|Fr Robert Byrne preaching on 12th March|
St Gregory & St Augustine’s
Monday, March 12th , 2012
Attendite ad petram unde excisi estis
On the sanctuary of Ampleforth Abbey church there is a small plaque within which is embedded a medieval tile from the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. Ampleforth claims a direct descent from the monks of the ancient foundation. Inscribed on the plaque are these words from the Prophet Isaiah, Attendite ad petram unde excisi estis (Look to the rock from which you are hewn). It is an invitation, perhaps more. It is a command, to make ourselves aware of our past, of our traditions, where we come from, of the treasure that our ancestors have left us. Invitation or command, at the centenary Mass of the parish and church of St Gregory it seems an appropriate course to follow. I would like to thank Fr John and the parishioners for honouring me with this invitation to come and preach tonight. I am very much at home!
There is, in this command, a further coded meaning. The arms of Ampleforth Abbey contain the cross keys of St Peter, a reference to the dedication of St Edward the Confessor’s foundation. So when we are invited to “Look to the rock!”, it is to St Peter too, that we are being directed, the rock on which our Church is built. It is the Gospel of today’s Mass of Pope St Gregory the Great: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.” Before I conclude – to let you know when to wake up – I will return to St Peter and to Westminster so that
the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
But for now, let us go somewhere completely different.
The Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, once a curate down the road at St Aloysius, wrote two poems about shipwrecks, a famous one, The Wreck of the Deutschland, and one less well-known, The Loss of the Eurydice. In both poems he uses the wreck as a metaphor for the tragic rupture of the Reformation and the loss of England for the Catholic faith. In the earlier poem, he asks the brave nun drowned in the wreck of the Deutschland off the coast of Kent to pray for the return of England to Catholic truth:
Dame, at our door
Drowned, and among our shoals,
Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:
Our King back, oh, upon English souls.
And some years later, in The Loss of the Eurydice he wrote:
Deeply surely I need to deplore it,
Wondering why my master bore it,
The riving off that race
So at home, time was, to his truth and grace.
If this seems an odd place to start a sermon for the centenary of St Gregory and St Augustine then the following small and sad co-incidence may make my purpose clearer. On the night of Sunday, 14th April, 1912, an iceberg struck the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York with the loss of one thousand, five hundred and seventeen souls. That same Sunday morning the first public Mass was celebrated here in this church. It was Low Sunday, the Sunday after Easter. (The dates are just one day later this year!) The project was an act of faith. The area was only just beginning to grow. The Directory for the following year lists the Catholic population as sixty.
The donor of the land and the money to build was Mr Charles Robertson, a convert of Brighton and Begbroke. Received by the Servite Friars at their church in Fulham Road, London, he had already been very generous to the Church, building a priory for the Servites at Begbroke and buying a house there, which he named St Charles’s, for the use of diocesan clergy wishing to pursue studies in the University of Oxford. Charles Robertson was a man of vision. His generosity was rewarded by Rome with a papal honour. He was a Knight of St Gregory. So, having named the Begbroke house after his patron saint it is not too far-fetched to suppose that he named his church for his Roman title.
The priest with the energy to match Charles Robertson’s vision was Canon, and later Monsignor, and later still, though only briefly, Bishop Michael Glancey. He was at this time resident at Begbroke, and as well as being Warden of St Charles’s House, he was also the Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Birmingham. It is from the extensive correspondence between these two men, now preserved in the archives of the Archdiocese, that we know so much about the early years of St Gregory’s and the foundation of the parish. The letters date from 1908 until the early 1920s but, annoyingly, it is clear that there were many letters before that date which dealt with their early ideas about the new parish.
I have here a photocopy of one of those letters, written a hundred years ago today, Tuesday, 12th March, 1912. In it, we hear for the first time, the name of the first parish Priest of St Gregory and St Augustine’s, Fr Arthur Sammons.
|Ecce, Agnus Dei!|
It would have been nice to have brought the original letter from Birmingham. But archivists are jealous of their treasures and rightly so. They know that even the most insignificant thing becomes precious with age and can speak powerfully to us of the past. This is nowhere more true than in matters of the faith. That very ordinary letter, written a hundred years ago, brings back to us the image of Fr Sammons, newly arrived in Oxford, setting out, at just this time of the year, on his rather daunting mission in those less tolerant days, of hunting up the Catholics of North Oxford. Let’s hope it was not so bad as the diary entry made by Scott of the Antarctic on the very same day:
I doubt if we can possibly do it. The surface remains awful, the cold intense, and our physical condition running down. God help us!
Every age has its own troubles. If the respectable anti-Catholicism of Edwardian England is no more then it has been replaced by an intolerance towards all forms of religious truth and by a fairly universal disregard for wisdom inherited from the past. The mission of spreading the Gospel of Christ is challenging in every age.
Let us look at a different letter. St Augustine and his companions, having set out from Rome to fulfil their mission, heard awful stories in France of what lay in store for them across the Channel. It wasn’t just the food. The fearful missionaries turned back. Hearing of this in Rome, Pope Gregory wrote to them in a letter that has been preserved for us by St Bede:
Gregory, the servant of the servants of God, to the servants of our Lord. Forasmuch as it had been better not to begin a good work, than to think of desisting from that which has been begun, it behoves you, my beloved sons, to fulfil the good work, which, by the help of our Lord, you have undertaken. Let not, therefore, the toil of the journey, nor the tongues of evil speaking men, alter you; but with all possible earnestness and zeal perform that which, by God's direction, you have undertaken; being assured, that much labour is followed by an eternal reward.
