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Rome, Italy, Dec 1, 2015 / 01:37 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- While the days are long past that to be a Catholic priest in England is a capital crime, the legacy of the nation's Rome-based seminary – where centuries earlier 44 men trained for the priesthood before returning home to be martyred – has not been forgotten.

Every year on Martyrs’ Day, Dec. 1, students and staff of the Venerable English College (VEC) celebrate those former students martyred during the English Reformation’s persecution of the Catholic Church.

And for one current student, that history still resonates today.

“The whole English reformation started because Henry VIII wanted a divorce,” said Deacon David Howell of the Archdiocese of Southwark in an interview with CNA. “In our country, again, marriage is under threat. That’s part of our same mission today.”

Deacon Howell cited the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who has spoken “about the English martyrs as witnesses to marriage.”

Martyr’s Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the martyrdom St. Ralph Sherwin, the first of the seminary's former students to be killed during the Reformation. In 1581, the young priest was hung, drawn and quartered in Tyburn four months after returning to England. Two other Catholic priests, St. Edmund Campion and St. Alexander Briant, were martyred alongside him.

Formerly a hostel for English and Welsh pilgrims to Rome, the VEC was established in 1579 when it became illegal to train for the priesthood in England. Consequently, seminarians studying at the College knew they would likely be persecuted or killed upon their return as priests.

Between 1581 and 1679, St. Ralph Sherwin and 43 other students of the College were martyred. Of these, 41 have been canonized or beatified.

These martyrs “were incredibly faithful to the teaching of the Church and the papacy, and they had an amazing faith in the sacraments,” said Deacon Howell.

They knew that without the sacraments, “the faith would die” in England, he explained. Therefore “they’re wonderful models of fidelity to the faith and to the sacraments, and they’re also wonderful models of mercy.”

The annual Martyrs’ Day commemorations take place in the seminary’s main chapel, which is lit by candles for the occasion. A student reads a reflection written at the time of the persecutions  – this year, a letter written by St. Ralph Sherwin the day before his martyrdom – and the relics of the VEC’s martyrs are displayed on the altar and venerated.

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.”

The VEC’s yearly commemoration of Martyrs’ Day was instituted in the 1930s on the fourth centenary of the English Catholic martyrs, explained VEC rector Msgr. Philip Whitmore. He said its establishment prompted a “great awakening” as to the legacy of the seminary's martyrs.

“It’s a reminder of our identity, of our mission,” Msgr. Whitmore said.

“We have the great tradition of our forebears who intercede for us with their prayers and give us a wonderful example of dedication, and faith, and courage.”

On the upper level of the College chapel are a series of frescos, depicting the martyrdoms of St. Ralph Sherwin, St. Thomas More, and dozens of others, which originally dated back to the Reformation. The current paintings are based on reproductions of the originals which had been recorded in a book, as the chapel was severely damaged by Napoleon's forces in the 18th century.

The panels graphically depict the martyrdoms, Fr. Harold said, and are not for the faint of heart. “They’re a vivid reminder to us of what people gave their lives for and what a great sacrifice they made in the name of their faith and that we walk in that tradition.”

“They lived in this house, in this building, and we are literally walking in their footsteps.”

For current student Deacon Howell, the College chapel in particular brings to mind the martyrs who came before him.

“It’s a constant challenge when you enter the Church and think that, in this Church, 44 men received that grace of martyrdom through their prayer and through the Mass they celebrated,” he said.

“It makes me ask myself, 'what graces am I receiving? What graces am I asking for? Am I asking for that grace to give up my life entirely?'”

“Perhaps I won’t have the same challenges they had, but still I have to have that same self gift. That’s the challenge that comes to mind when I enter the church here.”

Although it has been centuries since a former seminarians of the VEC has been killed for their faith, Msgr. Whitmore says the martyrs nonetheless have something to offer current students.

In bringing the Gospel to England and Wales, Msgr. Whitmore said, these martyrs “give a wonderful example of courage and dedication to the mission to spread the Gospel” in a way that reflects the VEC’s motto: “To set fire to the earth.”

Moreover, the College martyrs are intercessors, he continued. “They support us with their prayers for the very difficult mission that we still have today.”

