Last Updated:

Given for the Corpus Christi celebrations in Douai on 19th June 2022

Mass Homily

I first came to Douai in the very week I left seminary. We were were a small group of seminarians; and we wished to retrace the steps of the first students from our College. Among them was a certain Father Ralph Sherwin. He had begun training for the priesthood here in Douai in 1577. He was studying at the English College in this city.

The reason there was an English College here was that Queen Elizabeth I had banned Catholic seminaries; and banned Catholic priests from ministering in her land. On this day when we give such deep thanks for the Most Holy Eucharist, it is significant to recall that the Queen effectively banned Catholics from receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. We should give thanks therefore for the brave men who chose then to come and study abroad, in places like Rheims, St Omers and Douai, in order to be ordained and bring the sacraments to the Catholics of England and Wales and Scotland.

They did so at grave risk to themselves since it was against the law not only to minister as a Catholic priest in England but even to train to become a priest. The punishment for this offence was death by hanging, drawing and quartering. Yet still many, many young men offered themselves for the priesthood. On their return home, they lived tough, clandestine lives, hiding by day in the woods, coming to the homes of brave Catholics by night, to baptise, confirm, hear Confessions and celebrate Mass. They were often delated by spies who burst in on the Mass and took the priests away to endure incarceration and torture.

Today I rejoice at the opportunity this Feast affords me to thank the city of Douai for the extraordinary generosity which made this possible. For, without the kind, unstinting hospitality of this city for over more than a century, both of your town and others I have mentioned, the Catholic faith in Britain might well have died out. So great was your welcome that the English College here in Douai became full. And so a second English College was established in Rome. Fr Ralph Sherwin was the first alumnus of the English College in Douai to reach Rome. And he was the first alumnus to return to England. He returned to England in the company of one of the most famous Jesuits of that period, Fr Edmund Campion. The two of them enjoyed a distinguished ministry among the Catholics of England but were eventually captured; tortured terribly; imprisoned in the Tower of London; and eventually executed at Tyburn in the heart of London’s West End.

We five seminarians, having completed our training, wanted to retrace their steps from Rome to London. I should stress we did this not on foot, as they did, but by train, just in case you were wondering! From Rome we travelled to Milan, where St Charles Borromeo had given the priests hospitality; to Geneva, where they had disputed with Beza and other Calvinists; and, before crossing the Channel, to Douai. Here in Douai our dear desire was to celebrate Mass in this city so devoted to Our Blessed Lord hidden in the Most Holy Eucharist. We wished to celebrate Mass at the very altar which adorned the English College here in Douai and which is preserved in this very church, close to the entrance on the north side of the building. You can imagine how close we felt to our Protomartyrs, St Ralph Sherwin and St Edmund Campion, as we lifted the cup of salvation here at this English altar. The Sacred Host truly was food for the journey on from Douai, on to Rheims; and then to Tyburn, London, the place of their martyrdom.

The radical witness of our forebears to the Eucharist should give us pause to reflect on its significance in our lives four centuries later. The Eucharist is a miracle wherever it is celebrated, whether in the greatest churches and cathedrals of the world, or in the obscurity of a prison cell or a place of hiding. What a tragedy that the Eucharist should ever become a matter of division among Christians, when the Lord’s will is that the Eucharist should unite his people into one body, joyfully proclaiming his saving death and resurrection until he comes again. The miracle of the multiplication of loaves which we hear in today’s Gospel reminds us how the Lord chooses to take the little we have to offer to draw from it abundant fruit, sufficient sometimes to feed a multitude.  

How typical of the wonderful way God works among us, he doesn’t simply make a great banquet appear miraculously out of nowhere; no, he takes what we bring, however insignificant it may appear, even if it is only five loaves and two fish, or a little bread and wine, yet from that he is able to bring forth enough to feed thousands of people.  

And yet, the miracle of the Eucharist far surpasses the miracle of the multiplication of loaves, because in the Eucharist the Lord feeds us with his own body and blood and in this way comes to dwell within us. We heard in the second reading St Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, from the first letter to the Corinthians, and we heard those wonderful words spoken at the Last Supper, “This is my body, which is for you …  This cup is the new covenant in my blood … Do this as a memorial of me”.  For centuries, Christians have debated just how to understand these remarkable words. To many it has seemed that it must be a symbol or a metaphor. And yet, if it is not to be understood in terms of Our Lord’s real presence in the Eucharist, the wonderful effects of the Eucharist could hardly flow from it.  

On this great Fete Dieu, it is good to savour anew the words which St Thomas employs to draw us into the fullness of what the Eucharist represents. You will remember how he describes the Eucharist as the sacred banquet in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us. This bears repeating - that the Eucharist is the sacred banquet in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.  

Another way of expressing the same mystery is to say the Eucharist makes Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary present and effective among us; it gives us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet when all our divisions will be overcome and we find ourselves united in giving praise and honour to the Father; it feeds the life of grace that began with our baptism and continues throughout our earthly lives and into the eternal life that awaits us;  and it leads to a divine indwelling; Christ makes his home in us so that 'it is no longer we who live, but Christ lives in us'. Again, one has to ask: how could such wonderful gifts flow from the celebration if the Eucharist if it were merely a symbolic re-enactment of the Last Supper?

