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The Holy Albans

The Martyrdom of St. Alban, Protomartyr; with the executioner losing his eyes

Traditionally, today, 22 June, is the Feast of St. Alban, protomartyr of Britain from the third or early fourth century. Many places named after saints across these isles have an opaque history, but St. Albans just north of London is far clearer. The story as for all holy martyrs, is of virtue, conviction in faith, supreme courage and of exemplifying the two great precepts of Charity: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength." (Matt 12:30); and "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." (Matt 12:31).

Alban, then pagan, encountered a priest fleeing from persecutors and sheltered him in his house. The priest, later named Amphibalus (from the Latin word for cloak), prayed all day and night keeping watch, and impressed Alban so much with his virtue and faith that Alban was converted to Catholicism. When soldiers came searching for the priest, Alban put on his cloak to protect the priest. It became clear to the judge that Alban was masquerading but was nonetheless sentenced to death for the priests 'crimes' unless Alban would recant and worship the pagan gods. "I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things" was his reply. Whilst led to his execution, a great number of people followed but could not cross a bridge rapidly. Alban prayed and the river miraculously dried allowing everyone to cross the valley and hastening his execution. Where his head was cut off and fell, a spring miraculously arose. A first Roman soldier had refused to perform the execution and was converted; a second solider who did proceed had his eyes fall out at the point of execution and was unable to see and glory in the act. The local civil authorities stopped Catholic persecution and converted.

St. Alban, then, was the first martyr for the faith in Britain – all due to the burning passion in his heart born of the faithful example of another Catholic. Personal example in faith breeds converts and makes saints!

As if to reinforce the point, it is perhaps also fitting to remember St. Alban Roe, martyr of 1642. Born Bartholomew Roe, he went to St. Albans to visit a recusant and convince him of the errors of his 'papist ways'. So taken was Bartholomew with the captive – his sincerity, beliefs, conviction, and example – that he himself became a Catholic in 1607. By 1614 he became a Benedictine and was professed with the name Alban. Fr Alban Roe spent the next quarter of a century ministering for the sake of others around London, whilst in and out of prison. (His first was New Prison, on Maiden Lane, where the London region has recently established inaugural regular Masses for the Guild.) Whilst in prison, Alban translated Latin works to English, including St. John Fisher's treatise on prayer (see date link below). On the day of his martyrdom (21 January 1642) Alban spoke to his fellow inmates: "When you see our heads up on London Bridge, take it that they are there to preach to you, to proclaim that Faith for which we are about to die." He prayed his executioner would do his duty worthily – before giving away all his money to the executioner, asking him to drink to his health but cautioning him not to get too drunk! The regard for St. Alban Roe was such that the crowd expressed its clear displeasure at the execution of such a holy soul.

St. John Fisher was also martyred on this day in 1535 at the very beginning of the English revolution.

It is said the height of leadership is to leave behind someone to take over who is better than you. Knowing the faith of our fathers is a duty for all Catholics – and setting a positive example amidst a hostile world is the surest way to leave behind saints as a legacy for one’s efforts. What a legacy in the example of Amphibalus!!


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