Given at the Mass celebrating the 130th anniversary of Sacred Heart High School in Westminster Cathedral on Friday 17th November 2023
As a Cardinal, I have to go to Rome quite often, to meetings in the Vatican. Very often, St Peter’s Square is filled with pilgrims and tourists. Those of you who know Rome will also know of another tourist hot-spot: the area around the Spanish Steps with its fountain and smart shops.
At the top of the steep flight of the Spanish Steps is the Church of Santissima Trinità dei Monti, dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity. It’s a great place for selfies. Yet inside the church is something that most of the people don’t know anything about. But it is important.
There, in a quiet chapel that used to be a corridor in the convent, is a fresco, an image of Our Lady painted in 1844 by a young woman called Pauline Perdrau. She was seeking to become a Sister of the Sacred Heart. Two years later, in 1846 Pope Pius IX visited the convent. He was moved by the fresco and declared it to be Mater Admirabilis, ‘Mother Most Admirable’, one of the titles of Our Lady. And St Madeleine Sophie Barat, the foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart, asked that a copy of it hang in every Sacred Heart school throughout the world.
So many of you will know this beautiful image. You will remember the spindle and the work-basket, reminding us how important it is to work honestly and diligently. Then there is the open book, probably of the Scriptures. When we think of Mary and Martha in the Gospels, we know that work and prayer have to go together if we are to keep a good balance in our lives. There is the lily, a sign of Our Lady’s purity and strength of heart. And the pink dress, which, I am told, is just a bit of fun: Pauline’s favourite colour.
Today we are giving thanks for the 180 years in which the Society of the Sacred Heart has been present in England, and 130 years since the foundation of your school, Sacred Heart High School in Hammersmith. I couldn’t begin to add up the number of Sisters, of students, of teachers and all those many others who have played their part in the story of those years. I am sure, though, that among them there have been very many who have embodied those values that we see in the Mater Admirabilis: hard work, faithful prayer, strength of heart, and a good bit of fun now and then too.
Among those countless people, many of you will have particular personalities in mind: teachers, friends, mentors who have shaped the story of your life. A celebration such as this is the best of occasions to thank God for them, and to pray for them. We include in our prayers those who have had a quiet impact on just a few others as well as those who are rightly known for having fulfilled high-profile roles with distinction. Today is also a day to pray for those whose names are, for the most part, lost to history. They are not lost to God.
Today’s Gospel reading is, to be honest, not the easiest. One thing it does remind us, and with some force, is that as Christians we live both with uncertainty and with certainty. We know that, for each of us, the day will come 'for the Son of Man to be revealed’. But we do not know when that will be. We do know that at the end of our lives there is a judgment to be faced. And it is a judgment that is personal to each of us. That is what Jesus is getting at when he speaks of the two women grinding corn together, one being taken and one left. So, we know for sure that, on that day, we will have to give an account of our lives. This helps us to keep focused in everything we do. In the end nothing is hidden so we have to live with this firmly in mind. Now this has certainly been the case with all those who live good and saintly lives, not least St Madeleine Sophie.
Thinking about this judgement to come can be troubling or even frightening. But it is not so. When we think of these things, I like to recall the words of Cardinal Hume who once said that ‘Judgement is whispering into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life which I had never been able to tell.’
That is perfectly true, and a great comfort to us all.
But today we are celebrating a more public story, of a religious society and a great school. It's a story that began in France, survived the reign of Napoleon, and has spread and been told across the world. It is a story that, as for many Religious in the 21st century, has to be lived with some uncertainty, as patterns of witness and service for the future are discerned. It's a story which we are proud has been told, and continues to be told. It's a story to which you contribute, not only at this time but maybe in the future for those who know that even now God is calling you to give your lives in this very special way in the Society of the Sacred Heart. It's a story for which we give the most heartfelt thanks to God.
There are many sayings of your foundress, St Madeleine Sophie, which have become well known. It is hard to choose just one to end with. But what better than perhaps the most famous one of all. Three short phrases, instructions, that are as relevant now as when they were first spoken, relevant to all those who are part of the family of the Sacred Heart, and to all in the family of the Church:
‘Be humble, be simple, bring joy to others.’
✠ Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster