Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Proto-Martyr and the English Martyrs

Francis Aidan Cardinal Gasquet wrote a history of the Venerable English College in 1920; as a historian, Gasquet is often accused of bias and inaccuracy, but he can write stirring prose about the English martyrs from the Venerabile, showing the connections between the missionaries and two great Counter-Reformation saints, St. Charles Borromeo and St. Philip Neri:

FROM these melancholy reflections we may usefully turn to consider one of the most glorious pages in the history of the English College in Rome; as glorious as, if not indeed more glorious, than any similar Institution can boast of possessing: the page which records the martyrdom for the Faith of so many of its alumni. Proud indeed must be every son of the Roman Alma Mater at the thought of the heroic sufferings and deaths of so many of the old students of the Venerabile, and of the fact that the very foundations of the College were washed, as it were, by the blood of the many martyrs who went forth as priests from its walls to help to preserve the Catholic religion in England. They were true heroes in every sense of the word, knowing as they did that they were preparing themselves in their college life for certain persecution and possible death, in the exercise of their ministry in England. This is why the great St. Charles [Borromeo] of Milan thought it an honour to receive these young men when passing through his metropolitan city on their way to and from their own country. This is why the sweet St. Philip, who lived close to the College, on meeting them in the streets was wont to salute them with the words of the hymn for the feast of the Holy Innocents, Salvete Flores Martyrum.

In addition to this connection to the Holy Innocents, Gasquet highlights how the students at the Venerabile commemorated today's feast of St. Stephen, the proto-martyr of all Christian martyrs:

On St. Stephen's Day was inaugurated a long-continued practice of one of the students preaching before the Pope and Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel on that feast. The ceremonial to be observed on these occasions is noted down in the volume of addresses and sermons before referred to. A carriage was sent from the Vatican to bring the preacher from the College: he was to remain in the sacristy vested in his surplice until the Master of Ceremonies came to fetch him after the singing of the Gospel. He was then, on entering the Chapel, to bow profoundly to the Cardinal celebrating the Mass, and then to proceed to the papal throne, where first kneeling on both knees he was to ascend and kiss the Pope's foot, to salute His Holiness with a bow, and returning to the bottom step, was again to genuflect on both knees, and having received the blessing, was to ask permission to publish the usual Indulgences. In his sermon he was not to turn directly to the Pope, but to look rather to the Cardinals; neither was he to raise his voice too loudly, and to beware of being carried away by his eloquence or of making use of too many gestures. After the sermon was finished, he was directed to return to the steps of the throne and remain kneeling whilst the Confiteor was being sung, after which he was to rise and publish the Indulgence, again kneeling whilst the Holy Father pronounced the blessing. At the end he was to follow the Master of Ceremonies to the sacristy. The occasion must have been a trying ordeal for the student even although, as was evidently the case, the Latin discourse had been composed for him. The feast suggested references to the possible martyrdom of the selected orator, when his turn came to go forth from Rome for the English Mission.

Two of these preachers did suffer martyrdom in England: Blessed John Cornelius and St. David Lewis.

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