Eucharistic miracles such as the one that took place here at Douai almost eight hundred years ago remind us of the daily miracle that the Eucharist represents, because it effects Christ’s real presence in the  Church, among his people, by which he strives to transform them ever more perfectly into his likeness. As Saint Augustine said, the food of the Eucharist is unlike other food, because when we receive the Eucharist, we become what we eat, rather than the other way around. As we feed on Christ’s body and blood, his mystical body, that is to say, the Church, is built up; and, rather than subsisting as a series of more or less unrelated individuals, we are gradually united in a communion much deeper than any merely earthly bond. Just as the separate grains of wheat are baked into a single loaf, so too Christians who share in the Eucharist are bound together into the One Body of Him who died and rose again for us.  

The daily miracle of the Eucharist is surely the cause of our greatest joy on this feast-day. We thank the Lord indeed for his presence among us, a presence which is a saving presence, a healing presence, a transforming presence. We thank him for the great intimacy with him that we enjoy through this wonderful sacrament. We thank him for the witness of so many saints and martyrs throughout the history of the Church whose love for the Lord inspired them even to lay down their lives for him, as he laid down his life for us. On this day, let us offer our deepest thanks for the supreme sacrifice offered by so many priests of Douai out of their love for the Lord and the Eucharist. As we carry the sacrament in procession, as we venerate the sacred host in which Christ is truly present, our goal must be to deepen our own awareness and appreciation, our gratitude furthermore for the daily miracle of the Eucharist.

As we celebrate the Eucharist today, as we give honour to the most Blessed Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, as we thank God for this most wonderful gift, we pray that we may grow to be and become daily more and more like the One whose body and blood we receive. More, we pray that, under the loving gaze and assured intercession of all the Douai martyrs who have gone before us, we might embrace as joyfully as they did the mission to proclaim his saving death and resurrection to the men and women of our French and English lands in this our time.

Procession Homily

As we make our journey with the Lord through the streets of Douai, it is fitting that we pause at this point.  And I gladly take the opportunity to amplify the gratitude already expressed, of the Catholics of England and Wales for the welcome extended to our forebears by the people of this town for a period of more than 200 years.  The Catholic University established in Douai by King Philip II attracted many students and scholars from across the Channel, and Douai became home to many English Catholic communities in exile.  It has even been described as a surrogate Oxford!  Among the fugitives who arrived here from Oxford were William, later Cardinal, Allen, founder of the English Colleges here at Douai and in Rome. If it had not been for the foundation of these English Colleges ‘on the Continent’, as we say, then there might have been no more priests to minister to the Catholics of England and Wales; and the Church might not have survived in those lands. Gratitude for all of this is uppermost in my heart - allied with still deeper thanks to Almighty God for the extraordinary gift of the sacraments in which these young priests believed so fervently.  On this day above all we give thanks for the gift of the Most Holy Eucharist which sustained these priests and which sustained and continues to sustain the Catholic community on both sides of the Channel both then and now.  We continue our journey, praising and thanking him for his great goodness; and for his abiding presence with us from one century to the next through the power of the Most Holy Eucharist.

Solemn Vespers Homily

It gives me great joy to be with you at the end of our day to give thanks once more together to God for the Eucharistic miracle with which this town was blessed many centuries ago. As you know, Blessed Carlo Acutis, the young Italian beatified less than two years ago, took a great interest in Eucharistic miracles from around the world, and he took the trouble to record the details on his website.  There we read that on Easter Sunday, 1254, a priest distributing Holy Communion at the Church of Saint Amé unintentionally dropped a host.  Before he could pick it up again, it lifted itself up and made its way to the purificator and, shortly afterwards, a child appeared in its place whom those present were able to venerate.  That same host, when duly examined by the Bishop of Cambrai, offered him a vision of the face of Christ, crowned with thorns.  The host at the centre of this miracle was preserved for many centuries.  What in some ways seems no less miraculous is that after it was hidden at the time of the Revolution, in order to protect it from profanation, the host was rediscovered decades later, together with an authenticating message written by the priest who had hidden it.  As a result we are able to venerate today the very same host that was at the centre of the Eucharistic miracle all those centuries ago.  

This miracle is given to us so as to focus our minds on the extraordinary gift of the Eucharist that is celebrated every day, and especially every Sunday, when God’s people all over the world gather to celebrate the day of the Lord. It helps us to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharist, in which the Lord makes himself present here and now, to the people of this town, the same Lord who took flesh as a child in Bethlehem, the same Lord who suffered and died for us on Calvary, the same Lord who rose again in glory and ascended to the Father’s right hand. In a particular way it reminds us of the communion that unites God’s people across the centuries. We today are so closely linked to the community of Saint Amé who gathered for worship on that Easter Sunday almost 800 years ago, to the English Catholics who took refuge here in Douai 450 years ago, to the priest who hid the miraculous host at the time of the Revolution, and to the priest who rediscovered it in the 19th century. The Eucharist unites all God’s people, living and dead. It offers the fruits of Christ’s saving death to all the people in the world, to all who have ever lived and all who will ever live. You can’t get more inclusive than that! So, with good reason, we gather today to give praise and honour to this most Blessed Sacrament, through which our Saviour Jesus Christ shares with us the risen life that he has won for us.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and evermore!

Photo: Diocese of Cambrai, France