By Ann Schneible

ROME, JAN. 30, 2012 ( Over the weekend, the Venerable English College celebrated its 650th anniversary. The oldest English institution outside of England, it was originally established as a place of welcome for English and Welsh pilgrims to Rome. 

It became a seminary in 1579 when England declared it illegal to train as a priest. During this period of persecution, at least 44 of the College's students were martyred for their faith shortly after they had returned to England. Today, the College continues in its mission of serving the Church of England, both in the formation of its priests, and in welcoming pilgrims.

ZENIT spoke with Father Anthony Milner, academic tutor at the Venerable English College, about the history of the College in the context of this significant anniversary.

ZENIT: Could you speak about the theme of pilgrimage, in particular its importance for English Catholics?

Father Milner: The history goes back to precisely that question of pilgrimage, with the beginnings of the Holy Years in 1300 and 1350. There was at that stage already a confraternity in some form in Rome, a collection of businessmen. Many of them, in fact, were involved in serving pilgrims, especially in selling rosaries, as it says in the documentation, and things like that. But they struggled, and there are stories of pilgrims being maltreated, so the confraternity decided that they needed to have some place where English pilgrims could be served, and would be safe. And so they set-up of the hostel as a place where pilgrims would be received; those of limited means would get 8 days of bed and board, and those who were wealthy got three days. 

In those days, well before the Reformation, England was a Catholic country. Therefore, many people travelled to and from Rome making pilgrimage to Rome, especially once Rome was, as it were, reoccupied after being deserted for a little while prior to the 14th century 

There have been pilgrims from England ever since, though, as we know, during the time of the Reformation that reduced again. That's when we became a seminary, in the 16th century. But for 200 years this was a place principally of welcome for pilgrims. 

Indeed, although, we can't receive the number of pilgrims in terms of accommodating them (though we do have a few guest rooms), we still have many pilgrim groups come. I recall myself, when I was a student back in 1987, when we had the Beatification of a number of the English martyrs, many groups came through here, and were welcomed here, celebrated Mass here, and just found a place of contact, which is a little bit of England as it were. It just makes them feel at home, and feel that there's a friendly face that speaks their language. 

Certainly, the whole ethos of the place as welcoming pilgrims to Rome is something we regard as part of our heritage, and part of what we do. In terms of the formation of the students, part of being here as a student is welcoming other people here, [as a] sort of pastoral care in the broader sense. And the students enjoy doing that, and clearly people enjoy the welcome they receive. 

ZENIT: Could you speak about what role the College's heritage plays in the formation of its students?

Father Milner: During the first hundred years of this being a seminary, in 1579, the students going back [to England] from here were going at risk of their own lives. [At least] 44 of our students were executed in England, and are regarded as martyrs. In fact, 10 of them are canonized martyrs. Of the rest, there are now 26 beatified. So, 36 in total have been formally raised to the altars of the Church as martyrs, which is an enormous heritage, of course, and a history which still forms the way we form people. 

Fortunately [the seminarians] don't go back to that sort of thing these days, but [there is still] the idea of being a missionary going into what is sometimes a hostile environment. That sense of being able to go and preach the Gospel when people don't particularly want to hear it is not a bad thing. 

That positivity of Rome as a place of faith, and they're coming here, to the place of Peter and Paul, the place of many saints and martyrs, coming to the ad limina apostolorum, is something the students are strongly aware of. Of course, they communicate that faith to those who come here on pilgrimage. So when people come here, it's not just a tourist place; it's a place where the Catholic faith can be seen to be something very English. There are some in England who regard Catholicism as somehow a foreign faith, whereas of course until the Reformation, it was very much the faith of England. There is still something very English about the English College. And that is a very significant part of what we are as well. 

ZENIT: Can you speak about the significance of the Te Deum hymn for the Venerable English College?

Father Milner: We have a very important painting in the Church, which is known as the martyr's picture, which was painted by Durante Alberti, and that was painted in 1581, two years after the seminary was founded. Whenever the students heard of one of their number being executed in England, they would gather in the Church, before this painting and the Lord, and sing "Te Deum" in thanksgiving for the life of that student. Therefore, we continue that tradition. In these years we do so on the 1st of December, which is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Ralph Sherwin, the first of our martyrs in that same year of 1581. But also, as we start the year, we sing "Te Deum," and then we thought it was appropriate on this 650th anniversary of our English presence here to conclude the Mass, which is on the exact date of the anniversary. The Cardinal would have done so [also] when he was Rector here.