Homily at Restoration Mass

 LONDON - 4 May 2000 - Homily for the Feast of the Beatified Martyrs of England and Wales at Westminster Cathedral by Dom Aidan Bellenger, Monk of Downside Abbey Rome has a long memory. In 1850 when Pope Pius IX restored the English Hierarchy the year 597 was at the centre of his attention: "History attests," he declared, "that from the first ages of the Church the Christian religion was introduced into Great Britain where it flourished until the middle of the fifth century, when not only public affairs, but religion also, fell into the most deplorable condition after the invasion of the Angles and the Saxons. But our most holy predecessor, Gregory the Great, quickly sent to that island the monk Augustine and his companions, and after raising him and many others to the episcopal dignity, and adding a considerable number of monks who were priests, he converted the Anglo-Saxons to the Christian religion, and succeeded by their means, in re-establishing and extending the faith Catholic in Britain, which was then to be called England. The identity of England for almost a thousand years from the Gregorian mission was Christian and European, a local church with strong traditions in full unity with the Holy See. Indeed, St Gregory the Great, the true apostle of England, in establishing an English hierarchy (or re-establishing it if we remember earlier British bishops who attended the fourth century councils of Arles, Sardica and Rimini) set a pattern for subsequent missions and hierarchies in the wider church . In return the English gave to their Pope St Gregory a devotion which spread from England back to Rome. It was not until the English, and especially the Venerable Bede, celebrated Gregory's sanctity that the Romans began to recognise his singular greatness; Gregory is in a profound sense as much an English saint as a Roman one. Gregory fought for the unity of the Church at a time when the forces of disorder were in the ascendancy and those beatified martyrs whose feast we celebrate today died for that unity. The diocesan structure created by Gregory and his disciple, Augustine of Canterbury, survived the tumult of the Reformation under new management but the Roman connection was severed and those who remained faithful to the Holy See were forced into exile, persecution, hiding or uneasy compromise. The English and Welsh Catholics from the reign of Elizabeth I to the reign of Victoria practised their faith not only under persecution but also without the benefit of a properly functioning local church, the Archpriests and the Vicars Apostolic retained a tenuous link between the Church and Rome but were never seen as anything but a temporary expedient. They lived by faith. " now faith is an assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen'. It was the Vicars Apostolic themselves who were most tenacious in seeking a restoration of the normal Episcopal government of the church. William Bernard Ullathorne, later first Bishop of Birmingham, chosen by his fellow English Vicars Apostolic as their delegate in the final negotiations leading up to the 1850 restoration, regarded this work as 'the most important and most eventful of the labours of his episcopal life.' Ullathorne had been one of the architects of the Australian Catholic Church and its hierarchy was seen as a model of what was possible in an English-speaking country. Ullathorne was not alone in his deep awareness of how significant the British Empire was to the nineteenth-century world and regarded a reinvigorated church hierarchy in England and Wales as the powerhouse which could bring Catholic Christianity to the four corners of the world. Like Gregory the Great whose conversion of the English can be seen as the beginning of a shift of emphasis in the Church away from its roots in the Mediterranean world, the restoration of the hierarchy was considered as an opportune moment for catholicising the Empire. London, Gregory the Great's first choice as the natural seat of the metropolitan bishop, was to be an ecclesiastical as well as a commercial and political centre. The new bishops of 1850 thought in big terms and, despite its tendency to hyperbole, and even to grandiloquence, Wiseman's pastoral 'From the Flaminian Gate' expressed the wide hopes anticipated by the bishops. It was somehow appropriate that Wiseman had opened a copy of The Times for 14 October 1850 having just dined with the Emperor in Vienna but, instead of finding a welcome response to his appointment as archbishop of Westminster, he read, with increasing disquiet no doubt, of himself as this 'new fangled Archbishop of Westminster', a title which signified 'no more that if the Pope had been pleased to confer on the editor of The Tablet the rank and title of the Duke of Smithfield.' If, 'this appointment be not intended as a clumsy joke, we confess that we only regard it as one of the grossest acts of folly and impertinence', the Times continued, 'which the Court of Rome has ventured to commit since the Crown and people threw off its yoke.' Despite Wiseman's immediate written response to the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, the newspaper stories had already spilled over into national and local