Although England and Wales constitutes “a different mission,” the rector said, “we encounter all sorts of oppositional sorts of difficulties, even a certain amount of hostility.”

“That courage, that passion, that faith, that commitment the martyrs show is something we need today, and something we need to instill in the new generation of students going out for the mission.”


Paris, France, Dec 1, 2015 / 10:39 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In his speech at the COP-21 climate summit in Paris, the Vatican’s Secretary of State urged global leaders to orient their discussion toward a clear ethical objective, one that puts the human person, the poor in particular, at the center.

Outlining three key pillars for a “global and transformative agreement” on how to address the problem of climate change, Cardinal Pietro Parolin said Nov. 30 that the first consists of “the adoption of a clear ethical orientation, which inspires the motives and goals of the agreement to be implemented.”

It’s both the most vulnerable and future generations who are most impacted by climate change, he said, noting that these people often have no blame themselves.

Faced with growing concern surrounding the environment, the cardinal stressed that we can’t let ourselves become isolated by social or political barriers.

“We are one human family and that there is no room for the so-called globalization of indifference,” he said, adding that the urgency of the situation calls for “the widest possible collaboration” in order to formulate a common, concrete plan.

It’s important, he said, “that this agreement is centered on the recognition both of the ethical imperative to act in a context of global solidarity, and of the common but differing responsibility of each person, according to their ability and condition.”

Cardinal Parolin spoke at the opening of the Conference of Parties, an annual gathering aimed at tackling issues related to climate change on a global, political level.

Taking place in Paris Nov. 30-Dec. 11, the summit is hosting leaders from 150 nations, in addition to 40,000 delegates from 195 countries, CNN reports.

The goal of the discussion is to reach an agreement on legally binding reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. The reductions are intended to hold global average temperatures under a two degrees Celsius increase over preindustrial global temperatures, according to CNN.

In his remarks, Cardinal Parolin recalled Pope Francis’ recent comments at the United Nations office in Nairobi, Kenya, in which the pontiff said that working together is necessary to conquer problems, whether they involve politics, health, or development.

The Pope again addressed the climate issue on his Nov. 30 flight back to Rome, telling journalists during an in-flight press conference that society is “on the verge of suicide, to use a strong word.”

“I’m sure that nearly the entirety of all of those in Paris for the COP-21 have this awareness and want to do something,” he said, adding that he hopes and prays the conference will be the beginning of a solution.

Cardinal Parolin echoed the Pope’s words in Nairobi, highlighting three objectives for the Paris summit that Pope Francis himself outlined at the U.N. headquarters there: “to alleviate the impacts of climate change, to fight poverty and to make the dignity of the human person flourish.”

In addition to moving forward with a clear ethical orientation, the agreement sought must also look not only at how it will be implemented, but must above all “transmit clear signals which guide the conduct of all relevant parties,” the cardinal explained.

These “signals,” he said, must be communicated not only through governments, but all levels of society, including local authorities, civil society and the business and scientific communities.

Achieving a low-carbon economy aimed at an integral human development depends on how leaders collaborate in adopting “that human genius which is able to make human dignity flourish,” Parolin said.

He mentioned the promotion of renewable energies, dematerialization, the proper management of forests, sustainable food security and the fight against food waste as possible means, in addition to the proper use of technologies and the need to combat “ineffective and at times unfair subsidies.”

A third pillar the cardinal outlined was a long-term vision into the future, he said, adding that the COP-21 conference isn’t just a point of arrival or departure, but rather “a crucial phase of the course that certainly doesn't end with 2015.”

The agreement they reach, he said, ought to include a review of the commitments made as well as a series of “follow-ups” that are transparent, effective and dynamic.

A change in lifestyle is also necessary, particularly when it comes to sustainable models of production and consumption, Cardinal Parolin said, adding that “the current way of living, with the culture of waste, is unsustainable.”

He stressed the importance of proper education and formation in creating sustainable lifestyles. Technical solutions, he said, are not enough if education is lacking.

The cardinal closed his address by voicing his hope that the three pillars he outlined would help in achieving the objectives expressed by Pope Francis: “to alleviate the impacts of climate change, to fight poverty and to allow the dignity of the human being to flourish.”


Copyright by St. Francis Borgia