While the days are long past that to be a Catholic priest in England is a capital crime, the legacy of the nation's Rome-based seminary – where centuries earlier 44 men trained for the priesthood before returning home to be martyred – has not been forgotten.

Every year on Martyrs' Day, Dec. 1, students and staff of the Venerable English College (VEC) celebrate those former students martyred during the English Reformation's persecution of the Catholic Church.

And for one current student, that history still resonates today.

"The whole English reformation started because Henry VIII wanted a divorce," said Deacon David Howell of the Archdiocese of Southwark in an interview with CNA. "In our country, again, marriage is under threat. That's part of our same mission today."

Deacon Howell cited the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who has spoken "about the English martyrs as witnesses to marriage."

Martyr's Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the martyrdom St. Ralph Sherwin, the first of the seminary's former students to be killed during the Reformation. In 1581, the young priest was hung, drawn and quartered in Tyburn four months after returning to England. Two other Catholic priests, St. Edmund Campion and St. Alexander Briant, were martyred alongside him.

Formerly a hospice for English and Welsh pilgrims to Rome, the VEC was established as a seminary in 1579 when it became illegal to train for the priesthood in England. Consequently, seminarians studying at the College knew they would likely be persecuted or killed upon their return as priests.

Between 1581 and 1679, St. Ralph Sherwin and 43 other students of the College were martyred. Of these, 41 have been canonized or beatified.

These martyrs "were incredibly faithful to the teaching of the Church and the papacy, and they had an amazing faith in the sacraments," said Deacon Howell.

They knew that without the sacraments, "the faith would die" in England, he explained. Therefore "they're wonderful models of fidelity to the faith and to the sacraments, and they're also wonderful models of mercy."

The annual Martyrs' Day commemorations take place in the seminary's main chapel, which is lit by candles for the occasion. A student reads a reflection written at the time of the persecutions  – this year, a letter written by St. Ralph Sherwin the day before his martyrdom – and the relics of the VEC's martyrs are displayed on the altar and venerated.

One of the highlights of the evening is the singing of the Te Deum in front of the Martyrs' Painting, a 16th century image of the Trinity by Durante Alberti which hangs behind the altar. This tradition harkens back to a practice of the seminarians at the time of the Reformation every time news reached them of a former student's martyrdom.

"If any ever news returned to Rome that one of their brother priests had been put to death in England, the College community would come and gather in front of the painting," explained VEC vice rector Fr. Mark Harold. "They would sing a hymn of praise to God, Te Deum laudamus," which is paraphrased in the English hymn "Holy God, we praise thy name".

"And thus each year in the evening of Dec. 1 the College community gathers in front of this painting and we too in that tradition sing the hymn Te Deum laudamus."

The VEC's yearly commemoration of Martyrs' Day was instituted in the 1930s on the fourth centenary of the English Catholic martyrs, explained VEC rector Msgr. Philip Whitmore. He said its establishment prompted a "great awakening" as to the legacy of the seminary's martyrs.

"It's a reminder of our identity, of our mission," Msgr. Whitmore said.

"We have the great tradition of our forebears who intercede for us with their prayers and give us a wonderful example of dedication, and faith, and courage."

On the upper level of the College chapel are a series of frescos, depicting the martyrdoms of St. Ralph Sherwin, St. Thomas More, and dozens of others, which originally dated back to the Reformation. The current paintings are based on reproductions of the originals which had been recorded in a book, as the chapel was severely damaged by Napoleon's forces in the 18th century.

The panels graphically depict the martyrdoms, Fr. Harold said, and are not for the faint of heart. "They're a vivid reminder to us of what people gave their lives for and what a great sacrifice they made in the name of their faith and that we walk in that tradition."

"They lived in this house, in this building, and we are literally walking in their footsteps."

For current student Deacon Howell, the College chapel in particular brings to mind the martyrs who came before him.

"It's a constant challenge when you enter the Church and think that, in this Church, 44 men received that grace of martyrdom through their prayer and through the Mass they celebrated," he said.

"It makes me ask myself, 'what graces am I receiving? What graces am I asking for? Am I asking for that grace to give up my life entirely?'"

"Perhaps I won't have the same challenges they had, but still I have to have that same self gift. That's the challenge that comes to mind when I enter the church here."

Although it has been centuries since a former seminarian of the VEC has been killed for the faith, Msgr. Whitmore says the martyrs nonetheless have something to offer current students.

In bringing the Gospel to England and Wales, Msgr. Whitmore said, these martyrs "give a wonderful example of courage and dedication to the mission to spread the Gospel" in a way that reflects the VEC's motto: "To set fire to the earth."

Moreover, the College martyrs are intercessors, he continued. "They support us with their prayers for the very difficult mission that we still have today."

Although England and Wales constitutes "a different mission," the rector said, "we encounter all sorts of opposition, all sorts of difficulties, even a certain amount of hostility."

"That courage, that passion, that faith, that commitment the martyrs show is something we need today, and something we need to instill in the new generation of students going out for the mission."