By Ann Schneible
ROME, JAN. 30, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The Venerable English College, located in the heart of the Eternal City, has been of invaluable service to the faithful of England: welcoming her pilgrims, forming her priests, and — during the age of persecution — giving her martyrs.
Friday through Sunday, the Venerable English College celebrated its 650th anniversary of service to Catholic faithful of England and Wales. The oldest English institution outside of England, it was originally established as a hospice for pilgrims on Jan. 27, 1362. When it became illegal to train as a priest in England, the hospice was converted into a seminary, preparing men to serve the faithful as priests in their home country.
The celebrations began Friday with Mass presided over by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who served as rector of the College from 1971-1977. At the conclusion of the Mass, the cardinal intoned the Te Deum, the traditional hymn which, during the persecution of the Church in England, the students of the College would gather and sing upon receiving the news that one of their classmates had been martyred.
On Saturday morning, Holy Mass was celebrated at the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva by Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, followed that evening with a lecture on the history of the College. The Mass on Sunday morning, which was celebrated by Archbishop Nichols of Westminster and concelebrated by 70 priests and bishops, was attended by more than 200 guests.
During the Holy Year of 1350, a group of Englishmen living in Rome were inspired by the great number of pilgrims traveling to Rome. They formed themselves into the “Confraternity of St. Thomas of Canterbury,” signing the deed for what would become the Venerable English College on Jan. 27, 1362. There was already an English couple living there, John and Alice Shepherd, who sold rosary beads to pilgrims visiting the medieval St. Peter’s. As a hospice it attracted large numbers of pilgrims including, in its early years, the mystic Margery Kempe, the priest-hunter Thomas Cromwell, the future martyr St. Henry Walpole, and later the poet John Milton. In Henry VII’s reign, it was known as the “King’s Hospice”; Henry VIII described it as “Our Hospice.”
The “Age of Martyrs”
The Venerable English College entered into the most dramatic phase of its history when, in 1579, it became a seminary due to the law in England that prohibited the training of priests. Here, young men were prepared for the “Mission” to their home countries of England and Wales, that they might support the faith as priests for the persecuted Catholics. Between 1581 and 1678, 44 of its alumni were martyred in their homeland, the first of them being St. Ralph Sherwin. Upon hearing that one of their brother priests had been martyred, the students would gather before the “Martyrs’ Picture” — a painting of the Holy Trinity, commissioned shortly after the seminary was founded — and chant the Te Deum. Among those martyred, 10 have been declared saints, 26 have been recognized as blessed, and four as Venerable.
Many of the pilgrims who pass through the College today are deeply moved by this profound history. “Ever since the first students arrived, they were keen to keep the faith alive in England and Wales, and in the home nations,” says Marc Homsey, a seminarian in his sixth year. “The courage that they would have had just by the knowledge that it was an extremely dangerous thing to do — to return to England as a Catholic, hopefully not getting caught, so as to be able to minister to the people in England. But then, to know that they willingly gave their lives as part of this, to sacrifice themselves to keep the faith alive in England, is an amazing fact, and the people that visit the College are very grateful for the witness that these students gave.”
The mission of the Venerable English College, which is to serve the Church of England from the heart of the Church in Rome, continues even today. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be part of this great tradition,” Homsey continued, “the continuous tradition ever since 1579 of having students trained here for the priesthood. And even though we won’t go back to potential martyrdom in England nowadays, there is still perceived persecution from society. We still have a very evangelical mission to carry out back in our homeland, and so there is a lot to look forward to in terms of keeping this tradition alive.”
Some of the notable guests who were present during the celebrations were the retired archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, along with Cardinals Levada and Tauran. Others present were the archbishop of Cardiff and the bishops of Lancaster, Leeds, Middlesbrough and Plymouth; the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Archbishop Augustine Di Noia; the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sarondo; and the apostolic nuncio to Guatemala, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, one of the former rector’s of the College, was joined by five priests to have succeeded him in that position: Monsignors George Hay, Jack Kennedy, Adrian Toffolo, Patrick Kilgarriff and the current Rector, Nicholas Hudson. Rectors from all the other seminaries for England and Wales were also present. A large group of alumni, known affectionately as the “Old Romans,” were also present, along with a similarly large number of the College’s support association, “The Friends of the Venerable.”