By Philippa Hitchen
‘Memory, Martyrs and Mission’ is the title of an exhibition which opens in the crypt of Rome’s Venerable English College on Monday April 16th.
Currently home to 29 young men studying for the priesthood, the college has a long history, having been founded originally as a hospice for English pilgrims to the Eternal City, back in the mid-14th century.
The free exhibition, which runs until May 11th, showcases ancient artifacts, historical documents and rarely seen relics of priests who studied in Rome and returned to England, where they were captured, tortured and killed during the period of anti-Catholic persecution.
Mgr. Philip Whitmore, the current rector of the College, explains that the exhibition is built around three important anniversaries in the life of the English Church
He notes that the College chapel is dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, whose is believed to have been born in 1118, so the first event marked by the exhibition is the 900th anniversary of “the birth of our patron saint”.
Founding of English seminary in Douai
Moving forward four and a half centuries, the display is also recalling the founding in 1568 of the first English seminary, set up in Douai in Northern France. Mgr, Whitmore notes that “it wasn’t possible, in those days, to have a seminary in England, so all the English seminaries were founded on mainland Europe”.
The college in Rome, he says, was founded 11 years later, in 1579, by the same man, William Allen, to cope with the increasing numbers of seminarians in Douai.
Bicentenary of re-opening of college
The third event commemorated by the exhibition is the bicentenary of the re-opening of the Venerable English College in 1818. Following the French invasion of Rome, Mgr Whitmore recalls that the seminarians “had to leave and couldn’t return until after the Napoleonic era and the restitution of papal states”.
The rector also talks about the 44 college martyrs whose names are listed in the documents on display at the exhibition. He notes that the frescos in the gallery of the chapel tell the history of Christianity in England, including the life and death of these Catholic martyrs.
Students carry on martyrs' mission
Mgr. Whitmore says that the task of today’s seminarians is to “carry on the mission that they [the martyrs] began”. The context has changed, he says, but the circumstances are “in many ways just as challenging” as they include “widespread indifference and apathy”, so priests today are also called to “kindle the flame of faith”.
While today’s seminarians are being trained to care for their Catholic parishes, they will also be in dialogue with other Christian communities. Mgr. Whitmore notes that the college has been welcoming pilgrims of all kinds since the original hospice was founded. That tradition continues today, he says, adding that the Archbishop of Canterbury also stays at the Venerable English College on his regular visits to Rome.