This month's piece stands in stark contrast to the last. Then I wrote of the need to let the Spirit guide us in the mundanity of life, to let Christ transform us through love in the ordinary. This past month, however, has been fairly extraordinary for us here in Rome.
This year, the English College is celebrating three significant anniversaries. Nine hundred years ago, the martyrdom of St Thomas of Canterbury – popularly known as Thomas Becket – appalled the Christian world, leading to a renewed zeal for the rights of the Church and many dedications to Thomas's heavenly patronage. Our own church here is dedicated to him.
Secondly, it is 450 years since the first English seminary was founded in Douai, Belgium, initiating the ongoing tradition of sending men abroad for priestly formation. Finally, it is 200 years since the English College returned to its current location after the invading Napoleonic forces had rather rudely forced a temporary hiatus.
Our college archivist, Maurice Whitehead, has organised a superb exhibition to mark the rich history of English Catholicism. On display are sumptuous monstrances, ancient manuscripts and embellished reliquaries, to say nothing of the 'wings' (the traditional Jesuitical priestly garb) of the Superior General of the Jesuits, Lorenzo Ricci, who was imprisoned at the English College in 1773 before his transfer to Castel Sant'Angelo, where he later died.
The strong connection between the English College and the Jesuit-founded Stonyhurst College, where the English seminarians were graciously hosted during World War II (1940–46), have been duly acknowledged.
Yet the icing on the cake to commemorate this dramatically rich past has been an equally inspirational private audience with the current Holy Father, Pope Francis. The entire community had an intimate gathering with the Pontiff in the Sala del Concistoro on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace. Having passed through the finely tuned Swiss Guard security, our little band traversed the ornate surroundings of the Vatican. Expectant and excited, we noticed that the room and papal chair were the same ones used by Pope Benedict XVI when he announced his historic decision to resign in 2013.
The Holy Father encouraged us all to seek friendship with Christ, to open the 'inner chamber of our hearts' to His voice as we prepare for our ministries in England and Wales. He also encouraged us to avoid rigidity and to cultivate life-giving and true friendships as sources of loving support and grace given by the Lord. No one travels alone in the Christian pilgrimage of lifelong sanctification, love and service, and the same is true for priests and religious.
It was an immense privilege to meet the Holy Father, whose warmth and joy was evident when he greeted us all individually after his speech. May God bless him and sustain him, and us all, in our journeys of faith.