Given on 29th September 2023 at St Edmund's College, Ware on their Foundation Day.
On Michaelmas Day, 1568, Douai College was founded in northern France. The College commenced in a hired house near to the theological schools in that small town and received papal approval on that same day. Cardinal William Allen, who inspired the founding of a seminary abroad to train priests for the mission in England, was joined by handful of former Oxford academics and a couple of Belgian theology students.
From the beginning funding was precarious, as ever, the house was austere but quickly expanded attracting other Catholic exiles from Elizabethan England. In 1570 Gregory Martin and Edmund Campion (aged 40) arrived, the former to be ordained, a scholar and teacher, and the principle translator of the Douai-Rheims Bible; the latter the saint– one of the most brilliant minds of his time – to be martyred at Tyburn, now at Hyde Park, in 1581. Rapidly the College grew, students who were the sons of the gentry in search of a Catholic education unavailable in England were joined by students from the universities. Some were convinced Catholics, others seeking clarity about the new Protestant religion and seeking to be Catholic. They build up networks of friends. Cardinal Allen encouraged them to write to others about their Catholic faith and harnessed the evangelistic potential of these men. The College became a magnet for other exiles, teaching the scriptures and theology through the study of St Thomas Aquinas, and constant engaged in the practice in preaching and disputation to make them ready to argue with others about the reasons for their faith. The College prepared to send these men to England to spread the Catholic faith. This often led to persecution, imprisonment, exile and death. We honour the 158 martyrs of Douai.
Cardinal Allen believed in running a College with a light touch of government saying ‘a little government there is and order… Confession, communion, exhortation hath kept us this nine years in great peace amongst ourselves’ (Duffy p.146). He trusted that reason, conscience and religious faith would build men of character. The foundation of this College, using modern terms, sought to preserve religious freedom and integrity of conscience. This is also at the heart of every educational endeavour today. The example of the students of Douai at a time of religious persecution is one of courage, conviction and integrity for you.
With less persecution of Catholics in the 18th century, small preparatory schools were founded. One in Twyford, Hampshire moved to Standon Lordship close to Ware, and then to Old Hall Green. Here were laid the foundations for the oldest Catholic school in England, St.Edmund’s. With the closure of the English College Douai in 1793 after the French Revolution, Bishop Douglass had the foresight to argue that the New Douai would be at Old Hall Green. With a small school already here with its recently opened chapel, the site had the facilities and land for a College to grow. On 16 November 1793, on the feast of St Edmund, studies commenced and Douai College found its new home here at St. Edmund’s. By the end of February 1794, there was a community of fifty students at Old Hall Green including twenty-one Douai men and one from each of the English Colleges in Rome and Lisbon. As we reflect on the Providence of God leading the Church to provide Catholic education and seminary formation, we see the hand of God at work guiding the flock from age to age until this present day and into the future.
The students at Douai in 1568 trusted in the power of the Archangels and the saints to guide them. In the gospel Nathaniel is described as ‘incapable of deceit’. He is worthy to recognise Jesus as the Son of God and King of Israel. His sight is not clouded by corruption, deceit or sin. He professes his belief in Jesus. Jesus then reveals a deeper meaning that he is the Son of Man and Son of God, as spoken by the prophet Daniel. He is the fulness of God’s revelation who has the power to conquer sin, suffering and death. He will gather all people to himself at the end of time. The great hymn of victory in the prophet Daniel sings of the triumph of those who faithfully follow Christ and who pour out their blood in martyrdom for the sake of the gospel. How these readings must have inspired the faith and courage of the Douai Martyrs who came to England to teach the Catholic faith. Their work would not be in vain because the Risen Christ would triumph. We gather today in their memory and because of their witness to Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.
The vision of the angels ascending and descending also reminds us of the vision of the angels in Jacob’s dream. When he awoke, he exclaimed, ‘How awesome this place is! This is nothing else but the house of God, the gateway to heaven! (Gen 28:17). Jacob anointed a stone there with oil and named the place ‘Bethel’ meaning the ‘house of God’. Now God reveals himself in Jesus, the Word who became flesh and dwelt amongst us. Jesus Christ is the new ‘house of God’ and the ‘gateway to heaven’. He shows us the Way to the Father as he has shown the martyrs of Douai and the faithful of this College the way to heaven since 1568.
When we celebrate the Mass, we invoke the angels and saints in heaven and today we ask the help of the gentle St. Edmund. May the power of the Archangel Michael protect the Church from evil. May the Archangel Gabriel be the messenger to us of God. May the Archangel Raphael bring healing where there is division and peace in a conflicted world, torn apart by sin and war.
We pray for fidelity in the final words of St Edmund,
‘It is you, Lord, in whom I have believed, whom I have loved, about whom I have preached and taught. You are my witness that I have sought nothing else but you.'
Bishop John Sherrington