Remembering the English Martyrs' 'Extraordinary Devotion' to the Mass

The Venerable English College in Rome this week celebrated its 44 alumni who were martyred for the faith between 1581 and 1679 — the ultimate act of love for Christ that, as the VEC's rector explained, derived from their “extraordinary devotion” to Jesus in the Eucharist.

The annual celebration, which includes a memorial Mass and veneration of the relics of the martyrs, recalls the profound witness of those who came to study for the priesthood in Rome knowing that near-certain death awaited them on their return to England.

One English priest, currently staying temporarily at the VEC for a few months, told me his visit had helped him to truly appreciate the magnitude of their sacrifice which he eloquently put into words:

“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.”

As happens every year, the seminarians gathered after supper in the Martyrs' Chapel to listen to the letter of the first Martyr, St. Ralph Sherwin. The relics are venerated and the seminarians sing the Te Deum in front of the "Martyrs' Picture", painted by Durante Alberti in 1581.

The painting, which depicts the Blessed Trinity with two English martyrs — St Thomas of Canterbury and St Edmund, King of East Anglia — holds special significance to the College as it was in front of that same picture that seminarians would gather and sing the same hymn of praise whenever they received word that a former seminarian had been executed at the hands of the English state.

But the celebration not only highlights the martyrs’ courage, passion and commitment in defending the faith in the face of a tyrannical state. It also brings to the fore their great love for the Mass — a timely reminder in view of current heated debates over admittance to the Eucharist.

The martyrs’ devotion was well articulated on Tuesday evening in a short talk by the VEC’s rector, Monsignor Philip Whitmore, whose full address is below:   

That account of the arrest of St Polydore Plasden and his companions I find deeply moving. Why? Because of what it tells us about the Mass, about what the Mass meant to those people, about the extraordinary devotion to the Mass that they showed in that fateful moment. They were about to be taken by force, imprisoned, tortured and executed. And what did they do? They asked to be left in peace until they had finished the Mass. They didn’t resist. They didn’t counter violence with violence. They seemed more concerned about the dignity of the sacrament than about their own lives. For those few moments, their last moments of freedom, the Mass was the one thing that mattered.  The Mass, of course, is Christ’s sacrifice of his own life for love of us, it is his triumph over suffering and death and it is a foretaste on earth of the glory of heaven.  St Polydore Plasden and St Edmund Gennings, there in that upper room in Grays Inn Fields, were so utterly swept up in contemplation of the life to come that they were undaunted at the prospect of having this earthly life brought to an abrupt and violent end. They had followed their master in his mission to proclaim the kingdom, and they followed him in the way of the Cross that he predicted would be the outcome of that mission.

Our martyrs risked their lives in order to bring the Mass to the people of our country. Like the martyrs of Abitinae in the fourth century, they could not live without the Eucharist, without the celebration of the Lord’s Paschal Mystery. They were so fired by the mission to bring the Mass to the Catholics of England and Wales that they were willing to pour out their own life-blood in imitation of our Saviour. And so their deaths, which seemed like a disaster, seemed like an abject failure, were in reality a triumph, a participation in Christ’s own triumph over suffering and death.

As we venerate the relics of our martyrs this evening, we pray that we too, through their intercession, may come to love the Mass, that we may learn to value the Mass more than anything this world has to offer, and that we may be fired by the mission to bring the Mass to the people of our countries. Mother Teresa used to say to priests who were about to celebrate the Eucharist - celebrate this Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass. As our martyrs celebrated Mass in secret hiding-places in penal times, they always knew that it could indeed prove to be their last Mass. They knew they could be called upon to share physically in the sacrifice that was sacramentally made present through their words and actions, to undergo the baptism that Christ himself underwent. St Ralph Sherwin and companions, pray for us, pray that we may follow in your footsteps as you followed in those of Christ. Pray that our lives may bear witness to the mystery we celebrate at Mass, so that the world may believe.

Photo: Relics venerated at the altar in the Martyr Chapel of the Venerable English College Dec. 1. From left to right, the relics are of: St. Edmund, King and martyr, St. Ralph Sherwin, and St. Thomas of Canterbury.

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