Monday, February 8, 2010

English seminary in Rome exhibits history of martyrs, persecution

By Father Matthew Gamber
Catholic News Service

Father Jeff Kirby of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., reads by candlelight in this demonstration of use of a "priest hole," part of an exhibit on the Tudor era at the Venerable English College in Rome. The replica is an example of hiding places built into walls for priests to celebrate Mass and the sacraments in England during the Reformation. (CNS/Paul Haring)
ROME (CNS) -- When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Great Britain later this year, he will be greeted by lords and ladies and dignitaries of all kind, including Queen Elizabeth II and the British prime minister.

There was a time, though, in 16th-century England, when a priest arriving from Rome had to disguise himself and sneak onto the island. If he was caught he faced certain death.

The era of English priest-martyrs is prominently featured at Rome's Venerable English College in an exhibit called, "'Non Angli sed Angeli': A Pilgrimage, A Mission." The title refers to a quip legend says was made by Pope Gregory the Great, "They are not Anglos, but angels," when he first saw fair-haired English slaves in the marketplace of Rome and began sending missionaries to the British Isles in the 6th century.

The exhibit tells the history of England's religious relationship with Rome and the role played by the English College, which, opened as a pilgrims' hostel around 1300. It is the oldest British institution outside of Britain.

Currently home to 22 seminarians and eight student priests from England and Wales, it became a seminary in 1579 to train priests for the English Catholic mission -- an attempt to return Catholicism to England after the faith was banned. The college earned the title "Venerable" out of respect for the martyrdom of 44 former students, who between 1581 and 1679 went home to England and faced torture and death by decree of the Tudor monarchs during the English Reformation.

"This exhibition focuses mainly on the Tudor era and the difficulties that the Roman Catholic Church experienced during the Reformation," said Father Andrew Headon, the vice-rector of the college and organizer of the exhibit.

Father Headon said today's priests and seminarians at the college are working for Christian unity in England and that the exhibit is not intended to be divisive. Rather, he added, "the exhibit is meant to show simply how the seminary was born out of the English Reformation."

The exhibition includes a replica of a 16th-century London prison cell for priests and a display on the spies who tried to infiltrate the college and learn the identity of the future priests, who themselves would make clandestine entries into England dressed as aristocrats, merchants and horse traders.

Visitors can also experience what it was like to squeeze into a re-created "priest hole," a hiding place built into a wall or under a staircase where a priest could hide during the search of a home that was suspected of harboring Catholic clergy.

The first martyr of the college was St. Ralph Sherwin, who died along with the Jesuit priest St. Edmund Campion. When word of a new martyrdom reached the college, the seminarians sang a hymn of praise in the chapel under a painting of the Holy Trinity, which still hangs in the college's chapel.

The exhibit includes an oversize copy of the painting that visitors walk under as they leave the space.

During their "ad limina" visit to the Vatican in late January, the English and Welsh bishops visited the exhibit, housed in the crypt of the college's newly-renovated chapel.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the bishops' conference, said that their visit to Rome was a visit to the threshold of the apostles, but also a visit to the threshold of the martyrs -- the English martyrs -- who began their journey at the English College.

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