St Gregory’s project of converting the heathen English was very much his personal mission. The Roman empire was collapsing, civilisation was in retreat, such Christians as were left in these islands had fled to the margins of Wales and Scotland. The pagans from the north were conquering the by the sword. No wonder Augustine and his fellow monks were afraid. Everything they valued was threatened; they felt under siege.
Yet St Gregory had a very important project to complete, nothing less than to recreate the unity of the Roman Empire, not by might of its army but by the power of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The sensitivity of the Pope towards the English was extraordinary even by our own standards, let alone the standards of his age. He instructed his missionaries never to coerce the English, to keep their pagan sanctuaries intact, simply sprinkling them with holy water to consecrate them for the worship of the true God. Let them learn, he said, by taking gentle steps. Do not ask them to make a giant leap. St Bede’s account of King Ethelbert’s policy once he had been converted is remarkable:
He compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow citizens in the heavenly kingdom. For he had learned from his instructors and leaders to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion.
There is surely a lesson here, in a country still nominally Christian, in the right attitude of the State towards the Church.
Reading the letters of Charles Robertson and Canon Glancey, we find there a concern for the simplicity and the beauty and the quality of the church they were building. There is page after page of precise instructions for the fixtures and fittings of the building we are now sitting in. I quote only one, from August 1911:
I seem as if I was never to be out of trouble and expense over Apsley: I have spent so much already and had so many worries I am tempted to wish I had never bought the property. I don't grudge anything spent on the chapel, indeed that I have thus been instrumental in bringing the secular clergy to Oxford and therefore one step nearer to making use of the University is about the only consolation I have over the whole thing. I am glad you think so well of its appearance since the scaffolding came down. It is a great thing for a church or chapel to look light and bright; a dark, gloomy church helps to make religion morbid, I think.
I quote this letter from all the others because in it we see can see the trials involved in attempting anything good. But we can also see the concern the founders had for the learning of the clergy and the beauty of the building. Both are vital for the mission of the Church. It is the authentic spirit of the Blessed John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement which at its best is never about controversy for its own sake but rather a serious attempt to get beyond the arguments of the Reformation and reconnect the Church with its primitive and apostolic past.
It is this spirit that animates the beautiful building and the parish whose centenary we are celebrating today. It is still more the spirit that animated our patron saints Gregory and Augustine. The church they founded in England was consciously founded on the words of the Gospel and the teaching of the apostolic Fathers. It lasted for a thousand years until the tragic shipwreck of the Reformation and the destruction of the unity of Western Christendom. It looked back to the rock from which it was hewn.
From the midst of the narrow controversies of the Reformation, the great St Thomas More, in the midst of his trial in Westminster Hall, appealed to St Gregory, to a more ancient and more universal vision of the Church:
As St Paul said of the Corinthians, “I have regenerated you in Christ”, so might St Gregory (of whom through St Augustine we first received the Faith) truly say of the English, “You are my children, for I have regenerated you in Christ.
Today the circumstances may be different but the mission is the same. Like St Gregory and St Augustine, and like those who built this Church, we are called to build in our own days a culture founded on the goodness, truth and the beauty of the Gospel. In our different ways it is the same mission for us all, whether we our circumstances are wealthy or modest, whether we be bishop, priest or lay person.
In September 2010, our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict addressed both Houses of Parliament in the same Westminster Hall where St Thomas More was tried. As Pope St Gregory spoke to the political leaders of his time, in our own time his successor spoke to the people with power. He reminded us again that ins some ways nothing changes:
The fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge.
A short time later, speaking in Westminster Abbey Pope Benedict invited us all to look once more to the rock from which we are hewn and to take up once more the mission of sanctifying our age. He acknowledged the great difficulties involved in overcoming the divisions of the past and in speaking to the troubled world of our time. He called us to look again at tradition and St Peter’s ministry of unity.
Fidelity to the word of God, precisely because it is a true word, demands of us an obedience which leads us together to a deeper understanding of the Lord’s will, an obedience which must be free of intellectual conformism or facile accommodation to the spirit of the age. This is the word of encouragement which I wish to leave with you this evening, and I do so in fidelity to my ministry as the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Saint Peter, charged with a particular care for the unity of Christ’s flock.
Gathered in this ancient monastic church, we can recall the example of a great Englishman and churchman whom we honour in common: Saint Bede the Venerable. At the dawn of a new age in the life of society and of the Church, Bede understood both the importance of fidelity to the word of God as transmitted by the apostolic tradition, and the need for creative openness to new developments and to the demands of a sound implantation of the Gospel in contemporary language and culture.
We may feel threatened and besieged. We may feel shipwrecked or alone. The task is truly great. But others have been here before. As we celebrate a hundred years of faith in this beautiful and much loved church, may we receive with gratitude the gifts that have been handed down by those who gave all this to us, and accept from them the challenge to take our part in making visible the goodness, beauty and truth of the Catholic faith here in our own time and place.