One of the strange features of the modern world is our relationship to history. We live, perhaps more than any other culture, in the present moment, with very few ties binding us to the lives of those who came before. Yet sometimes, the past breaks through in unexpected ways. Or, at least, we become aware of the humbling ways in which the past is intimately linked to our own lives.

The first bishop of Melbourne, James Alipius Goold, had an eye for the past and the future. As a lover of Baroque art and architecture, he ensured Melbourne would have a cultural patrimony to be shared and loved by all, the most significant aspect of which was his commissioning of St Patrick’s Cathedral, the finest example of neo-Gothic architecture in the southern hemisphere.

But there was another addition he made to the Church in Melbourne that is little-known: the relics of an early Christian.

In 1840, in Rome, the tomb of an early martyr, St Flavia Domitilla, was rediscovered. Born towards the end of the first century, very little is actually known of this young woman, other than the fact that she was related in some way to the emperors Domitian and Titus, and that, as a result of confessing the Christian faith, she was banished. Following her death, a popular cult grew around her, seeking her intercession as Christians increasingly became victims of terrible cruelty.

Goold happened to be in Rome close to the time of Flavia’s rediscovery, so he organised to have her brought back to Melbourne, along with a wax effigy, and placed in the Cathedral’s very first wooden altar. That altar now resides at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Carlton. Her wax effigy can be visited at the James Alipius Goold Museum, located near the Cathedral.

It’s strange to think that the bones of an early Christian reside here in Melbourne: the life of the early Church seems otherworldly in comparison to the life of 21st-century Australia. Nevertheless, Goold’s decision to bring Flavia back to Australia with him was a moment of grace; she dwells in Melbourne as a quiet witness to the living memory of the Church. The Church is no dead thing; she is a living thing, enduring through time by the grace of God alone, confessing a faith that is worth living and dying for.

Like many saints before and after, she is a recognisable link in the chain of grace stretching back to Calvary.

Being so close to two Roman emperors, confessing the Christian creed was no small matter. It entailed risks that we in Australia never have to contemplate. To confess Christ as Lord was a death sentence for Flavia and those of her age.

In this way, the martyrs serve as the sharp edge of the Church’s faith; the cutting memory that forces us to take the faith seriously or not at all. Flavia was such a martyr.

This year, the Catholic Church in Melbourne celebrates the 175th anniversary since its establishment as a diocese. Although in 2022 Melbourne is situated two thousand years after the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and almost just as long since the tumultuous years of the early Church, perhaps St Flavia calls to us from her quiet spot in Carlton.

We are not so disconnected from the past as we think. We are not so remote. St Flavia, though martyred sometime at the beginning of the second century, dwells among us. Perhaps she has been praying for us ever since she arrived.

In his most recent Patrick Oration, Archbishop Comensoli noted that the Church in Australia is in a state of exile, that ‘a Christian way of life has become an unknown or unchosen experience to many – perhaps most – people.’

St Flavia lived at a time when the Christian way of life was just beginning to emerge. As we navigate the ‘nightfall’ of Christian exile, it might be a good thing for us to remember St Flavia, to call upon her intercession so that Christ’s light might shine through us, and we can be a witness of faithfulness – even unto death – for future generations. Through such witness and faithfulness, new life is breathed into the Church. After all, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.