a late nineteenth-century collection of the Monumenta Ignatiana, the leather-bound volumes of Ignatius’ letters and documents produced in Latin for distribution round the Society of Jesus.

One small book that we discovered in the process of clearing the Bellarmine Room was a copy of Jesuit saint Edmund Campion’s Decem Rationes printed in 1631.  Campion, together with Robert Persons SJ, was part of the first Jesuit mission to England in 1580 to minister to beleaguered Catholics living in penal times under Elizabeth I.  It was incredibly dangerous work and he was arrested in less than a year, and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn (near present day Marble Arch) on 1st December 1581.  Before he was arrested, that same year he managed to have secretly printed his small book Decem Rationes, or ‘Ten Reasons’ in defence of the Catholic faith, and these were covertly left in the university church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, much to the irritation of the priest-hunters and the authorities.  Possession of a copy would have been a capital offence.  The St Beuno’s copy was a later imprint and was signed by Hugh Owen SJ, a Jesuit who was later caught up in the supposed Titus Oates ‘plot’ of 1678.

To our horror, in the move out of the Bellarmine Room in May last year we mislaid this copy of the Decem Rationes and, in spite of searches, appeals and prayers to St Anthony, we accepted that we had lost it.  St Edmund Campion SJ is the patron of the British Jesuits and his feast falls on 1st December, the anniversary of his martyrdom.  This year however the 1st December was a Sunday, so the feast was ‘transferred’ to 2nd December.  On this day I was taking the old and rare books out of storage, cleaning them and putting them on the shelves in the new Community Room when – lo, and behold – on his feast day our missing copy of the Decem Rationes appeared! 

This story fortunately has a happy ending, but for me one of the most impressive things about it was the attitude of my brother Jesuits to the apparent loss of the book.  I for one felt foolish and irresponsible, saying to myself many times, ‘Why didn’t I take it and put it somewhere safe??’, but there was no rebuke or acrimony from anyone.  There is a Buddhist saying, ‘Think of the glass as already broken’.  It is a reminder that all material things are impermanent, that one day a glass will break or get smashed, so don’t get too attached to it and be prepared to let it go.  Ignatius in the Exercises cultivates a spirit of ‘detachment’ from the less important things in the retreatant.  One day the Decem Rationes will fall apart, or get burned, or get lost (not on my watch though!) and therefore, important and valuable to us though it is, maybe we should think of it as already lost.