Everard Mercurian was worried. He was about to deploy his first agents into the belly of the proverbial beast and he wanted to make sure that they managed to stay alive for as long as was humanly possible. He gave them strict instructions to avoid politics and Protestants in general and to keep a low profile. But Edmund Campion and Robert Persons, who would have the dubious honor of being the first Jesuit missionaries to set foot in England, both loved a good argument. They read Mercurians letter and then proceeded to make their way from Rome to England, merrily picking fights along the way. The most significant fight they tried to pick was in the heart of Calvin territory. They tried to provoke Theodore Beza to have a public debate with them in Geneva. Alas, Mrs. Beza intervened and sent them packing and so they were deprived of that special pleasure. But they didn’t have to worry, the best of their swashbuckling missionary days were ahead.
They decided to split up for safety’s sake and make their way over the border into England. Persons made the trip across from Calais first in the dead of night. It was illegal for Jesuits or any Catholic priest for that matter, to enter England and border security was tight. Persons presented himself at the border as a mercenary captain and swaggered his way through so convincingly that Campion was left slack-jawed at the performance. Campion, however, lacked the skills of his missionary counterpart. He presented himself at Dover as a jewel merchant but didn’t quite manage to convince the guards who monitored the border crossing like haughty patrician falcons. He was detained and questioned at length. When he was finally released a few hours later he hightailed it to London for his rendezvous with Persons.
Why were Campion and Persons sent to England in the first place? Campion himself explained the reasons behind their mission in his famous brag which was leaked to the public shortly after his arrival. The most poignant and perhaps chilling part of the dispatch reads as follows:
“And touching our society, be it known unto you, that we have made a league – all the Jesuits in the world…cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us and never to despair your recovery while we have a man left to (be) racked with your torments or to be consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun. It is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted, so it must be restored.”
As it turned out Campion had a way with words and this was his word to the Queen, her government and every Protestant in England. We’re coming for you and we will walk through the fire to get there, so help us, God.
What makes this brag slightly hair-raising is the mechanics of the enterprise they had begun. Let me give you a simple snapshot of what exactly this meant. To the average English Catholic, the Pope was the middleman between himself and God. Thus instead of communicating directly with God, he had to go through the Pope. This meant that the Pope acted as a conscience to every Catholic and denying the voice of the Pope was unconscionable. It was basically a fast ticket to hell. This association made it nearly impossible for many sincere Catholics to disentangle themselves from the Pope’s stranglehold.
The mission of the Jesuits, who were incredibly intelligent and incredibly well educated, was to convince people of the validity of the Pope’s right to control their conscience. Protestants were to be proselytized to and Catholics confirmed in this belief. Come rack or rail they were to hold the authority of the Pope sovereign above all else or face an eternity of torment. There were no other options and between the two, really only one obvious choice. The Jesuit mission was a psychological tool used to secure the allegiance of the people. This was considered to be the vanguard of the counter-reformation launched under Pope Paul III at the Council of Trent. The second phase of the counter-reformation consisted of military operations under the leadership of men like Philip II of Spain.
It was a brilliant strategy really. Once the minds of the people had been won over to complete allegiance to the Pope any military offensive endorsed by him would find them ready and willing to welcome the invading army with open arms and do their bidding. It was a terrifying prospect for Elizabeth I and her government.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Campion’s brag is this; he believed that the cause of reconciling people to absolute submission to the Pope was of God and strangely enough he was willing to die for it. It was a fascinating mindset.
The zeitgeist of the 16th century was the Reformation and among other things, it has taught us this; freedom of conscience is incredibly important. The freedom to have unhindered, undiluted communion with God without any human intervention is our right and our privilege. May we cherish it and defend it fervently.