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Given on 9th November at Westminster Cathedral for the Requiem Mass of Deceased Diocesan Clergy for 2022

I think often about the people who are buried in this place.  One has a sense of waiting with them for the resurrection of the dead.  Cardinal Hume back there, Cardinal Heenan just here, Cardinal Cormac over there.  I think most of us know Cardinal Cormac wanted to be buried in St Patrick’s chapel.  But the floor prevented it.  So he opted instead for the aisle.  He took consolation in the fact that people might say a prayer for him as they walk past to go to Confession.  I certainly do.  I imagine him taking me by the elbow and saying, “I think mine looks pretty good, don’t you?!”  Then adding, “Actually, I think it may be the best!”

We will remember him, as we like to say at this time of the year.  We will remember him- as we will remember each one of these ten priests who have died since we last gathered to celebrate this Mass a year ago:

Frs Dominic Byrne and Desmond Baker, who died last December;
Fr Séamus McGeoghan, who died last February;
Fr Kevin McDevitt, who died last March;
Fr Antony Brunning, who died last April;
Canon Philip Cross and Fr Kevin Eastell, who died last May;
Fr David Wilson, who died last July;
Fr Duncan Adamson, who died in October;
and Fr Jeremy Davies, who died only four days ago.

For them as for those whose bodies surround us here we invoke surely the same joyful hope as we hear Paul impart today to the people of Rome.  No, more than hope - rather, the conviction that each of these clergy whose passing we mourn, having joined Christ in death, will, as Paul says, just as surely imitate Christ in his resurrection from death.

Of course, they weren’t all angels!   But, if they weren’t, then I hope they knew and derived consolation from that most encouraging observation of St John Henry Newman’s, who urged the laity to understand that it was just as well their priests were not angels, in fact – because, if they had been angels, then they couldn’t have been their priests.

The way he put it, you will recall, was to say, “Had your priests been angels, then they could not have condoled with you, sympathised with you, have had compassion for you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you … they could not have led you from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you.”  In other words they couldn’t have ministered to you in the same way fellow-humans, coming from the midst of you, can.  We trust that he was right, and especially in that last respect - that we shall have helped some souls at least into a new life.

Because Matthew’s account of the Last Judgement doesn’t get any less frightening as we notch up the years of priestly ministry – Jesus’s assurance that we shall indeed hear him say to some, “Now go to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink; I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, naked and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.”

But, if that disheartens us, then we should, at the same time, derive consolation from the words of yet another Cardinal, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, speaking in 1978 to priests who were celebrating their Golden Jubilee of Ordination.  Because he sought to reassure them: “When, some day, you knock at the door of heaven,” he told them, “you need not be afraid.”  For, “as pastors you will have accompanied (diverse) people …. in their hours of joy and their hours of grief and suffering.  You (will) have helped people to live and to die.  So you have many friends (both) on this side of the threshold and beyond it.  (And so) you will not be alone when you arrive.”  “You will not be alone when you arrive.”[1]

Consolation indeed - and all the more touching as one recalls Pope Emeritus Benedict celebrating Mass here in this place, on this very sanctuary, with Cardinal Cormac and doubtless a good number of the ten good priests for whom we now offer this requiem Mass - touching also as one sees Benedict  now quite frail and preparing, himself, to knock in God’s good time at heaven’s door.

A similar kind of encouragement must have derived her late Majesty the Queen from Cardinal Hume, when she summoned him to the Palace just days before his death.  “What’s it like, Cardinal,” she asked him, “to be so close to the death?”  To which, she says, he replied with a seraphic smile, “Well, Ma’am, it’s a bit like sitting in the front stalls of the theatre waiting for the curtain to go up on what you know is going to be the most wonderful spectacle you ever witnessed!”  Now she knows, as do all those whose bodies lie around us waiting for the Resurrection, and all whom we commemorate this night, what it’s like to see that curtain rise.

Each of them now knows what it’s like to realise that it’s happening for you what Cardinal Newman imagined it will be for each of us when we make that final journey - to be borne upwards by your guardian angel, to see God and, in instant, to know your sin and the need to atone for it; and so be borne away to purgatory, there to prepare your soul until your angel comes to take you back again - with the promise, the sweet promise, that meanwhile Masses on earth and prayers in heaven will help you - as we pray this Mass will help and console these our dear departed brothers this night.

Bishop Nicholas Hudson

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, Teaching and Learning the Love of God, San Francisco 2017, 348-9