THE FORTY FOUR: The Martyrs of the English College Rome
(Saint Michael's Abbey Press, PO Box 180, Sumner Park Qld 4074, tel 07-3279 4915, 2000, 80pp, $47.20 plus $4.40 postage).
In 1581 the Venerable English College in Rome was described in a sermon as "the Pontifical Seminary of Martyrs." Its student-priests knew well that when they returned to Protestant England as Catholic priests, martyrdom was highly probable.
Students of the English College have compiled this book to commemorate the principal forty-four such, martyred between 1581-1679.
A short biography by one of six contributors, albeit of markedly differing style, is afforded each martyr. Whilst historically reliable, they do not pretend to be comprehensive: this would require several full-length biographies. However each - and this is the book's genius - allows readers to witness for themself the heroic willingness with which these men remained true to the Catholic faith unto death in spite of most gruesome suffering and torture.
The martyrs themselves speak on the pages of this book. From the gallowside we hear Saint Ralph Sherwin declare: "If to be a Catholic only, if to be a perfect Catholic, is to be a traitor, then I am a traitor." We have Saint Eustace White's final words to the crowd gathered for his execution at Tyburn: "If I had never so many lives, I would think them very few to bestow upon your Tyburns to defend my religion. I wish I had a great many more than one, you should have them all one after another."
And the final address of Saint David Lewis: "Friends, be firm of your faith, avoid mortal sin by frequenting the sacraments of Holy Church, patiently bear your persecutions and afflictions, forgive your enemies; your sufferings are great, I say be firm in your faith to the end, yea, even to death." These are but few.
Its presentation, the contemporary illustrations which enhance these accounts, the calendar of martyrdoms, the index and marker ribbon, all make The Forty Four a most useful devotional book. This hand-crafted volume, printed, sewn and bound by monks, is but one example of the renaissance of traditional monastic life taking place at England's Farnborough Abbey. In itself it is a beautiful work.
But it is more. It is, in the words of the preface by Mother McMonagle of Tyburn Convent, a timely reminder of "bedrock Christian reality, [of] the fact of martyrdom in its starkly violent and heroic reality, [of] heroism shorn of every vestige of glamour." To that end it is truly valuable.
Christopher Quinn is a Catholic journalist working in Europe.