Given at the Immaculate Conception and St Joseph Church, Hertford, on the 150th anniversary of consecration of the church, on 16 October 2016.
‘I must ask myself where I came from… the memory of my people, the memory of my family, the memory of my history. The memory of a path that has already been trodden’. Pope Francis spoke these words a few months ago in Krakow to the pilgrims of World Youth Day. They are every bit as relevant to us, on the 150th anniversary of this consecration of the Church of the Immaculate Conception and St Joseph in Hertford. Such a day of thanksgiving is indeed an occasion for grateful memory.
Each of these three memories of which the Holy Father speaks is important. I’d like to take the last of them first: history. Now Hertford has an important place in our country’s Christian history. Not many people know that it was in this town that the system we still use today for working out the date of Easter was established. That was one of the decisions of the Synod of Hertford, held in 673. Another resolution the Synod fathers made was that ‘bishops and clergy when travelling shall be content with whatever hospitality is offered them’. More than 1300 years after those words were written, I am very content! After the Norman Conquest, a nephew of William the Conqueror built Hertford Priory to house a Benedictine community. That church, built on a grand scale, lasted through the first half of the millennium, until the Reformation. Today, Hertford is the county town and a centre of some importance. Without its distinguished Christian past, things might have been very different.
When we think of the memory of the people of Hertford, we might be hesitant to mention John Wesley. That famous cleric, one of the founders of Methodism, visited the town in 1778 and wrote that ‘I preached to 50 or 60 dull creatures in poor desolate old Hertford’.
Rather more significant to Hertford than Wesley are three Cardinals, the first three Archbishops of Westminster. First, the then Father Herbert Vaughan, who was Vice President of St Edmunds College at Old Hall Green, looked after the Hertford Mission and set about the building of this church. Fr Vaughan went on to be the third Archbishop of Westminster, where he set about building Westminster Cathedral. And now that your parish priest is a Canon of the Cathedral this close link between these two buildings has a fresh expression! By then the first Archbishop, Cardinal Wiseman, had already visited Hertford to lay the foundation stone of this church in 1858. He came again to open it in June 1859. But it fell to the second Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Edward Manning, to consecrate the church 150 years ago today, on 16 October 1866.
The memory of our family is, inevitably, much more personal. In a long-established parish like this one, the stones resonate with family history: of baptisms and First Communions, of weddings and funerals. Many in this church today, I am sure, will have such personal memories, of grace received at the font and the altar, of loved ones who have made this church their spiritual home. Today is the best of days to pray for them, and to thank God for them and for their gift of faith to us.
Memory is important for its own sake. But it reaches its fullest potential in what it can teach us about the present and the future. Cardinal Manning saw that in his sermon at the consecration of the church. He was accused of ‘Roman Catholic bigotry’ in the local paper for his pains, but what he had to say remains significant 150 years later. He spoke of what he called the ‘apostolic principle in the Church’, the charge placed on the apostles by Christ to ‘go out to the whole world and proclaim the good news’. Pope Francis says the same thing in a slightly different way, when he challenges us to be missionary disciples. This is no bigotry; it is a desire for truth and for truth to be shared. Without that instinct to look outward, communities of faith, turned inward, may wither. Jesus says to the Samaritan woman in the Gospel that ‘the hour will come when you will worship the Father, neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem’. Now, Our Lord probably wasn’t thinking of Hertford when he said that. But the imperative to take the Gospel to the whole world, and in doing so to go beyond that with which we are comfortable and familiar, is clearly there in his words, and it is said to us here today, as to Christian people of all places and ages.
How we fulfil that apostolic principle of proclaiming the Good News is one of the great challenges of our times. As we seek to rise to that challenge, we can take comfort in the words of the Second Reading. ‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation.’ As members of Christ’s church, as his ‘living stones’, we set about our task confident in his love and grace. In the work of evangelisation, words have their place. Carefully chosen words can indeed become part of our memory. In this parish we might think particularly of the words of the first resident parish priest, Fr Francis Stanfield, who wrote the hymn Sweet Sacrament divine. ‘Sweet sacrament of rest, ark from the ocean’s roar, beneath thy shelter blest, soon may we reach the shore’. Those words, and the music associated with them, have fostered the devotion of generations of Catholics to the Blessed Sacrament, and have certainly played their part in bolstering the Catholic faith in this country. But often it is not words that best spread the Gospel. It’s the goodness people see in our sincere efforts to make faith and life match up; it’s the beauty that can radiate from holy places – and there are few churches in our diocese more beautiful than this one; it’s our determination to show to the younger generations, so alive to the possibilities of the modern world, that this faith of ours is the key to understanding this world and to living in it with dignity, freedom and purpose. Our faith is truly worth holding onto especially in our darkest moments, cherishing in times of joy, and passing on, generation to generation. In this way, in our own time, we do what Cardinal Manning asked in his sermon here 150 years ago today.
During Holy Communion, the choir will sing Locus iste a Deo factus est, ‘This place has been made by God’: a place of significant memory; a town of importance today; and, we pray, a church where faith will continue to be nurtured in Word and sacraments, where the praise of God will be proclaimed, for many years to come.