A Cloud of Witnesses | Reflections Post-Rome 2023
Walking down the street to where we are staying, you might easily miss the large wooden doors just a few steps from our own. They lead to a well-known and highly respected seminary formation house in Rome: The Venerable English College. Much like our own North American College, the Venerable English College houses and forms men from England and Wales for the priesthood and has done so since 1577. This was not long after the Protestant Reformation in England and being a Catholic, let alone a priest, could carry with it severe penalties in Great Britain. For a priest to go to England and minister to the people of God meant risking imprisonment, exile, and even death. The priest was seen as a traitor to the crown and could suffer the most brutal of executions: to be hung, drawn and quartered. In 1581, four years after the college first began educating seminarians for this dangerous mission, Father Ralph Sherwin, having finished his studies at the English College, was the first of its graduates to be found, tortured, and executed in England for treason. His crime? Ministering to Catholics in hiding in their native country, bringing them the sacraments, and being a Catholic priest. For almost one hundred years, priests would walk out of the College and travel towards England knowing that they, too, might face persecution and martyrdom. In the end, forty-four men would be martyred in England in service to Christ.
Several of us had the privilege to attend mass in the College this Sunday. Hearing the stories of the martyrs from the priests and seminarians made me realize how great a cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1) we are surrounded with at all times. For weeks we have been able to visit churches, shrines, catacombs, and basilicas, each one with stories of great men and women who gave everything, even their very lives, for the faith. For them, death for Christ was their greatest victory and dearest hope.
In the Venerable English College there is a volume of books, bound in red leather, with the signature of every man who has studied there. Each man signs the book, swearing that he will return to England to serve for the salvation of souls. Every martyr lived up to his oath. And while we, as Christians in the modern world, might not have to sign a large book promising to give up our lives, and while we might not face the real danger of torture and execution, we still must live a life that is every bit devoted to service, sacrifice, and love. The Cross of Christ is not reserved for only some of the faithful; there is space enough for all of us beside our Savior on Calvary. But the martyrs tell us that, in the Cross, there truly is victory. They can, like St. Paul, say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
Diocese of Nashville