Martyrs’ Day in Rome

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The Venerable English College (VEC) celebrated Martyrs’ Day on 1 December – the day each year when it remembers its proto-martyr Saint Ralph Sherwin who, in 1581, was martyred upon his return to England.

Martyrs’ Day fell on the weekend the VEC, the bishops’ seminary in Rome, concluded its year-long celebrations marking its 650th anniversary.

Celebrations began with Mass in the Martyrs’ Chapel – Archbishop Vincent Nichols, President of the Bishops’ Conference, serving as principal celebrant.

Concelebrants included archbishop emeritus of Westminster and the VEC’s former rector, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor; Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship Archbishop Arthur Roche; Vice-President of Ecclesia Dei Archbishop Augustine Di Noia; Archbishop Piero Marini, President of the Pontifical Commission for International Eucharistic Congresses; and Bishops Michael Campbell of Lancaster and Terence Drainey of Middlesbrough.

In his homily, Archbishop Nichols looks at Advent – the coming of the Lord – and how the martyrs help us focus on Christ at this time:

“In many ways the martyrs of this college make real this double advent. As with all martyrs they have the keenest sense of their ultimate destiny. It is as if heaven is almost within their grasp. They sense its joy even as they face dreadful suffering and death. They know their journey is almost complete and they rejoice!

“And in their lives and witness they wish nothing more than to point to the Lord who is coming. They are heralds of the Adventus Domini. They witness to that coming in the Word of the Gospel they proclaimed, in their faith in the Church, in the Sacrifice of the Mass for which they were willing to risk their freedom and life, and in the role of the Petrine ministry in the Church. This ministry they knew to be a precious and necessary gift of the Lord, given so that the Church would maintain her faithfulness to the Lord and not to the temporal powers of any age or state or parliament.”

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Homily: Archbishop Nichols – Martyrs Day


Formerly a hospice for welcoming English and Welsh pilgrims to Rome, the VEC was converted into a seminary in 1579 to train Catholic priests during the Reformation, at a time when training for the priesthood was illegal in England. In the hundred years following its establishment as a seminary, at least 44 of its students were martyred when they returned to England.

Whenever news came that one of its former students had been martyred, priests and seminarians of the VEC would gather around the ‘Martyrs’ Picture’ – a 16th century painting by Durante Alberti which depicts the Blessed Trinity – and sing the Te Deum.

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