Given at the Requiem Mass of Canon John McDonald, RIP, at Westminster Cathedral on 5 January 2017
Today, as we pray for the repose of the soul of Canon John McDonald, we hear again the solemn proclamation of the Beatitudes, which take us to the heart of the Gospel message of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
'Blessed' is such a powerful and attractive word. In Gospel narratives, it is first used of Mary, the Mother of God. 'Blessed are you among women', proclaimed Elizabeth (Lk 1.42). But here, today, the word is applied to all of us, if we are ready in heart, mind and action.
There are many commentaries on the meaning of the word 'blessed'. The one that most appeals to me is the suggestion that the word means something like this: 'you are in the right place to receive the promised kingdom when...': when you are truly poor in spirit; when you use your strength in gentleness; when you seek out what is just rather than advantageous; when you are merciful. In those circumstances, those dispositions, you are ready to receive the Kingdom. Indeed, Mary received the Kingdom in its fullness: the entirety of the presence of God within her. We seek the same. But our lives, in contrast to hers, are always a process of overcoming our sinfulness until, we pray, like Canon John, we are called into the fullness of this Kingdom.
We heard, at the beginning of Mass, how Canon John kept his heart ready for this Kingdom. He knew the importance of reflection on his daily life with its ups and downs, a reflection which centred not on a worldly measure but purely on the measure of the Kingdom, on the Beatitudes. We also learn from him the importance of never trying to make this journey alone, the importance of having a spiritual confidante, someone with whom we can reflect on our daily lives, discerning the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit and what more is being asked of us. Canon John has also given such a lovely witness to the importance of friendship between us, the company in which we travel. Today, as we pray for him, we can ask ourselves if we are following his good example.
These are among the lessons for us to learn as we thank God for his life with all its blessings.
The first reading, from the Prophet Isaiah, is one glimpse of the Kingdom, so beautifully taken up in the unforgettable film Babette's Feast where every resource is poured into a banquet at which estranged people are brought together by the power of generous love and great artistry. Such is the promise of the Kingdom.
The words of this reading, especially that of every tear being wiped away, also bring to mind the immense consolation to be found in our faith in the Lord and in his presence with us. This comfort, as we know, is so welcome when offered to the sick and the dying. In his faithful ministry, both in the Hospital of Ss John and Elizabeth and in St Anne's, Canon John has shown how privileged we are to bring to people, at their time of greatest need, the loving mercy of the Lord. Today those of us here who are priests, are reminded by him that in this ministry of ours, we too are to be generous, available and responsive to those in need, in every parish, in nursing homes and in our readiness to serve in support of hospital chaplains, with all the pressures and difficulties being faced in the health service today.
Returning to the table of the banquet (and why not!) there is another image that comes to mind: the happy faces that are around the table, including of course the faces of the children. Canon John dedicated many years of his life to the happiness of children. He did so with a thoroughness and seriousness, of which we have heard. Today, we thank God for this work and for the remarkable history of our Catholic Children's Society and its precursor the Crusade of Rescue. Yes, today there are some who draw attention to the failings of the past. Yet the record is clear: that over 70% of those who came to the Crusade of Rescue, with their babies still to be born, were encouraged and enabled to keep and care for their children, even in an age when social pressure and expectation was for their babies to be adopted.
In the last few days Pope Francis has written a letter addressed to all Bishops. It is all about our care for children: our protecting them from abuse here at home and our deep sorrow at that sinful scandal in our Church. Yet the letter is especially about the great global suffering of children, the exploitation of children in human trafficking, child labour, in poverty and malnutrition. As Pope Francis says so powerfully, we cannot gaze with love on the Child Jesus in the manger without hearing the heart-rending cries of so many children in the world. 'To contemplate the manger in isolation from the world around us', and here I quote Pope Francis, 'would make Christmas into a lovely story that inspires warm feelings but robs us of the creative power of the Good News that the Incarnate Word wants to give us.' Then he added: 'The temptation is real.'
As we pray for the repose of the soul of this good priest who gave himself to this very work of hearing the cries of children and their isolated mothers, let us take heart that we too, all of us, can be champions for children, through our parishes, our schools and our conscientious and generous work in safeguarding today.
Shortly, in our Mass, many of these themes come together in a single proclamation: 'Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb'. As these words are proclaimed this morning, let us glance at this coffin, bearing the mortal remains of this good Canon, and know with the confidence of faith and in the mercy of God, that he is to be fully and truly blessed as he is prepared, with the help of our prayers, to take his seat at that supper, that heavenly rejoicing for which we have been created. And let us remember that we are most certainly to follow him, relying in our turn, on the fervent prayers of our brethren and of all the faithful.
So let us pray for Canon John:
Eternal rest give unto him O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.