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To Conform or Not to Conform: That Is the Question

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 14, 2012

In Fr. Saward’s anthology of The Spiritual Tradition of Catholic England, I’ve just come across Blessed Thomas Alfield, a priest in Elizabethan England who hid himself in the crowd to witness the martyrdom of Saint Edmund Campion in late 1581. Alfield, who was 29 at the time, published “A True Report of the Death and Martyrdom of M. Campion Jesuit”, along with some poems commemorating the heroism of the saint.

But what strikes me most about Alfield’s life is the difficulty he had—along with most English Catholics of that period—in figuring out exactly how far he could go in accommodating himself to Elizabeth’s political regime without being untrue to his Catholic faith. Thus Alfield, a son of a Provost of Eton, began his career as a Fellow of King’s College Cambridge, which necessitated adherence to the Church of England. Realizing that this was spiritually untenable, he was reconciled to the Catholic Church at Douai in 1576, where he studied for the priesthood and was ordained five years later. His superiors sent him immediately on the mission to England, just in time to witness Campion’s death.

Alfield published his report of Campion’s martyrdom to counter Protestant tracts denying the martyr’s spiritual heroism. Unfortunately, he himself was soon arrested and even tortured for his efforts. He managed to secure his release by appearing to agree to conform once again to the Church of England, but what he really did was continue to work in the English mission, smuggling in and disseminating the works of Catholic leaders published in other countries.The authorities once again caught and arrested him, and he chose not to promise his conformity a third time. As a result, he was hanged on July 6, 1585.

Alfield’s journey was uncertain, confusing, and difficult, but also one from which we can draw encouragement, as our own choices are increasingly constricted. Alfield struggled under conditions which made not only mission but life itself nearly impossible without sin. He was beatified in 1929.

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