By Ann Schneible
ROME, DEC. 4, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The martyrs of the Venerable English College of Rome, said Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, “remain a splendid example to us of how holiness is within the grasp of every person through the grace of God, and that steadfast faith and loyalty to the Church are the building bricks of a holy way of life.”
Archbishop Nichols was the principal celebrant of Mass this weekend for the Venerable English College (VEC)’s Martyrs’ Day celebrations. This year’s event coincides with the 650th anniversary of the VEC.
The VEC celebrates Martyrs’ Day each year on December 1, marking the day in which Saint Ralph Sherwin became the first of 44 priests trained at the seminary to be martyred during the English Reformation.
Founded 650 years ago, the VEC was originally established as a hospice for English and Welsh pilgrims to Rome, making it the oldest institution outside of England. It was converted into a seminary in 1579 when the law in England forbade priests to be trained within its borders.
Archbishop Nichols took time to speak with ZENIT about this year’s Martyrs’ Day celebrations, the 650th anniversary, and what the faithful today can take from the VEC’s unique history.
ZENIT: This year’s Martyrs Day falls in the same year as the VEC’s 650th anniversary. What relevance does the unique and powerful 650 year history of the College have for Catholics today?
Archbishop Nichols: The 650th Anniversary that we have been celebrating this year is that of the Foundation of the English hospice. For over 200 years the hospice served as a place of refuge for the poor, a place of care for the sick and the bereaved, a place in which diplomacy between the Kings of England and the Holy See first developed, a place where scholars came from England so as to benefit from some of the “New Learning” which was prominent in Europe. This hospice therefore is symbolic of the great richness of relationship between England and Wales and the Holy See. It also reminds us of the great bonds of affection that are to be found among the people of England and Wales for the person of the Holy Father and for the Apostolic Ministry of the Holy See. Pilgrims continue to come to Rome from England and Wales in large numbers in an unbroken succession of journeys stretching back even before the 14th century.
ZENIT: Can you speak about the significance of the VEC’s 650th anniversary coinciding with the Synod on New Evangelization, the Year of Faith and the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II?
Archbishop Nichols: The significance of the anniversary of the hospice, for the Year of Faith in particular, is an emphasis on the importance of the See of Peter in maintaining the unity of faith and indeed being its touchstone. The Holy Father constantly points to the person of Jesus as the heart of our faith and in doing so he reminds us that every effort for the New Evangelisation must draw people into a living relationship with Christ. The 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council reminds us that the challenge to find fresh vigour and forms of expression of the faith, while not losing any of its central truths and saving dogmas, is a constant challenge for the Church. The Holy Father spoke of the Second Vatican Council as a time of profound emotional tension as the Fathers of the Council struggled with this task. The same task is ours today to be shaped and guided by the precious teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
ZENIT: Many Catholics in England and Wales are facing a new wave of challenges to their faith – for instance, through the attempts being made to legalize same-sex marriage. What consolation can they take from this year’s Martyrs Day celebrations?
Archbishop Nichols: Catholics in England and Wales today are increasingly aware that the challenge of faith can, in some aspects, set them at odds with trends in contemporary culture and popular thinking. The celebration of the Martyrs Day, commemorating the martyrs associated with the Venerable English College, comes at the same time of the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Beatification of 85 Martyrs of England and Wales which we commemorated in Westminster Cathedral on Tuesday, November 27. All of these martyrs, but especially some of the beatified martyrs, were known as ordinary neighbours and friends to their contemporaries. They remain a splendid example to us of how holiness is within the grasp of every person through the grace of God, and that steadfast faith and loyalty to the Church are the building bricks of a holy way of life.
The martyrs demonstrate for us great faith in the promise of the life of heaven. They often spoke of being able to see beyond the scaffold, beyond their sufferings, to the dawn of the new life of heaven which awaited them. They all attested to the great importance of the Mass and indeed many of the beatified martyrs of England and Wales were laymen who gave their lives to support, protect and assist their priests so that Mass would be available. This close bond between priest and people, thankfully, still exists in our countries today.
The third thing to which these martyrs testified with their blood was the importance of the Petrine Ministry in the Catholic Church. They knew that it is through the charism of the Apostolic See that the Catholic faith is protected from undue interference through state and political leadership.
ZENIT: The VEC’s history is closely tied to the English Reformation. Could you speak about the role of religious faith in political life?
Archbishop Nichols: The role of religious faith in public life in England and Wales is something that is a constant topic of reflection and discussion. What we seek are secular institutions of government which have an open and positive attitude to the contribution that Christian faith in particular, and religious faith, makes to public well being. What is clear is that if people are to bring their best to the public, political and cultural life of a country then they must be able to bring what is most important to them to the task of citizenship. And for many people what is most important to them is their religious faith. So political, cultural or public life which marginalises religious faith is damaging its own well being. This is an important and constant theme of discussion and debate in our countries at this time.
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For the full text of Archbishop Nichol’s homily at the Nov. 27th Mass celebrating the anniversary of the beatification of 85 Martyrs from England and Wales, go to: