The Venerable English College in Rome (the Venerabile) concluded its year of celebrations for the 650th anniversary of its foundation with an Audience with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on 3rd December 2012. Two days previously, on 1st December, the College received the visit of Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. The Duke of Gloucester is 21st in line to the British throne. The Duke and Duchess came to represent Queen Elizabeth II at the College Feastday, Martyrs’ Day as it is known, when the Venerabile remembers the forty-four students of the College who laid down their lives for the Catholic Faith between 1581-1678.
It was in 1362 that there was founded an English & Welsh Hospice on the site occupied by today’s Venerabile. Its foundation 650 years ago makes this the oldest English institution outside of England. There was a Hospice on this site from 1362-1579. In 1579, the house became a seminary for training Catholic priests; and so it has remained up to the present time.
The Duke of Gloucester delivered the following message from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II:
“In 1362, English residents in Rome established a ‘Hospice of the English’ to care for English pilgrims. The Royal Arms of King Henry IV still adorn your walls to mark the 50th anniversary of that foundation and the close relationship with the Crown. The English Hospice was the origin of what has now become the Venerable English College, following its re-foundation by Pope Gregory XIII in 1579.
The presence of the Duke of Gloucester at your Martyrs’ Day Feast in this 650th anniversary year is a sign of the strength of the relationship between the United Kingdon and the Holy See. It is also recognition of the high esteem in which the Venerable English College is held as a training ground for pastors, priests and future leaders of the Catholic Church of England and Wales. You have always served as a generous and hospitable home away from home for generations of visitors to Rome, even in the most difficult times.
My good wishes go to you all, alumni, staff and students of the Venerabile, past, present and future, for your continuing prosperity.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop Emeritus of Westminster (and himself Rector of the Venerabile from 1971-77) and his successor as Archbishop of Westminster, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, led the group of bishops and staff and students of the Venerabile to meet Pope Benedict on 3rd December in the Sala Clementina of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. Present also with them were the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Archbishop Arthur Roche, Emeritus Bishop of Leeds; and Archbishops Peter Smith of Southwark and Bernard Longley of Birmingham. All four Archbishops are themselves former students of the Venerabile. Bishops Michael Campbell of Lancaster and Terence Drainey of Middlesbrough were also in attendance.
On entering the Sala Clementina, Pope Benedict paused to venerate the precious relic brought from the College for the occasion. This was the relic of their Protomartyr (first martyr) Saint Ralph Sherwin. Sherwin was martyred on 1st December 1581 at Tyburn in London – just yards from the site of today’s Marble Arch. In his address to the Holy Father, Archbishop Nichols said:
“It is such a joy and great honour for us to be with you this morning as we recall the 650th anniversary of the founding of the English Hospice of Thomas a Becket, on the site where now stands the Venerable English College.
For over two hundred years, the English Hospice welcomed pilgrims and served as a place of refuge for the poor. It became a centre for the earliest diplomatic activity between the English Court and the Holy See, even being known as ‘the King’s Hospice’. Indeed the Hospice symbolises the depth and richness of the relationship between the Holy See and our countries. This relationship continues to flourish today, especially in the light of the Visit of Your Holiness to the United Kingdom in 2010, the first official State Visit of the Pontiff ever to take place there. We continue to be grateful for the blessings of that unforgettable occasion.
It was in 1579 that the Hospice became a seminary, at a time of danger and persecution for the Church in our lands. Our seminarians today are part of that rich and noble tradition which gave courageous witness to a deep love of the Mass and loyalty to the Successor of St Peter. Indeed in these days we are celebrating the forty-four martyr-saints of the College. It is with the utmost joy, reverence and love, therefore, that we have today brought to Your Holiness the precious relic of the Proto-Martyr of the College, St. Ralph Sherwin.
We are greatly inspired by our martyrs to bear witness to our faith in the challenging circumstances of our own time, knowing that humanity’s constant search for truth can only be satisfied in Christ. We earnestly pray that the courage and eloquence of our martyrs be God’s gift to us also.
Holy Father, today we assure you of our love and devotion. We offer you our steadfast prayers that the Lord will strengthen and support you. Like the martyrs of our college who sought the blessing of Pope Gregory XIII and his successors, we too come to you today with humility and simplicity, seeking your Apostolic blessing.”
Pope Benedict replied, saying:
“It gives me great pleasure to welcome you today to the Apostolic Palace, the House of Peter. I greet my Venerable brother, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, a former Rector of the College, and I thank Archbishop Vincent Nichols for his kind words, spoken on behalf of all present. I too look back with great thanksgiving in my heart to the days that I spent in your country in September 2010. Indeed, I was pleased to see some of you at Oscott College on that occasion, and I pray that the Lord will continue to call forth many saintly vocations to the priesthood and the religious life from your homeland.
