Deceased Clergy Mass 2016


Given at Mass for the deceased clergy of the diocese at Westminster Cathedral on 29 November 2016.

This evening we entrust our departed brother priests to the mercy of God and pray that the angels will lead them into paradise and to the company of the martyrs. May the choirs of angels welcome them home. There they will join Lazarus, who is poor no longer, and live in the communion of saints. In the final words of The Dream of Gerontius, the angel sings:

Angels, to whom the willing task is given,

       Shall tend, and nurse, and lull thee, as thou


And masses on the earth, and prayers in heaven,

       Shall aid thee at the Throne of the Most


Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear,

       Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;

Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,

       And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.

These words are deeply consoling as we pray for our friends and brothers. They speak of the depth of the mercy of God and the work of the angels by which he draws us to himself. Like a fisherman he winds in the line to bring the catch home. These words express the hope of Jesus’ promise to the good, or penitent, thief: ‘Indeed, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ The prayers and the Masses we offer are our final acts of love for those who have preceded us in the priesthood and on whose foundations we build and labour.

Within the bonds of love in the Body of Christ, we remain united to them as members of the Church Militant. We struggle against the temptations of the devil and see the ways in which our freedom to love God and neighbour are compromised or find refuge in beguiling false goods which give us security. We pray for them as members of the Church Penitent that they may come to their eternal reward and share in the Messianic banquet of heaven with the Church Triumphant.

As the Jubilee Year of Mercy ends, the hope given in this evening’s gospel invites us to trust more deeply in God’s love towards us. The good thief renews his faith as he watches the suffering face of Christ. He is touched by Jesus’ gaze of mercy which invites the response, ‘Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom’. We are invited to renew this act of trust on a daily basis. We believe in the compassion of the One who has chosen us to be priests and yearns for our response as good and faithful servants. We will stand humbly before the Merciful Judge who knows our limits and failures but desires faithfulness not perfection.

Our brothers for whom we pray today have accompanied so many people in their last journey and celebrated the sacraments of the Church with them. Prayer cards from older members of my family long since dead remind me of the sacrifice of priests so that the words, ‘Fortified by the Rites of the Church’, could be included on their memorial cards. These cards, which we place in our breviaries, invite our prayers for those who have fostered our own callings, those we have loved and those who are there because we know we should have prayed for them or have failed them in some way. We thank God for the presence of these priests in hospital wards in the middle of the night, in family homes and for having been close to the dying in remarkably generous ways.

Sadly, many families today are distant from their faith and fail to call the priest until it is the last moment and their loved one, often a much loved member of the local church, has lost consciousness. There is a work of evangelisation to renew the understanding of the sacrament of the sick and the prayer for the dying so that not only the dying but also their families are supported and accompanied spiritually at this most important time of life.

It is for this reason that the Bishops’ Conference have worked on a contemporary Art of Dying Well resource. This will both help people who do not have Christian faith to be led into the treasures which we hold and provide spiritual accompaniment and an anthology of prayers for those who believe.

The tradition of the Ars Moriendi helped people to face temptations and gave guidance about dying well. We find sources in two fifteenth-century Latin texts which present graphic illustrations of combats between angels and the devil’s agents. These tracts were intended to bring Christian comfort and practical instruction to the dying man and his family. Composed of six chapters, the first four encourage the dying Christian to hope, steer him from temptation, remind him of Christ’s love, and exhort him to imitate Christ in his suffering and Passion. The final two chapters instruct friends and family about proper bedside behaviour and appropriate prayers for the dying.

Perhaps more well-known is St Robert Bellarmine’s version. He writes, ‘For what folly can be imagined greater than to neglect that Art, on which depend our highest and eternal interests; whilst on the other hand we learn with great labour, and practise with no less ardour, other almost innumerable arts, in order either to preserve or to increase perishable things?’ To die well, we must firstly ensure that we live well.

The temptations faced by Job, of which we heard in the first reading, are just as real for those who are dying now as they were in his day and have been throughout all generations. Today there is the temptation to be autonomous and decide for oneself which, at its most extreme, leads to the wish to end one’s life and choose the timing of one’s death. There is a loss in the understanding of surrendering to God as part of the Christian life. Recognising one’s limits and the need of God is part of growing in the capacity to surrender and let go. Jesus reveals a calm surrendering to the Father’s will and we see the stature with which he waits and allows events to unfold during his Passion.

This is the invitation offered to each Christian who like Job is invited to profess his hope and belief in the promises of God whom he will see face to face. We receive a glimpse into a moment of profound joy in the midst of his suffering. He receives the grace of an insight and makes a profession of faith and hope in the mercy of God: ‘For I know that my Redeemer lives’ and that ‘in my flesh, I shall see God’.

With such hope, we pray in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman,

May he support us all the day long, till the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in his mercy, may he give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at last. Amen.