WHEN I look out of the window of my flat within the precincts of the English College, I can see four churches, each associated with a great saint, Exactly opposite is San Girolamo where St Oliver Plunkett worked for two years. A little further on, high up on the corner of a building, is the window of a room where St Philip Neri began his Oratory. In the same little piazza is Santa Caterina, built on the site of the house where St Jerome used to live when he visited Rome from Jerusalem in the years when he was making his great translation of the scriptures into Latin, The Vulgate. Just through the wall from me is the room where St Brigid of Sweden died, If I risk my life by leaning a little further out of my window, I can just see the Spanish Church of Santa Maria in Monseratto in which St Ignatius Loyola often preached on his visits to Rome.
But even more to the point. as I make my way up the main staircase of the College each day I pause to !oak at the plaque on the wall giving the names of the 41 students of the college who died martyrs for the faith during the terrible days of the Reformation.
You may wonder how it comes about that I should be writing this article about the English College at Rome: I am not an Englishman.
1 was not educated in Rome. I am not a member of the Diocesan Clergy.
Perhaps my first words give some indication — but, even more, in the 18 months in which I have lived in the English College I have come to love and admire it and its men; and to understand something of the part it plays in the life of the Church in England and Wales. When term begins in a month the College will be choca-bloc with over 70 students they have even turned the old games room into two new bedrooms.
Twenty-five years ago most of the students would have been young men coming straight to Rome from their schools. Today it is different. Much less than half still come directly from school at about the age of 18 or 19, but the interesting development is that considerably more than half are mature students, many of whom have already taken their degrees and some of whom have given up promising careers. Last year we had a young priest whose degree was in Chinese. Another, a young Canadian studying for an English diocese, was already a qualified lawyer. There was also a young don from Oxford and a young research chemist.
But they are very much a community, with great diversities of opinion and attitudes indeed, but united by the same common bond as their martyr predecessors. There is a tradition of prolonged consultation and discussion on important issues. There are high standards, both spiritually and intellectually, but with a minimum of petty rules. "Few rules but high expectations" is a phrase that struck me almost as soon as I arrived.
Their studies are hard and make great demands — one can see signs of strain as the twice yearly examinations approach. More, almost every member of the students and the staff is engaged in some kind of pastoral work. They give religious instruction to children: they help out at weekends in some of the Roman parishes: they go to convents of Little Sisters of the Poor to minister to the old folk. They are frequently involved in Vatican ceremonies. And during the long summer vacation a good part of the time is spent in work of one kind or another — in parishes, in groups, and also in factories — at home in England and Wales. It is a different kind of life from my own student life when there was a rigid policy of seclusion and when, for long months and sometimes years, we were cut off from any contact with family and friends and the world at large.
The new policy seems to work and there is a sense of high dedication: with less conpulsion and constraint.
This work has been going on in the College for 402 years. It began in the days when the laws of our country made it impossible for young men to prepare for the priesthood at home. To be a priest the boy had to go to France or the Low countries or Spain or Portugal or Rome, and when, after long years of preparation, he was clothed with the priesthood of Christ, he prepared to return home to celebrate Mass and to preach the gospel, knowing that there was a price on his head.
The danger of the rack and the gallows was great and year after year news would come back to the College of its sons dying a cruel and barbarous death for the faith at Tyburn. at Lancaster, in the far West Country. in Wales. I have often pondered what look place in the hearts of these young men and in the hearts of their parents as they crossed the threshold of their homes, never to return except as marked and hunted men. Today it is different, but still a young man is invited to give up his home, his family. his prospects, his career and to dedicate himself with total surrender to the loving service of God and his people for life. A martyr is someone who "bears witness". Today's young men truly bear witness in a world which has drifted far from God.
But why Rome now, when our seminaries at home are open and no one need cross the seas to become a priest?
It is no disparagement of the splendid work of our seminaries at home to say that the English College gives to its men the advantage of benefiting from the best international Catholic scholarship at the Gregorian and oher universities of the Eternal City. They meet professors and fellow students from local churches in every part of the world. for Rome is the centre of the Catholic Church— the loving expression of her unity and diversity, rich in memories but rich too in contemporary achievement and offering an experience unique in all the world. As the countries of Europe draw closer together, the contact these men have with the religious and cultural traditions of Rome takes on a new importance.
And in Rome is the Pope!
1 have experienced a moment of emotion as I watched the students after their own wonderful Mass on the morning of Easter Day, rush off to St Peter's to be with the Pope as he celebrates his Easter Mass and gives his message and blessing to the City and the world. The Pope is a quarter of an hour's distance away. He visited the college for its 400th anniversary, he sat at a table with the staff and students; and he met every member of the College and had a word for each. Before it began its work of training priests for England and Wales during the dark days of the Reformation, the College had been a hospice for English pilgrims and visitors to Rome and had been the centre of English life in the city. It began in 1362, the house of John and Alice She pherd. It gave hospitality to many famousEnglishmen. Thomas Linacre, founder of the Royal College of Physicians, and William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, were among its patrons, and it enjoyed the protection and patronage of the Kings of England. In later days the English College gave hospitality to the exiled Royal Stuarts, to John Milton, Cardinal Newman and Mr Gladstone. You may well imagine the richness and interest of its archives and the splendour of its library.
Since the Council the ecumenical dimension of the College has developed and grown. For the past few years two young Anglican students spent a term studying in the College and many Anglican and Free Church visitors are regularly guests.
These have recently included Archbishops Michael Ramsey and Donald Coggan of Canterbury, and Bishop Moorman, who was an Anglican representative at the Second Vatican Council, and is an old and valued friend.
After a visit some years ago. Dr Norman Goodall, one time assistant general secretary of the World Council of Churches and a Minister of the United Reformed Church wrote: "My residence in the 'Venerabile proved to be a period of deep renewal of my own faith as well as one in which I was wonderfully blessed by the friendship of students and faculty." And now the old College needs help. Much has already been done — extensive modernisation, renewal of the library and the dining room, new kitchen' and laundry facilities, a new central ' heating system, all through the generosity of friends and benefactors.
However, further improvements are necessary and the College needs to 'develop pro jects which will give it some financial security and so an Appeal will be launched this week".
"Salvete Flores Martyrum", St Philip Neri often said when he met the students of the English College in the streets of Rome "The Rowers of the Martyrs."
And Pope John Paul II spoke these memorable words when he visited the College on December 6, 1979.
"You are called to be witnesses in this generation to the vitality of the Church's youth — to be witnesses to the power and effectiveness of Christ's grace to capture the hearts of the young today. The world needs concrete proof that Christ can draw this generation to himself. You are called to bear witness to the fact that amid the thousand and one attractions offered by the modern world, you have been 'captured' by Christ, to the point of giving up all the rest, in order to become his companions and disciples; in order to embrace his mission. and finally his Cross; and in order to know the power of his Resurrection."