Given at the Requiem Mass for deceased clergy of the diocese in Westminster Cathedral on 10th November 2017.
There is one thing I ask of the Lord,
For this I long,
To live in the house of the Lord,
All the days of my life,
To savour the sweetness of the Lord,
To behold his temple.
These words from Psalm 26 are to be found on the inside page of our Mass booklet for this Requiem Mass, immediately below the names of our brother priests for whom we pray this evening: Canon John McDonald; Canon Charles Acton; Canon Peter Gilburt; Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor; Mgr Augustine Hoey; Fr John (Bruce) Elliott; Fr Norman Brown; and to those names I want to add one more, that of Seán O'Toole who also died in these last twelve months.
The words of this Psalm capture vividly that ancient longing for fulfilment, written deep into our nature and so vividly experienced in our lives. It is the fulfilling of this longing that is so wondrously made possible in the mystery and grace of Jesus Christ. This is the faith in which our brothers died. This is the faith in which we pray for them. This is the faith by which we want to live each day, starting today and continuing until the Lord calls us, just as he has called them.
The first reading we have heard encourages us to look at each other and to see in each other the good things of the Lord. That is not as easy as it sounds, for we tend, rather, to look at each other and see the flaws that each of us bears and the failures that characterise our stories. May I even suggest, for I know it of myself, that we may well dismiss or minimise the 'good things of the Lord' to be seen in each other, darkened as we are, so readily, by the shadow of jealousy. Yet these gifts of the Lord are distributed, as St Paul tells us, 'just as he chooses.' And each of those for whom we pray this evening was uniquely gifted.
It may be that we can be more clear-eyed in appreciating these gifts when we look at the way in which our brothers died. Then, we can learn from what we see.
Here are my impressions, my vote of thanks, for each of them.
I think of John McDonald in the last years, months and days of his life. They were powerfully marked by his practice of prayer. Often I would find him in the chapel in St Anne's, quietly praying before the Blessed Sacrament. That is how he died, too, prayerfully and peacefully.
Charles Acton: such an open heart and mind. For him there was joy to be found in so many places and activities, especially in family and friends and in the clarity of mind, he both enjoyed and sought to foster in his students. He died with humility and, I am sure, with that longing to see the mystery he had faithfully contemplated throughout his life.
Peter Gilburt, whom I knew less well, for me, in his life and in his death, was a man of faithful friendship, received and given. So he lived, thus he died, in the embrace of life-long friends who loved his priesthood and his person.
Augustine Hoey! What can I say about Augustine? Somehow, he had the knack of holding death at bay! He knew how to delay that day, pacing himself, preserving energy by focusing on what was truly essential.
John Elliott: I learned that Bishop Nicholas recently asked John to write about the joy of dying! What a project and what an example! He wrote: 'Moving on is simple; it’s what we leave behind that is hard.'
Norman Brown: he lived with such kindness for so many; he died with a resilient hope very much filling his heart.
And, Cardinal Cormac: to the end, Cormac displayed that lightness of spirit, with a ready humour and great warmth. What I admired, too, was the simplicity and humility of his heart in those days. He said to me that he no longer was concerned about what the obituaries might say; and he made sure that his life savings were distributed to those whom he had served, especially the priests of the diocese. In that he reminded me so much of his predecessor, Cardinal Basil Hume OSB, who had said that it was of first importance that he left this world empty-handed, with no wealth stored away and his award, the Order of Merit, put to one side, and certainly not placed upon his coffin. Leave this world empty-handed, a beggar before God, ready to be filled with his glory, for we know that nothing can compare to that and that it is for such glory that we have from the first been created.
There are so many gifts for us here, gifts for which we thank God and gifts from which we are to learn.
It is said, and with some truth, that as a man lives so a man dies. So if we too want a good and holy death, then let us start now. Let us ask ourselves again, what is it that we can learn from the lives and deaths of those for whom we pray this evening?
Who, or what, is it in whom I put my trust? Where does carefully accumulated wealth, whether large or very small, fit into my sense of security? How can I repay the Lord who has been so generous to me?
Or, to whose judgement do I give power over my life? Whose opinion really matters to me? Is that concern rightly focused? There is only one whose judgement really matters and before whom I need to have only a simple, loving humility.
Faithful friendship, steadfast prayer, opened heartedness to people and to learning: are these the marks of my living that they may fashion my dying?
Kindness towards the lowly and closeness to the Lord: These will make his summons a call of joy. These too are offered to us for our imitation.
What rich testimony we are given by those for whom we pray. Let us not be reticent to act on their example and depend on their fraternity, even now, for they are a great support for us all.
In the Gospel of St Luke, which was also read at the Memorial Mass for Cardinal Cormac, we heard the passage of the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-16, 28-35) so beloved of Pope Francis. He has often pointed out that Jesus comes to walk with the disciples even as they are walking away from Jerusalem, away from the place which represents the presence of God among us, the Church. He knows that they are moving away because disappointment has taken hold of their hearts, the sense of being let down by those they had most trusted. Jesus, please note, does not summon them back to Jerusalem. He walks with them, step-by-step, in that same direction. In doing so, he shows them his heart, opening their hearts to a new realisation of the as-yet hidden truth of redemption. Only then do they willingly turn back, and go with haste to the community of disciples that they had left behind.
This is so important. The call to conversion can only be offered heart-to-heart. How often we see Jesus offering his most demanding teaching, the highest moral precepts, to those he loves and who are already learning to love him. The stranger cannot understand. A journey must first be made.
These are the pathways of discipleship. It is our task to walk with those entrusted to our care, even when they are heading away. As we walk, we try to speak heart-to-heart, sensing their sadness, maybe their anger and disappointment, taking one step at a time.
This is the discernment that lies at the heart of our ministry, a ministry that has as its horizon the gateway of heaven, knowing that the journey can only be made step by step, seeing what it is that the Lord is asking of each person, knowing full well the limitations of their freedom as well as the deepest desires of their hearts.
I have a lovely memory of a kitchen conversation, many years ago now, with Fr Séamus Fullam, in Grahame Park. When I arrived, he was trying to fill in a 'parish handover' document. He was stuck at the question which asked him to list his key priorities in the parish. 'What do I put there?' he said to me. 'What are you trying to achieve here, Séamus?' I replied. 'Well', he said, 'to get people to heaven, I suppose.' 'Then please write that down'. And that was the answer he gave, a good and patient priest who understood the human heart and the journey of faith we all must take. And his answer, of course, represents a bottom line that is not easy to measure!
Today, we pray earnestly that our brethren have already entered those heavenly gates, welcomed by the Lord, in his mercy and goodness. We trust that they now truly behold his temple, savouring in its fullness the sweetness of the Lord. For our part, we strive to glimpse that greatness, having a foretaste of that sweetness, especially here in the Eucharist, until it is our turn to receive that same summons. In the meantime, let us live as we wish to die, as empty-handed as we can, trusting in the Lord, caring for each other and finding the joy in his presence that will carry us through even to our last hour.
Eternal rest give unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.