Words on the Word

St Alban

St Alban is the protomartyr of England, a prototype of this country’s particular Christian profile. Every Christian is called to live out that testimony which is the root sense of ‘martyrdom’. The Church recognises not only the red martyrdom of death endured for Christ’s sake but also the white martyrdom of heroic fidelity in life. That said, England’s Church has an especially rich crop of martyrs in the strict sense.

Until not long ago, English Catholicism identified itself in terms of the legacy of the martyrs. Speaking as a resident alien, I find it curious how quickly (say, over the past 30 years) this reference has largely fallen silent. Is this not unfortunate? The state we are in resembles in many ways that of the centuries of Christian heroism. We need good, reliable examples. Today’s Church faces competing absolute claims, even though the dictatorship whose tentacles reach out for us is one of relativism. A radical stance is called for, and radical measures. We are called — this may turn out to be a blessing — to great integrity of life and intelligence in teaching, to coherent witness.

The drama of Alban’s life and death, handed down to us by Bede, was played out in Hertfordshire during the third century. There were still people alive then who had known the successors to the apostles: Alban’s life seems to have overlapped with that of Irenaeus, who had known Polycarp, who had known St John the Evangelist. Today’s feast reminds us that the roots of Christian witness in this land run deep.

Alban sheltered a foreign priest fleeing persecution. Alban was not a Christian at the time, just a good man moved with pity for the plight of a fellow in distress. Alban invited the priest into his house. So edified was he by the priest’s sincerity and devotion that he asked, after a while, to be baptised. When the pagan authorities discovered the priest’s whereabouts, Alban surrendered himself instead of his guest, to be executed in substitution. He gave up his life for his friend, so great was his love. Alban the saint is revered for sheltering a stranger whose faith, at first, was different from his. This stranger became for him a brother. Their destinies became as one. Alban’s shrine became a reference for this nation, a sign of its highest aspirations.

This gives food for thought today, when slogans would discredit the very ethos of hospitality. Many clamour to draw up the bridge and lower the portcullis. There is need for a Catholic counterpoise wherever we live, showing that one may at once be a loyal citizen of the land and a member of a larger, more decisive, unifying Body. May we have the sincerity, charity and courage to keep Alban’s legacy alive.

A 13th-century depiction of Saint Alban’s martyrdom in a MS kept at Trinity College Library, Dublin