Bishop John Crowley, Bishop of Middlesbrough, gave the following homily at Westminster Cathedral during the Annual Requiem Mass for Deceased Clergy on 29 November 2011.
“It is my Father’s will that I should lose nothing of all that He has given to me, and that I should raise it up on the last day” (Jn 5:37-40)
Soon after my arrival in Middlesbrough in 1993 one of the diocesan priests, still only in his early fifties, was – out of the blue – diagnosed to have a life threatening illness, from which he subsequently died a few months later. You can imagine how sad a time it was for his family and friends, for his parish of Richmond in the Yorkshire Dales and for the whole diocese. And for Father Des himself it was a deeply traumatic time. He was a greatly appreciated and respected priest.
During those last months of his life he and I had many opportunities to have conversations of the kind which are only possible in such circumstances. In normal times we would probably never have got to know each other at such depth, but now every meeting we had, every conversation we had, was for real. One of those conversations has remained imprinted in my memory. It was just two or three weeks before he died. Des spoke of his fear of dying, his fear about that final gigantic step into death which no-one else could make for him. He felt afraid, he felt lonely. All around him there was strong loving support from his family and friends, from his brother priests and those who nursed him. But it wasn’t enough. What he dreaded most was night time, especially those small hours of the morning when sleep eluded him, and when there was no-one at his bedside.
It was then that one phrase from one hymn in the breviary became his strength and stay, a faith conviction to which he clung up to the moment of his ultimately peaceful death. Every priest here and, happily an increasing number of lay faithful, will be familiar with the hymn. It’s the one which begins “Alone with none but thee, my God, I journey on my way”. But it was the next two lines of that first verse which became his lifeline during those lonely night vigils when the demons of fear crowded in. They read “What need I fear when thou art near, O king of night and day”.
For Des, that was just the reassurance he was looking for. He needed to know that throughout the night just as throughout the day this often deeply hidden mysterious God was there at his side. That one conviction, to which he clung sometimes only by his finger tips, was enough, just enough to carry him through those last hard weeks into and across that dark threshold, which is our death.
Recalling those days now has propelled me, by the grace of God, to do some soul searching in regard to my own death. Earlier this year I clocked up the biblical three score and ten, and whilst I love being alive and try to live my present life to the full, there’s an increasing realisation that what’s left of my life will soon be over, and death will claim me.
What then are the key supports, the key convictions to which I must look for courage and strength on that homeward run? Just as Des himself was buoyed up most of all by that one line of one hymn ‘O king of night and day!’ And what will be the different moods I’ll experience in those last weeks? Fearful? Calm? Struggling? Peaceful? There’s no way of knowing. It might well be a mixture of all of them.
When Cardinal Hume first learnt he was dying in April 1999, initially he experienced, you might recall, great inner serenity, sweetness even. An almost tangible sense of peace and joy got him through that first hurdle after the trauma of that stark diagnosis. But then, as he made plain in an utterly transparent message to his priests, the curtain of faith came down. Now there was nothing to sense. There was simply silence, impenetrability, faith in all its nakedness. During those final weeks of his life, that pendulum of alternating light and darkness swung back and forth until his death in mid June. But his legacy, as we’re all so aware, lives on. A widely quoted remark at the time remains true. ‘Cardinal Hume taught us first how to live, then at the end he taught us how to die’.
So I certainly look to his witness as one marker for the journey ahead, for that last lap. And there are others too – a host of witnesses who encourage me hugely. The manner in which someone like Father Alan Fudge just a few months ago approached his death – so open and honest, so vulnerable, so faith inspiring. And I’m sure there are others in this congregation who might want to tell similar stories of our other priestly brethren who have died this past year. Just let me mention that role of honour – John Galvin, Reggie Fuller, Tony Howe and, most recently, Joe Boward. I think too of someone like Bishop Michael Evans who shared deeply with his diocese and far beyond his own journey into an early death. How much we can all gain renewed hope and courage from such witnesses.
An immense help to me personally are some passages from the Scriptures, God’s living word to set me free. They are indeed “a lamp for my steps, a light for my path”. (Ps 119). For our Mass tonight I’ve chosen two such passages, one from Paul and one from the words of Jesus. The magnet which drew me to them was spotting how Jesus and, his captive, Paul, both employ that same absolute word ‘nothing’ – ‘no-thing’. St Paul writes “For I am certain of this... that nothing in life or in death, nothing that exists can ever come between me and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39). And Jesus says “It is the will of my Father, of the one who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given to me” (Jn 6:37-40).
How helped I am by such unconditional no room for doubt words on the lips of Paul and his Master, Jesus. Think back again to Cardinal Hume on his deathbed. There he spoke of his renewed awareness that everything we need for our journey into God is contained in the words of the ‘Our Father’. He reflected movingly on those first phrases of the Our Father line by line. “Our Father in heaven”. ‘Heaven’, he said, ‘is where God is, and the more we find our home in God, the more we begin to taste heaven itself’. “Hallowed be thy name”. ‘That’s our vocation, our purpose here on earth: to sing the praises of God through the witness of our daily lives’. “Thy kingdom come”. ‘That’s what we must long for, pray for and work for, God’s kingdom, a kingdom lit up from within by justice, love, and peace.’ And then he added a final thought, and this is particularly what I want to recall now. After praying the words “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven”, he reflected ‘What God wants, what God wills, is what’s best for us. God’s will in our regard is for a future full of hope, so with what enormous confidence we can pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
Pondering what Cardinal Hume said compels me to listen afresh to those other words of Jesus about his Father’s will, the words we heard in tonight’s Gospel “It is the will of my Father, the one who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has entrusted to me”. “... I should lose nothing...” Remember this is Truth Himself speaking.
Let me end, dear friends in Christ, with a homely image. Those of you in this congregation who have ever attended the ordination of a priest will know that there comes a moment when the candidate for priesthood lies face down on the sanctuary floor. Meanwhile those present are begging all the angels and saints to surround him with their powerful intercession. That gesture of prostration so clearly symbolises that the one to be ordained is leaving behind his former manner of life, so as to enter completely into this new life, in Christ, through Christ and with Christ. It is a total surrender of his life into God’s hands, for God’s purposes.
Fast forward X number of years, and that same priest will lie prostrate again before the altar, but this time with his eyes closed in death, real physical death. As we pray tonight for all the priests of this diocese who have died in the past year, all the priests who have closed their eyes in death down the years of this local church of Westminster, our prayer for them, full of hope and confidence, might appropriately be the words of the Psalmist, “As for me, in your mercy, Lord, I shall see your face and be filled when I awake with the sight of your glory”. (Ps 16/17)
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