By Ann Schneible
VATICAN CITY, DECEMBER 3, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Pope Benedict XVI today welcomed student and staff from the Venerable English College in audience in honor of its 650th year.
The audience also coincides with Martyrs' Day which the seminary celebrated over the weekend, a day which remembers the 44 students who died as martyrs when they returned to England.
Founded as a hospice for English and Welsh pilgrims to Rome 650 years ago, the Venerable English College (VEC) was converted into a seminary in the 16th century when it became illegal to train for the priesthood in England.
A relic of the VEC's proto-martyr – Saint Ralph – was brought to the audience for the Holy Father to venerate.
The Rector of the VEC, Monsignor Nicholas Hudson, presented the Holy Father 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 seminary.
There are currently 43 seminarians training at the VEC hailing from England, Wales, Canada, Scandanavia, and the United States, with 7 priests doing post-graduate studies, and five members of staff.
Among those present at the audience were Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, a former Rector of the College, and Archbishop Vincent Nichols.
Addressing the Holy Father, Archbishop Nichols told the Holy Father that "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."
Following Archbishop Nichols' greeting, Pope Benedict addressed those present. "Through God’s grace," he said, "the Catholic community of England and Wales is blessed with a long tradition of zeal for the faith and loyalty to the Apostolic See."
He noted that his "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 endeavor 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."
Recalling the words of Saint Ralph Sherwin – 'rather today than tomorrow' – the Pope noted that 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."
"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."
"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… Like the martyrs of England and Wales, then, let your hearts burn with love for Christ, for the Church and for the Mass."
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