Through God’s grace, the Catholic community of England and Wales is blessed with a long tradition of zeal for the faith and loyalty to the Apostolic See. At much the same time as your Saxon forebears were building the Schola Saxonum, establishing a presence in Rome close to the tomb of Peter, Saint Boniface was at work evangelizing the peoples of Germany. So as a former priest and Archbishop of the See of Munich and Freising, which owes its foundation to that great English missionary, I am conscious that my spiritual ancestry is linked with yours. Earlier still, of course, my predecessor Pope Gregory the Great was moved to send Augustine of Canterbury to your shores, to plant the seeds of Christian faith on Anglo-Saxon soil. The fruits of that missionary endeavour are only too evident in the six-hundred-and-fifty-year history of faith and martyrdom that distinguishes the English Hospice of Saint Thomas à Becket and the Venerable English College that grew out of it.
Potius hodie quam cras, as Saint Ralph Sherwin said when asked to take the missionary oath, “rather today than tomorrow”. These words aptly convey his burning desire to keep the flame of faith alive in England, at whatever personal cost. Those who have truly encountered Christ are unable to keep silent about him. As Saint Peter himself said to the elders and scribes of Jerusalem, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Saint Boniface, Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Saint Francis Xavier, whose feast we keep today, and so many other missionary saints show us how a deep love for the Lord calls forth a deep desire to bring others to know him. You too, as you follow in the footsteps of the College Martyrs, are the men God has chosen to spread the message of the Gospel today, in England and Wales, in Canada, in Scandinavia. Your forebears faced a real possibility of martyrdom, and it is right and just that you venerate the glorious memory of those forty-four alumni of your College who shed their blood for Christ. You are called to imitate their love for the Lord and their zeal to make him known, potius hodie quam cras. The consequences, the fruits, you may confidently entrust into God’s hands.
Your first task, then, is to come to know Christ yourselves, and the time you spend in seminary provides you with a privileged opportunity to do so. Learn to pray daily, especially in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, listening attentively to the word of God and allowing heart to speak to heart, as Blessed John Henry Newman would say. Remember the two disciples from the first chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, who followed Jesus and asked to know where he was staying, and, like them, respond eagerly to his invitation to “come and see” (1:37-39). Allow the fascination of his person to capture your imagination and warm your heart. He has chosen you to be his friends, not his servants, and he invites you to share in his priestly work of bringing about the salvation of the world. Place yourselves completely at his disposal and allow him to form you for whatever task it may be that he has in mind for you.
You have heard much talk about the new evangelization, the proclamation of Christ in those parts of the world where the Gospel has already been preached, but where to a greater or lesser degree the embers of faith have grown cold and now need to be fanned once more into a flame. Your College motto speaks of Christ’s desire to bring fire to the earth, and your mission is to serve as his instruments in the work of rekindling the faith in your respective homelands. Fire in sacred Scripture frequently serves to indicate the divine presence, whether it be the burning bush from which God revealed his name to Moses, the pillar of fire that guided the people of Israel on their journey from slavery to freedom, or the tongues of fire that descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost, enabling them to go forth in the power of the Spirit to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Just as a small fire can set a whole forest ablaze (cf. Jas 3:5), so the faithful testimony of a few can release the purifying and transforming power of God’s love so that it spreads like wildfire throughout a community or a nation. Like the martyrs of England and Wales, then, let your hearts burn with love for Christ, for the Church and for the Mass.
When I visited the United Kingdom, I saw for myself that there is a great spiritual hunger among the people. Bring them the true nourishment that comes from knowing, loving and serving Christ. Speak the truth of the Gospel to them with love. Offer them the living water of the Christian faith and point them towards the bread of life, so that their hunger and thirst may be satisfied. Above all, however, let the light of Christ shine through you by living lives of holiness, following in the footsteps of the many great saints of England and Wales, the holy men and women who bore witness to God’s love, even at the cost of their lives. The College to which you belong, the neighbourhood in which you live and study, the tradition of faith and Christian witness that has formed you: all these are hallowed by the presence of many saints. Make it your aspiration to be counted among their number.
Please be assured of an affectionate remembrance in my prayers for yourselves and for all the alumni of the Venerable English College. I make my own the greeting so often heard on the lips of a great friend and neighbour of the College, Saint Philip Neri, Salvete, flores martyrum! Commending you, and all to whom the Lord sends you, to the loving intercession of Our Lady of Walsingham, I gladly impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of peace and joy in the Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you.”
Following the imparting of the Apostolic Blessing, the Holy Father greeted each of the Bishops present. The Rector of the Venerabile, Monsignor Nicholas Hudson, was presented to him next. Mgr Hudson presented the Holy Father with a book of illustrations from the College church, highlighting a fresco of Pope Gregory XIII receiving in audience in 1579 the first students of the Venerabile. The Rector explained to the Pope that the Venerabile has today 43 seminarians for 20 dioceses. He told the Holy Father the seminarians have a deep devotion to the Successor of St Peter; and give great hope for the future of the Church. Mgr Hudson then presented to the Pope the College’s five formation staff, each of them priests of English and Welsh dioceses; 3 Deacons, including the College’s one Welsh student; and 3 other seminarians.
The morning ended with a festive lunch back at the Venerabile, in which Archbishop Nichols reminded the students the responsibility was theirs to live up to the example of the Martyrs whose bravery they had been celebrating these last several days. The meal closed with a toast to Pope Benedict.
© Fr Anthony Milner