By Joachim Teigen
They have been referred to as “God’s secret agents”. Martyred in the persecutions of Catholics in post-reformation England and Wales, the 44 martyrs of the Venerable English College in Rome are remembered by their modern-day successors once a year, on 1 December, a day known as “Martyrs’ Day”.
The day marks the death of the College’s first martyr, St. Ralph Sherwin. Alongside him, 43 other saints, blesseds and venerables of the English seminary are remembered. The striking number of martyrs whose priestly formation took place at this College seminary has earned the institution its name of “Venerable”.
On Tuesday, amidst Covid-19 restrictions, 30-some seminarians, who follow in these martyrs’ footsteps in their aspirations to the ordained ministry, and members of the College community were encouraged by their rector, Msgr. Philip J. Whitmore, to imitate their forebears as they seek to “cultivate the same passion for the mission entrusted to them”.
“Rather today than tomorrow”
The English College started out as an English hospice in Rome in 1362, as demands for the accommodation of pilgrims grew in the wake of the Jubilee Year of 1350. Demand later came to a sudden end with the Protestant reformation.
With the persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth I, a new demand arose. The English Church needed seminaries abroad where they could train priests willing to return to their homelands of England and Wales, in the knowledge that a gruesome fate could very well await them.
Only five years after Pope Gregory XIII founded the institution in 1576, the English College would have its first martyr. When asked to take the missionary oath taken by all the students, St. Ralph Sherwin is reported to have answered, “Rather today than tomorrow!” He took this oath before returning to England to serve the faithful in all secrecy with the celebration of Mass and the sacraments. Within four months of returning, he was imprisoned and subsequently tortured, hanged, drawn and quartered – a fate many of his companions after him would come to share.
During the Martyr’s Day homily on Tuesday, Msgr. Whitmore characterized these footsteps as “daunting” ones to follow in. But he also reminded his students of the humanity of the men they proudly associate themselves with. “They weren’t superheroes,” he said, before adding that “God gave them the strength and the courage to persevere, against all odds”.
Lest anyone should think these were men who sought martyrdom for its own sake, he also noted how the martyrs avoided capture so as to serve the faithful longer. However, in the end they were willing to sacrifice even their own lives to carry out their mission, “dying that something might live”. Calling on the seminarians to cultivate a selfless dedication to their mission, Msgr. Whitmore pointed to the martyrs as their intercessors and role models whose “minds were fixed on heavenly things, not to the exclusion of earthly things – but to the exclusion of paralysing fear.”
Ritualised celebrations adapt to new situations
The Mass on the College’s feast day is only one of many elements making up the annual celebrations: celebrations which this year had to be adapted to Covid-19 restrictions.
This year, it started like most years. On the eve of the feast, the students gathered for a vigil in the College Church. A letter written by St. Ralph Sherwin to his uncle and friends the eve of his execution was read out.
On Tuesday, the staff and students of the English College would normally have welcomed dignitaries, royalty, bishops, priests and friends for the feast day Mass followed by a celebratory lunch. The Mass, normally celebrated by an invited cardinal or bishop, was presided over by the rector himself this year, with only students and staff in attendance.
The celebrations culminated in the moment most shrouded in tradition and symbolism. In the evening, the students again gathered in their church to venerate the relics of St. Ralph Sherwin. Then, they sang a Te Deum in front of the “Martyrs’ Painting”. This tradition harkens back to the days of the martyrs when a Te Deum would be sung, right there in front of the very same painting, whenever students got news of the martyrdom of one of their brothers back home.
The service presided over by Msgr. Whitmore was live streamed to allow former students and friends of the College to follow the celebration. A first in the long history of the Venerable English College, but requested by many in England and beyond, who, like the seminarians walking in their footsteps, look to these martyrs’ intercession and example for “fixing one’s mind on heavenly things”.