04 December 2015

What I learned from an evening with the English

This past Tuesday, a friend living at the Venerable English College (VEC) invited me to join him and his confreres for the closing vigil of Martyrs' Day, celebrated each year in commemoration of the forty-four priests from the VEC who were martyred in England between the years 1581 and 1679. This friend had lived with us at the Casa Santa Maria the two previous years and knew this would be an opportunity I would enjoy.

Following an account of the martyrdom of Saint Polydore Plasdan, we prayed a Litany of Saints invoking each of the martyrs from the VEC, after which we venerated a relic of Saint Ralph Sherwin, the first of the College's martyrs, whose relic was placed on the center of the altar together with a relic of Saint Thomas Becket (on the right) and one of King Saint Edmund (on the left):

Photo: Edward Pentin
We concluded the evening of prayer with the singing of the Te Deum, in keeping with custom of the members of the College each time word of the martyrdom of one of their brothers reached them in Rome. The Catholic News Agency's Ann Schneible explains:
Photo: Gianluca Gangemi/CNA
One of the highlights of the evening is the singing of the Te Deum in front of the Martyrs’ Painting, a 16th century image of the Trinity by Durante Alberti which hangs behind the altar. This tradition harkens back to a practice of the seminarians at the time of the Reformation every time news reached them of a former student’s martyrdom.

“If any ever news returned to Rome that one of their brother priests had been put to death in England, the College community would come and gather in front of the painting,” explained VEC vice rector Fr. Mark Harold. “They would sing a hymn of praise to God, Te Deum laudamus,” which is paraphrased in the English hymn “Holy God, we praise thy name”.

“And thus each year in the evening of Dec. 1 the College community gathers in front of this painting and we too in that tradition sing the hymn Te Deum laudamus” [more].
The painting by Duranti Alberti depicts the Blessed Trinity with Saint Thomas Becket and King Saint Edmund, both of whom are English martyrs.

In an article describing the evening of prayer, Edward Pentin quotes one of the priests at the College who reflected on the witness of these martyrs (and whose words sound like those of my friend):
To train for seven years so as to serve the Lord for maybe a couple of years before arrest, torture and an excruciating death — four of them didn't even get to land but were arrested on board ship, put in jail for four years and then hung, drawn and quartered — to have that happen to you would be tough enough. To foresee it happening, worse, but to actively go abroad to train knowing that it was by far the likeliest result was like deliberately walking to the Garden of Gethsemane knowing your betrayer was there [more].
The evening spent with the English in celebration of their martyrs taught me an important lesson: Whenever we hear news of a martyrdom, we should immediately sing of a hymn of praise to God for so great a witness to the power of Christ's love, whether it be the Te Deum itself or another hymn of praise.

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