By Ann Schneible
ROME, DEC. 3, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The Venerable English College celebrated Martyrs’ Day over the weekend in conjunction with its 650th anniversary, welcoming Archbishop Nichols of Westminster, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester (as representatives of Queen Elizabeth II), and other notable guests.
Each year on December 1, the Venerable English College (VEC) remembers its proto-martyr Saint Ralph Sherwin who, in 1581, was martyred upon his return to England.
Established 650 years ago as 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.
The Martyrs Day celebrations began Saturday morning with Mass in the Martyrs’ Chapel, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster serving as principle 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 noted that this year’s Martyrs’ Day celebrations coincide with the beginning of Advent. The word “advent” has two meanings, he said. First, it refers to mankind’s journey towards an encounter with the Christ-child; secondly, it refers to the Lord’s coming.
“In many ways the martyrs of this college make real this double advent,” he said. “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, whether that coming is in the Word of the Gospel they proclaimed in their faith in the Church, or in the Sacrifice of the Mass for which they were willing to risk their freedom and life, or in the role of the Petrine ministry in the Church which 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.”
Saturday’s celebrations, he continued, occurring just before the beginning of Advent, “reminds us of an essential quality in that work of evangelization: all we seek to do and say must have within it a strong witness to the reality of heaven, to the hope which ultimately drives us forward: that we long to be with the Lord, to know the fullness of his love and the glory of his face wherein our true satisfaction lies. This vision kept our martyrs true to their Lord at those most testing moments.”
“In our time it is our task and privileged to proclaim this same truth to the hungry souls of so many people and invite them to share with us the peace and joy of such a blessed hope which becomes our joy and guide in every trial.”
Attending the Mass as representatives of Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester brought with them a message from the Queen: “The presence of the Duke of Gloucester at your Martyrs’ Day Feast in this 650th anniversary year,” she writes, “is a sign of the strength of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Holy See,” her majesty writes. “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.”
The Martyrs’ Day celebrations concluded Saturday evening in the seminary’s main chapel. Those present heard the autobiographical account of John Gerard, who recounts the torture he endured during the Reformation. This was followed by the veneration of Saint Ralph Sherwin’s relics, and the chanting of the Te Deum in front of “Martyrs’ Picture” which hangs behind the altar.
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For the full text of Archbishop Nichol’s Homily, go to: http://www.zenit.org/article-36084?l=english