By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
“Some of the greatest scholars in contemporary Catholic history and cultural history studies” is how Janet Graffius, Curator of Collections at Stonyhurst College, described participants at a Symposium organized by the Venerable English College in Rome on Saturday, 14 April. Entitled “Memory, Martyrs and Mission: Aspects of priestly formation for England and Wales, 1118-2018,” the Symposium opened a year of historical significance for English Catholics: the birth of St Thomas Becket in 1118, the foundation of the first English seminary at Douai in 1568, and the restoration of the Venerable English College in 1818.
900 years of Catholic influence
The focus of the 6 papers presented during the day-long Symposium was, in Graffius' words, "a 900 years’ exposition of Catholic influence from the time of Becket, through the ages, right up to the present day.”
Thomas Becket’s life and influence in pre and post Reformation English life and piety, presented by Rev Nicholas Schofield (Archivist of the Archdiocese of Westminster, London), inaugurated the event. This lecture formed the foundation for the subsequent presentations exploring the following topics: the history of the founding of the English seminary at Douai (Professor Eamon Duffy, Cambridge University), the cultural life promoted by the English communities formed around the continental seminaries (Professor Peter Davidson, Oxford University), the exploration of the frescoes that first decorated the Venerable English College’s chapel (Dr Carol Richardson, University of Edinburgh), the restoration of the continental seminaries in the 19th century (Rev Dr Peter Phillips, Durham University), and a short-term vision for the formation of contemporary English clergy (Professor Judith Champ, St Mary’s College, Birmingham).
The Symposium concluded with a concert performed by the Cappella Fede and directed by Peter Leech, featuring music composed between 1100 and 1967 in honor of St Thomas of Canterbury.
Bringing Catholic history into academic mainstream
Janet Graffius told Vatican News that the Symposium and the speakers wished to convey the message that “English Catholic culture has a vibrancy and a significance which is not fully appreciated by the academic mainstream.” That will most likely change in the near future, she said. The planned publication of the resulting papers will put the material in the hands of other academics, which may spark further research. A free exhibition of artifacts put together on the site of the Venerable English College, open Mondays to Fridays until 11 May, puts in evidence the importance of the holdings of the College’s archives, which can be a tremendous attraction to scholars.
Professor Stephen Milner, Director of the British School at Rome, said he feels particularly close to his colleagues at the Venerable English College, since, with the British School, they represent “a UK footprint in the heart of Rome,” spanning “academic research and also fine arts and creativity.” He added that he hopes to be able to establish more of a collaboration with the Venerable English College “so that we can actually bring students from the UK over to Rome to be resident at the British School as the UK’s research academy, precisely to come and work on the holdings of the Venerable English College…which has the most incredibly but largely uninvestigated archive that stretches right the way back, unbroken, in tremendous detail, into the 16th century".