Given at the Mass celebrated to mark the 100th birthday of Mgr Augustine Hoey in Walsingham on 12 December 2015.
In the mid 1990s, George Stack, Administrator of Westminster Cathedral, invited Fr Augustine Hoey to live and work at the Cathedral. Later, as Archbishop, he wrote:
'This was one of the wisest decisions of my time as Administrator. A delightful presence in the house and in the Cathedral. Delighting in everything that went on. Able to mix with anybody. Taking an interest in all things. Never complaining about the somewhat spartan conditions. And always assiduous in his duties and in the liturgy. He was a great example to young and old priests alike. A unique quality in someone so wise and experienced was the extraordinary respect in which he held everyone - including the Administrator. He took nothing for granted and was grateful for everything.'
Archbishop George is always good for a quote!
This is a most wonderful occasion and we all rejoice to be here, above all to join Fr Augustine, Mgr Hoey, in offering this Holy Mass in thanksgiving for so many blessings. All of us know how remarkable this moment truly is, and how remarkable Augustine is, too.
But this is not in praise of him. It is in praise of the Lord. So I am not going to give you a longer account of his achievements and virtues other than those words of Archbishop Stack, which indeed ring so true and say so much. Anyway to reflect on a life of 100 years would simply take too long!
We celebrate this lovely day in the midst of Advent and I thought it right to accept and reflect on the Readings of the day, as given to us by the Church. And they are so suitable.
The first reading, taken from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, is part of the last section of the Book, a section which begins with the words, 'Let us now praise illustrious men' (44.1). Then there follows a long account of the great names of Israel's history, from Enoch, Noah and Abraham, to Joshua, Nehemiah and Simon Ben Onias who repaired the Temple and strengthened the Sanctuary.
Ezekiel is there, as we have heard, but as hard as I looked among the names of these illustrious men, I could not find the name Augustine!
The reading we have heard refers to the great events of Ezekiel's life, reflecting on them in the tradition of this Wisdom literature. In this manner, too, each of us can rightly reflect on the events of our own lives, patiently finding in them, in so many unexpected ways, the hand of God and the unfolding of God's gracious design. With and for Fr Augustine there is a rich storehouse for such reflection, events across this great time span, in so many different settings, yet leading him to this precious place: Walsingham.
When Fr Augustine came to talk about the possibility of moving out of the safe and loving environment of St Peter's to take up a new adventure, at the age of 98 no less, there was some great clarity about his proposition, a clarity which seems often to attach itself to him, or emanate from him. Loving friends were at hand to make things possible, but there was no doubt in my mind that to come to Walsingham was written strongly in his heart just as had been the imperative to come to Rome, even though that road had been long, too. Now, I sense, the pieces are nearly all in place, just trembling on the edge of eternity!
In the Gospel passage which we have just heard, Ezechiel appears again, in the disciples’ reflection on that marvelous moment of the Lord's Transfiguration. They want to know the meaning of the prophet's presence with Jesus, and indeed, the Lord gives them an answer.
His answer refers them back to John the Baptist and his role as the one who prepares the way for the Lord. Now, it was with John the Baptist that we started this second week of Advent, and words of last Sunday's Gospel still echo in my heart: 'Then, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.'
How true that is! Wisdom teaches us this lesson: it is when we are in the wilderness that the word of God can come to us most clearly, powerfully, persuasively! Think of the moments of important passage in your lives. These are often the moments of wilderness. For some it will be to remember the 11 November 1992. Or a more personal wilderness of exhaustion; or a sense of being unsupported and abandoned in the never-ending demands of a parish or in personal isolation. But it is in the wilderness that the word of God comes to us. Always. Or nearly always!
It is Jesus, then, who directs the thoughts of his disciples from Ezechiel to John the Baptist so that they too can recognise the treasures of the wilderness.
But before that answer is given, Jesus gives them a more important instruction. He says: 'Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead'. Think of this moment. The two disciples must have been bursting to tell everyone about what they had just seen: the glory of it, the immensity and depth of what they had glimpsed! Their eyes were opened and everything of bright promise was there before them. What a vision! What a story!
But Jesus tells them to remain silent. The implication is clear. Before they can proclaim him to be their glorious Saviour they must learn who the Messiah truly is and learn his lesson of suffering. And in order to learn this lesson they must keep quiet, live in silence. They have yet much to learn, much to see, much to take to heart. And it will be painful.
The lessons of a long life teach us this, too.
Cardinal Hume used to reflect on this vision of the transfigured Lord as the glimpse of what lay ahead given to us in order to sustain us through all the troubled reality of every day. This glimpse was to keep our eyes raised and our hearts full of courage even in the midst of confusion, disappointment and dismay. With eyes on him every journey can be made.
This, too, is something that Augustine teaches us. I think not only of his daily journey along the roads of this small village, but the far more ominous roads of his life, including moments in which he left so much in order to find so much more. The luminous promise of a life transfigured in Christ is held before us all. It is this for which we strive. It is this we wish to serve in others. Thank you, Fr Augustine, for your example and encouragement on the way.
One final thought. How lovely it is that we celebrate this moment in the midst of the opening of the wonderful initiative of Pope Francis, the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Here there is so much that could be said, but let me add just this thought. Mercy is the form taken by the unending love of God as he comes to meet us in our sinfulness. Jesus is the face of this mercy of the Father. The sacrament of this mercy is Confession. That is the place, par excellence, of our meeting with him. There we must go, both as penitents and confessors, if we are to enter the great gift of God's mercy.
So, dear Monsignor, dear Fr Augustine, the final word of thanks to you in this reflection comes to you as both a penitent and a confessor. One is not possible without the other and we priests should never imagine that we can be good confessors without first being good penitents. This you understand. This you show to us in your ministry even today.
My brothers and sisters, let us continue with our celebration of this Holy Mass. May our prayer be heartfelt and simple: thank you Lord for this good life. May it continue happily until you call, for 'happy are those who fall asleep in love' (Ecclesiasticus 48.12).