Bishop John Crowley, gave the following homily at a Mass celebrating the Silver Jubilee of his Episcopate at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Wanstead, on 8 December 2011 - Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
“Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ” (Ep 1:3-6)
To those words I will surely return. But let me begin with a bit of historical context on this jubilee night. I was ordained priest in 1965, the year the Second Vatican Council ended. Just one day before that Council closed on this Feast of the Immaculate Conception it published the second of its two greatest documents Gaudium et Spes - Joy and Hope – ‘The Church in the Modern World’. Its other stand out document was of course Lumen Gentium – The Church as the Light of the Nations’. Let me quote to you the opening lines of Gaudium et Spes. Forty six years on they still retain their freshness, their vision, their capacity to inspire.
“The joys and hopes, the fears and anxieties of the men and women of our age, and especially of those most pushed to the margins of life, are the joys and hopes, the fears and anxieties of the men and women of the Church. Why? Because there is nothing which belongs to human life which does not find an echo in our hearts.”
It’s all there in essence; how the Council Fathers, all the bishops from around the world, acting under an almighty shove of the Holy Spirit, came to see how the Universal Church should seek to relate to those around us on this beautiful but very fragile small planet earth.
How blessed I feel myself to have studied for the priesthood and been ordained in those exciting years for the Church. That vision shaped my understanding of the Church both as a priest and as a bishop. John the twenty third, who called the Council and who was to die soon after it began, provided a striking image for its twinfold purpose of Reform and Reunion. “We must open the windows of the Church,” he said, “and let in some fresh air”. Which it most certainly did. He saw, and the Council Fathers eventually picked up his vision, that the Church must not stand aloof as it were within its own secluded fortress. Rather, it must enter much more into partnership with the world around her. A highly critical partner often as she strives to shine the light of Christ’s Gospel upon many shoddy values and inhuman practices, a highly critical partner often as she draws from her rich body of social teaching to challenge huge disparities between the haves and the have nots, and to challenge and denounce unjust structures.
But a partner nonetheless, sharing the same common humanity, the same up and down struggles within daily life as everyone else, whether inside or outside the Church. And a partner too seeking, striving whenever possible, to find common ground, common good with other believers and non believers alike. All of which means that we don’t have to agree totally with others on everything regarding faith or morals before we can work together. We are looking for allies, people of goodwill who will work with us at the service of others, and especially of the poor. Think back to John the 23rd image of opening the windows to let in fresh air. We’re not just a teaching Church. We’re a learning Church as well. Why? Because God’s Spirit is active throughout the whole world, never our exclusive property. Jesus himself “grew in wisdom and in stature” (Lk 2:51). He allowed himself to learn from a rank outsider, from a pagan woman’s dogged persistence on behalf of her sick daughter, that God’s goodness, his Father’s blessings could not be limited to Israel alone, but were for everyone. (Matt 15:21-28)
Let me return for a moment to those two key words, two core Christian values – Joy and Hope – which always touch me deeply with their lifegiving power and energy. To them I now want to add another seminal Christian attitude – Thanksgiving. ‘If the only prayer we were ever to say in our lives was ‘thank you’ that would be enough’ (Meister Eckhart).
So for the rest of the homily I want sing as it were on this jubilee night my thanksgiving to God for all the blessings from God, which have been heaped upon me down the years. I want to begin by expressing my gratitude for the gift of life itself. I love life, I love being alive, with all the twists and turns that involves. Anyone’s life, very much mine included, is an amalgam of joys and sorrows and lots of ordinary daily living in between, but what a gift, life itself.
How utterly thankful too I am for the inestimable gift of faith; for baptism, confirmation and for Eucharist. No wonder that St Peter says of us “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God who has called you out of the darkness into his own wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
And in my particular case, like many here tonight, I’m so grateful to God for the call to the ordained ministry, to the sacrament of Holy Orders. What a gift and blessing that has been – all 46 years of it. Be very sure that if I had my life over again, I would dearly hope that God in Jesus would invite me once more to follow the same path. It’s a truly fulfilling way to live – such closeness to others in all the key moments of life – such a totally satisfying Gospel to preach and to try to live.
But now for a brief moment I must highlight on this occasion my profound gratitude for being called to be a bishop in the Church; called to be part of that college which is in direct succession to the apostles themselves. Need one say more! On this very date and feast day twenty five years ago exactly I was ordained bishop by Cardinal Hume in Westminster Cathedral. A number of you here tonight were present on that marvellous Monday morning. Thereafter, for six years I was the Cardinal’s auxiliary bishop with particular responsibility for the fifty to sixty parishes in Central London. They were important years for me, learning my new Episcopal trade under a wise and holy leader.
In November 1992 I was appointed bishop of Middlesbrough in the North East of England, a diocese and a people whom I quickly came to love and appreciate, and to identify with, during the fifteen years which followed.
They were good and happy years in the main – joys and sorrows again of course, and fairly hefty pressures of leadership in a particularly challenging era for the Church. Eventually those pressures took their toll, so in June 2007 I asked leave to stand down and continue the way of priesthood in calmer waters.
And that’s how I came to fetch up here in Wanstead, in this truly excellent parish of Our Lady of Lourdes. I do want to pay a warm tribute to the parish priest, Father Pat Sammon, and to his fine parishioners and generous co-workers for modelling here a vibrant example of what I would want to call a Vatican II parish community. It’s a parish where priest and people are committed together for the common good, spiritually and socially, and, crucially too, with an acute sense of Gospel outreach to the poor.
So, in a sense you can see, I’ve come full circle, having begun priesthood at grass roots level in parish ministry in Brook Green, Hammersmith, I find myself forty six years later back where most of the work of the Church is still done, doggedly, quietly and very impressively, at parish level. Simply to stand outside this church on a Sunday as the young, the old, and all stages in between stream through these doors – 51 different nationalities at a recent count – so as to celebrate the Eucharist is something very wonderful. For me it’s a constant rich source of being energised, evangelised at a deep level, Sunday by Sunday. That farewell command of Jesus ‘Do this in memory of me’ is, I can tell you, very faithfully obeyed in this part of East London.
Enough said. But not before testifying one last time on this jubilee night to how grateful I am to God for the gift of life, for the gift of priesthood, and especially on this occasion for being a bishop in the Church. And, above all, like everyone else here tonight, I’m grateful to God for being called to the unrivalled joy of being a follower of Christ; a disciple of Him who became one of us within the womb of the Virgin Mary, she whom we also with great delight honour tonight on the feast of her Immaculate Conception. If ever there was someone who revealed to us a heart full of joy and hope and thanksgiving, it was surely Mary in her Magnificat of praise to God. And the cream of it all is that we, just like her, are not only called to be disciples of Jesus, we’re called to his side as companions, as friends, as his beloved. That’s surely the heart of the matter.
“Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ. Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in his presence...” (Ep 1:3-6)
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