The Venerable English College in the footsteps of Martyrs
Every year on the Feast of St Andrew, 30 November, the Venerable English College (VEC) in Rome begins the celebration of its forty-four alumni who were killed by the English State between 1581 and 1679. The seminarians gather after supper in the Martyrs' Chapel to sing the vigil office and listen to the letter of the first Martyr, St Ralph Sherwin, written over 400 years ago on 30 November, informing his uncle that "this very day, which is the festival of St Andrew, I was informed by superior authority that tomorrow I was to end the course of this life". The seminarians
are inspired to relive the last few hours of their Protomartyr's life as he prepared for death in his prison cell and pray with him that God will "grant us humility, that we, following in His footsteps, may obtain victory". The next morning on 1 December the Saint proclaimed from the gallows that "if to be a Catholic only... is to be a traitor, than am I a traitor" and was hanged, drawn and quartered. His last words were "Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, be to me a Jesus"
Such a dramatic witness to Christ by so many former students of the VEC is a source of unfailing encouragement to today's generation of seminarians. Their deaths were concrete signs of the power of a personal relationship with Jesus whose "love is better than life" (Ps 62). Not only was their sacrifice heroic but it was fruitful, as the survival of the Church in England testifies: Catholics of the 21st century owe their faith directly to the courageous mission of these "seminary priests". However, these martyrs of the 16th and 17th century do not merely urge us to imitate their devotion; rather the principles they lived out can give us proven means to adopt in our own effort to evangelize.
The challenge to clergy in England is no longer the threat of spies, priest-hunters and executioners, but instead, in the words of Pope Benedict, the "profound crisis of faith which has overtaken our society". He delivered this message to a crowd of 80,000 people during his visit to the UK in September, speaking in London at Hyde Park, near Tyburn, the very site of St Ralph Sherwin's martyrdom and that of "great numbers of our brothers and sisters". The particular cross of today's missionaries is to be "dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied" rather than face an agonising death. But even if the consequences of fidelity to the Church are no longer so brutal, the need to preach the truth of the Gospel is more pressing than ever, since today's "intellectual and moral relativism threatens to sap the very foundations of our society".
The first lesson to be learned from these daring priests is of devotion to the Holy Father and the teaching of the Church which he upholds, even if it is derided more than ever in contemporary Britain. In 1582, St Luke Kirby bore witness to this at the very moment of his death when the sheriff at the gallows promised him his life if he would forsake "that man of Rome". The martyr replied that to deny the Pope's authority was to deny a point of faith which would damn his soul even if it saved his life. Such zeal for unity with Rome was based on his understanding that England needed the Holy Father to safeguard her doctrine. As St Henry Morse boldly proclaimed at the moment of his execution in 1645, "The kingdom of England will never be truly blessed until it returns to the Catholic faith". Pope Benedict echoed these sentiments in his address at Hyde Park when he called each of us "to change the world, to work for a culture of life, a culture forged by love and respect for the dignity of each human person" in place of the "culture of death" that his predecessor, Pope John Paul II saw spreading through Europe.
But such a transformation in society can only be achieved through grace and here the Martyrs show us the most effective means to dispense it: by trusting in the Mass. The priests who trained in Rome would be given shelter by sympathetic families in England and hide in "priest-holes", secret chambers expertly built between floors or under staircases and undergo great trials day by day, all for the purpose of offering the Holy Sacrifice for their people. As Cardinal Hume, a former Archbishop of Westminster, wrote "The Mass meant so much to our English Martyrs... these great people inspire us to find out more about the Mass and to love it as they did" (To be a Pilgrim, St Paul Publications, Slough 1994). In fact some martyrs of the VEC were captured during the celebration of the Eucharist itself. St Polydore Plasden asked his captors to let him finish the rite and was then taken away still wearing his vestments while St David Lewis was arrested just as he was preparing to say Mass. Near the very spot where these devotees of the Mass were killed, the Holy Father reminded us in September that "without the interior transformation which takes place through the grace of sacraments" we become "just another 'clashing cymbal' (1 Cor 13:1) in a world filled with growing noise and confusion".
As well as showing us the means to adopt in our struggle to evangelize, the martyrs offer us hope in the effectiveness of even a small number of priests. There were not enough clergy to reconvert England in the sixteenth century, just as today there is a critical lack of priests in UK, but the quality of their witness bore great fruit. One of the most moving accounts of the evangelical force of martyrdom is the story of St Henry Walpole. He was present at the execution of St Edmund Campion in 1581 and was flecked with the blood of the great Jesuit saint. Seeing this holy death was such a powerful influence on Walpole that he decided to become a priest himself and he too was martyred only 14 years later in 1595. As Pope Benedict remarked at Hyde Park, "the witness of [the martyrs'] fidelity to the end was even more powerful than the inspired words that so many of them spoke before surrendering everything to the Lord". We can have confidence that if we witness to Christ in our deeds, we can overcome the shortage of clergy in our own time.
As well as celebrating Mass on 1 December, there is a special ceremony that takes place at the VEC to commemorate the 44 martyrs: the veneration of their relics and the singing of the Te Deum
in front of the "Martyrs' Picture", painted by Durante Alberti in 1581. Whenever the seminarians
heard that one of their brothers had been executed in England they would gather in front of this same image and sing the same hymn of praise, so it is a very poignant service for today's seminarians to repeat. It is equally moving to explore the tribune of the college church where several of the martyrs are depicted; in fact the paintings were finished only a few years after the
martyrdoms took place, so seminarians throughout the early 1580s would see in these images not only the deaths of their friends, but their own probable fate as well.
Every year the celebration of Martyrs' Day in the college reawakens the zeal of the seminarians, but this year, there was a further reason for joy since it was only a few months after the visit of the Holy Father to England and the beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman, the first Englishman to be beatified since the Martyrs of the Reformation. Pope Benedict had in fact held forth Newman as an example of how to follow the spirit of the Martyrs in a secular age and imitate their love of truth and of the sacraments in the face of apathy and mockery rather than violence. At Hyde Park, on the eve of the beatification, the Holy Father proclaimed that "Newman's life ... teaches us that passion for the truth, intellectual honesty and genuine conversion as costly". So now we can pray not only to the martyrs but also to their spiritual successor who himself drew great strength from their heroic sacrifice as he himself explained: "Can we religiously suppose that the blood of our Martyrs, three centuries ago and since, shall never receive its recompense? ...was not every tear that flowed, and every drop of blood that was shed, the seeds of a future harvest, when they who sowed in sorrow were to reap in joy?" (The Second Spring).
*Second year seminarian at the Venerable English College for the Archdiocese of Southwark