Archbishop of Westminster

Mass at the Venerable English College

Archbishop Vincent Nichols has celebrated a Mass at the Venerable English College  in Rome to  mark the 650th anniverary of the founding  of an English and Welsh Hospice on the site occupied by the College.

'This 650th anniversary' said Archbishop Nichols in his Homily, 'is proving to be a time when we not only refresh our memories and our thankfulness but also find fresh inspiration for our future.'

The Venerable English College, is a 'pilgrim College' continued Archbishop Nichols, 'for this community, above all, must be a community of pilgrims. Of course those who are formed here pursue an academic programme, seeking out the best of the learning in the Church for their future ministry. They also learn about Roman diplomacy and the need for skill and sensitivity in the work of the Church. They also meet and are formed by many leaders, from different walks of life, and rightly may aspire, as may all seminarians, to leadership roles themselves, in the service of the Lord. They also aspire, I trust, to a priestly care for the sick and the dying being close to them in the journey of faith. But, at the heart of all that is done here should be the same spirit of pilgrimage that is expressed in that image: a student body, on its knees, seeking out the person and truth of Christ, and encouraged to do so by his, and our, Blessed Mother. In this sense, above all others, may this be a pilgrim College.'

The full text of the homily follows.

Rome 29 January 2012

Today, at this Mass and in solemn prayer we give thanks to God for the rich and grace-filled history of this institution and in particular for its roots in the ancient Hospice founded by John and Alice Shepherd. This 650th anniversary is proving to be a time when we not only refresh our memories and our thankfulness but also find fresh inspiration for our future.

Pilgrimage, as we know, is one of the hall-marks of the Christian life, and a feature deeply embedded in the life of our continent. It figures, too, in many other parts of the world, and, of course, in other religions. But today we remember the impact of pilgrimages, seen in the emergence of roads criss-crossing Europe from Jerusalem to Walsingham, from Compostella to Canterbury, and, of course, to Rome.

Rome, as we know, is a City of Pilgrimage and this is a pilgrim College.

Who can fail to recall the great flood of young people who, in the course of the World Youth Day held here in the year 2000, passed continually through the Holy Door of St Peter’s for three days, including, I believe, during most of the long night hours too: a seemingly unending stream of humanity going ‘ad limina apostolorum’? Remember too the millions who came here in 2005 to pray for Pope John Paul II, the successor of St Peter, as he lay in death. They came to touch base again, here at the seat of that succession.

And that, surely, is the key element of a pilgrimage, marking it out from a holiday of any kind. On pilgrimage we travel in order to strengthen the touch of faith in our lives. We want to touch: the rocks that mark the key places in the Holy Land, the statue of St James at Compostella,  the foot of the statue in St Peter’s, for in reaching out with our hands we open our inmost spirit to a renewal of grace in a holy place.

Rome continually welcomes pilgrims, although only the historians can tell us how well and consistently that has happened. Certainly John and Alice Shepherd must have seen a clear and immediate need when they first opened their pilgrim Hospice in1362, in succession to the more ancient Anglo-Saxon hospice across the river.

A pattern of great change, instructive for us today, can be seen in the role of this Hospice across the centuries. This Hospice offered shelter to the pilgrim. It also offered nursing care and burial to the sick and the dying. It also became a place of great diplomatic activity, with all the comings and goings connected to the great See of Peter. Indeed we can recall with pride that diplomatic relations between our countries and the Holy See can be traced back to 1479 and this Hospice must have played a crucial role in them. Cardinal Pole and his household were resident here in the 16th Century in that period between it being the King’s Hospice and its refounding in the 1650’s. This Hospice also served as a home for those coming here to study the New Learning and to bring the fruits of Roman academic life to the Church in England and Wales.

So there are many layers to the life of our Hospice: pilgrims, diplomats, rulers and scholars are all part of its history. But the pilgrim must have pride of place, perhaps best signified in one of the oldest monuments on these walls: the plaque marking the burial of Margaret Keble, in the corner over there. (In the back right-hand corner on entering the chapel).  Margaret died here on 12 April 1548 and her memory is held in that remarkably striking image of her at prayer before Our Blessed Lady who is presenting the child Jesus to the praying pilgrim. For me this is an enduring image of our rich past and a pointer to the deepest purpose of our present.

I started by using the phrase ‘a pilgrim College’ to describe this place today. I did so, first of all, because the College itself has rightly become a place of pilgrimage. Pilgrims want to come here today to be in touch with this rich history of priest-martyrs. They want to walk these corridors where martyrs walked, to glimpse the garden where they trod and to stand in front of this picture where their colleagues sang their praise of God at the news of the martyrdom of another of their friends.

Such visitors should inspire the College of today to live up to its history. In this sense, too, this is a pilgrim College, for this community, above all, must be a community of pilgrims. Of course those who are formed here pursue an academic programme, seeking out the best of the learning in the Church for their future ministry. They also learn about Roman diplomacy and the need for skill and sensitivity in the work of the Church. They also meet and are formed by many leaders, from different walks of life, and rightly may aspire, as may all seminarians, to leadership roles themselves, in the service of the Lord. They also aspire, I trust, to a priestly care for the sick and the dying being close to them in the journey of faith. But, at the heart of all that is done here should be the same spirit of pilgrimage that is expressed in that image: a student body, on its knees, seeking out the person and truth of Christ, and encouraged to do so by his, and our, Blessed Mother. In this sense, above all others, may this be a pilgrim College.

The Reading from the ending of the Letter to the Ephesians spells out the aspirations of the pilgrim. Taking his imagery from the armour of the Roman soldier to whom he would have been chained day and night, St Paul spells out what we need for our mission. Constantly, we are to seek truth and integrity: the truth of ourselves that we may be whole and entire in our gift of self to the Lord; the truth of God that what we offer is not a message damaged by neglect or missing half of its parts. We are to seek integrity that our words may be matched by our actions. Everyday we seek an ‘eagerness to spread the gospel of peace’ in a world that has its own pattern of danger and opportunity. And we seek the ‘helmet’ of salvation, the ‘shield of faith’ and the ‘word of God from the Spirit to use as a sword’.

All of this we know is to be acquired, above all, by prayer, just as has been sought by pilgrims throughout the ages. Following the urging of St Paul, their practice has always been to ‘pray all the time’, ‘never getting tired of staying awake to pray.’ So must be ours.

At the start of his ministry, as we heard in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus confronted the dangers of his time, vividly portrayed in the man possessed by an unclean spirit. In Jesus all the gifts for which St Paul exhorts us to pray are already present in their divine fullness. And the people saw that and knew that in him there was something truly authoritative, truly of the author of life.

We pray that as we confront the challenges of our ministry, we may have some measure of that same authority, as a gift of the Lord, that through our words and actions, formed in the constant prayer of the pilgrim, others may hear and be consoled by the fire of his love.

May this celebration of our Hospice help us to be faithful to our inheritance, to our martyrs and to our calling: Ignem veni mittere in terram. Amen

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