political life and his assurance that he was 'invested with a purely ecclesiastical dignity' with 'no secular or temporal delegation whatever', made little impact. Hostile opinion was not so easily quietened and England indulged in an outburst of Protestant invective unknown in the nineteenth century. The English Anti-Catholic tradition burst forth and warned the nation of the subversive power of 'Papal Aggression'. With the hindsight of a hundred and fifty years the intensity of feeling released in 1850 may seem disproportionate, but even in this great year of Jubilee the English fear of foreigners remains as a continuing ingredient of political discourse. Wiseman, Rome's chosen candidate as first archbishop of Westminster, fiercely Roman yes, but with wide sympathies, may now appear an eccentric figure; the unfamiliar title for cardinal, Your Eminence, could so easily by mistaken for Your Immense when it came to Wiseman, increasingly rotund in appearance and oratory; but in his early years as archbishop, he was the driving force of the Restoration of the Hierarchy and its central architect. The leadership of the Roman Catholic community in England has not, unlike its pre-Reformation antecedent, a primate, but since 1850 it is to the Archbishop of Westminster that English Catholics have looked for leadership. Wiseman's great successors including Manning who built up so much of the infrastructure of the Church, and Vaughan, the founder of this cathedral church, Hinsley, Heenan and Hume have all played a significant part in national life. With its great network of schools, parishes and religious houses, the English Catholic Church has come to maturity. Moreover, it was an inclusive church, drawing its membership from emigrant groups and minorities as well as from the native population. 'The particular Roman Catholic achievement,' as Sheridan Gilley has noted recently, 'was to have built up a church, principally from a social class which was largely absent from the churches of other denominations, and to have become a large part of the Christian face of England, with a considerable share of its learning and culture, wit and wisdom.' We are here today to celebrate that achievement; it is a moment not for triumphalism but for sincere gratitude. On an occasion like this, we are bound to think about the past and to learn perhaps something from its lessons. Gregory the Great envisaged a renewal of Europe through a monastic-inspired church which would provide a Christian alternative to barbarism. Pius IX and the English Bishops of 1850 saw a hierarchy as a bastion of Church order and considered a clerically-led church as normative and essential. At the beginning of the Third Millennium, the role of the Church's hierarchy may be something new again: a leadership of service and listening, perhaps, rather than of power and domination. In the twentieth century, especially before the Second Vatican Council, many English Catholics were content to remain within the splendid isolation of their sub-culture. In our complex society, the Church is called not so much to be a sub-culture as a counter-culture, always avoiding the siren voices of Establishment and respectability. The Church has an obligation to present its moral and social teachings in the public arena but most always avoid being seduced by political flattery. A lively church is always a prophetic church. We have the opportunity, through the increasing richness and diversity of communication, to confront the modern world with the eternal truths of Christianity and to experience a third spring. We have the opportunity, too, not available to the Victorians, of working alongside our fellow Christians: unity in diversity. All too easily, church leaders of all kinds can be discouraged by the hostility of the Press or, even more pernicious, the indifference of most people in our country to the faith; it would be difficult to imagine the strong feelings of 1850 being duplicated today. Paradoxically, this may be unfortunate. It we are a listening church now, more humble perhaps, rather chastened at times, we should always remember that we are too a church of proclamation and need opportunities, even in conflict, to make our voice heard. In a world of political correctness and spin, it is sometimes difficult to be noticed, especially if we go beyond single-issue Catholicism to the whole teaching of the Church; difficult, but not impossible. On this feast day, we should ask the prayers of those beatified martyrs to make our witness always more courageous, 'to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.' We should also remember in prayer and thanksgiving the leadership provided by our bishops over the last hundred an fifty challenging years. Above all, we must never forget the vision which made their work possible. When Gregory the Great presented Augustine of Canterbury with a book of Gospels, he was presenting him with the most precious of gifts: the book of life. Bishops are called, like all Christians, to live by that Gospel and to preach it: 'Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who builds his house on a rock. Dom Aidan Bellenger OSB Downside Abbey

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