Homily for 8 November 2018, All Saints of England.
Celebrant and preacher: Rev’d. Thomas Mason.
“Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations.”
What an odd feast we have today. A week ago we gathered, along with all faithful Catholics, and we celebrated All Saints’ Day – those thousands of men and women, both known and unknown, whose co-operation with the work of God in their lives meant that, the course of their earthly life completed, they could and did enter directly into heaven and now reign in glory with Christ. Having done that, why would we suddenly narrow down our vision and just look at those around us? Plus, this is England – solid protestant England – this isn’t really a land of saints, is it?
Today’s feast reminds us of a powerful truth of the incarnation – that our religion is one which has space for both the universal and the particular. Yes, our eternal commonwealth is in heaven; yes, our identity as Catholic must come before any narrower identity, including our nationality. But, at the same time, we are born into a family, or rather into a set of families because it does not merely mean our parents, siblings, and so forth. We have a wider family including the family of our nation. Catholicism is not a religion which denies our nationhood; rather it calls on us to see it through the prism of Christ and his love for all. A proper and properly formed patriotism is not merely legitimate; ultimately is part of the fulfilment of the fourth commandment, to honour our fathers and mothers.
This, of course, does not admit of blindness, whether to claim the rightness of England’s cause regardless how far from the truth she has strayed; or to claim the wickedness and perfidy of others, simply because they are other. All have a claim on our love and charity; but those of our own greater family do have a particular claim. So whilst we honour all of the Saints who ever trod this vale of tears, we are right to recall those closest to us. This is not something peculiar to the Ordinariate either, I’m delighted to see at least one Dominican here. Yesterday the Dominicans celebrated this same feast within their family, the Order of Preachers; and many other religious families do the same.
But my second question remains – England? Formerly protestant and now sæcular England? A land of Saints?
I dare to suggest that the Catholic Church is this land seems at times to have forgotten its former glory here. I speak within a building dedicated to the memory of S. John Fisher, in his time both Vice Chancellor and Chancellor of this university; canonised with S. Thomas More, erstwhile Lord Chancellor of England. Then there’s the forty martyrs, canonised as recently as 1970. All of these are worthy of our love and veneration, I admit to a particular fondness for S. Edmund Campion, a fellow convert from Anglicanism. But dig a little deeper and a magnificent treasure-trove will be uncovered.
In this place it would be improper not to mention S. Felix, founder of the See of East Anglia. to whom, I am sure, Bishop Alan, now gloriously reigning as his successor, often turns in prayer. Being in Cambridge I also could not fail to mention S. Frideswide, having founded a convent, she was pursued with nefarious intent by a local noble, Algar. She responded by striking him blind to preserve her purity. She lived out a life of prayer and penance in the convent she founded on the banks of the Isis, and so now bestows her heavenly intercession on the great city and university of Oxford of which she is patroness. Just down the road from here the great ship of the fens, arose out of the monastery founded by S. Etheldreda.
Some have had major national influence; S. Hilda and S. Wilfrid encouraging us to adopt Roman practices such as the date of Easter. S. Edward the Confessor, sitting on the throne for over twenty years and founding Westminster Abbey (yet, somehow, only an optional memorial in our national calendar). S. Thomas Becket whose martyrdom shocked the whole of Europe, and whose shrine was one of the busiest pilgrimage destinations in the whole of Christendom. S. Bede the Venerable, populariser of the calendrical division into B.C. and A.D. – a system now used throughout the world.
Below these A-listers, a vast plethora of locals; most now lost to our memory, or preserved only in the prefix “Saint” added to a town – S. Edmundsbury, S. Neots, S. Ives. You don’t have to believe in the story of S. Lucius, a king of the Britons who appealed for help from Pope S. Eleutherius in spreading the Gospel here; you don’t have to, there’s nothing to stop you doing so though. But the simple fact is that we are not short of such saints to celebrate. Today gives us the opportunity to gather them all together, and to recall what this land once was. A great realm of Catholic Christendom, noted throughout Europe for its devotion, given the high honour of being named as Our Lady’s Dowry.
Once was? Whilst it may not be a land over-flowing with saints at the present – we may live in a society where Catholicism seems to be pushed ever more to the margins, where acceptable norms are ever further from what we know to be the truth of the matter – we can also never live in anything other than hope. England in 597 wouldn’t have looked very promising to S. Augustine, but see what he achieved. In the nineteenth century even after centuries of legal suppression, B. John Henry Newman could speak to the Church springing to life again. What could we accomplish in our lives and work? I do not predict that we will see the re-conversion of England, but I know that unless we take this as our aim, then we certainly will not see it. Seeking to draw the whole nation into Christ, and more than that too, to let Christ and his message of truth and love, flow out into every aspect of our nation’s life. In a few weeks’ time we will celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, and there in the preface will speak of the reign of Christ: “a kingdom endless and universal: a kingdom of truth and life; a kingdom of grace and holiness; a kingdom of peace, of love, and of righteousness.”
In this seeking to bring England home, the Saints, our Saints are key. For us the Saints are not historical figures, once alive but now dead. No, though they have passed from this particular life, they remain alive. Indeed they are more truly alive now than they ever were on earth. Everything we do, we do in the company of the Saints, assisted by their fervent prayers, looking to their example. So let us endeavour to join with the Saints. Let us build our friendship with them. Let us ask them to work closely with us. This is how we may praise famous men and our fathers in their generations.
As we used to pray at Benediction each month (and in some places still do):
O merciful God, let the glorious intercession of Thy saints assist us, particularly the most blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Thy only-begotten Son, and Thy holy Apostles, Peter and Paul, to whose patronage we humbly recommend this country. Be mindful of our fathers, Eleutherius, Celestine, and Gregory, bishops of the Holy City; of Augustine, Columba, and Aidan, who delivered to us inviolate the faith of the Holy Roman Church. Remember our holy martyrs, who shed their blood for Christ: especially our first martyr, Saint Alban, and Thy most glorious bishop, Saint Thomas of Canterbury. Remember all those holy confessors; bishops, and kings, all those holy monks and hermits, all those holy virgins and widows, who made this once an island of saints, illustrious by their glorious merits and virtues. Let not their memory perish from before Thee, O Lord, but let their supplication enter daily into Thy sight; and do Thou, who didst so often spare Thy sinful people for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now, also, moved by the prayers of our fathers, reigning with Thee, have mercy upon us, save Thy people, and bless Thy inheritance; and suffer not those souls to perish, which Thy Son hath redeemed with His own most Precious Blood, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee, world without end. Amen.