150th Anniversary of St Joseph's Missionary Society

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Given at Mass celebrating the 150th anniversary of St Joseph's Missionary Society (Mill Hill Missionaries) on the Solemnity of St Joseph, 19 March 2016, in Westminster Cathedral.

This celebration of thanksgiving for the 150th Anniversary of St Joseph’s Missionary Society, the Mill Hill Missionaries, is a marvellous occasion for us all.  I feel very much part of it. After all, the Mill Hill Missionaries, founded by a priest who became the Cardinal Archbishop of this diocese, are ‘Westminster home-grown’. So as Cardinal Vaughan’s successor, I am deeply aware of how archbishops of Westminster have both encouraged and been blessed by the Mill Hill Fathers.

When the first Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, was approached by Fr Vaughan he could have been forgiven for dismissing Fr Vaughan’s wish to found an English Missionary College. Instead, he heeded the advice of a wise, old priest, Fr Vincent Pallotti, who had said: ‘The Church in England will not flourish until its sends priests to the foreign missions.’ Cardinal Wiseman recognised Fr Vaughan’s proposal as a providential gift.

With Wiseman’s blessing, and showing great courage and faith, in 1863, Fr Vaughan headed to the Americas to raise funds. First stop Colon, in present day Panama. Ignoring the Government’s ban on priests celebrating Mass and the Sacraments he started his ministry. After ministering to a dying woman, Vaughan was required by the local prefect to pay a heavy bail and instructed not to leave the port. He took no notice. Forfeiting his bail, he left and set out on highly successful appeals in the US and South America returning to England laden with donations. On 1 March, 1866, his missionary college at Holcombe House, Mill Hill, opened. Students enrolled? One!

Within three years numbers had so increased that larger premises were required. With the active encouragement of Wiseman’s successor, Cardinal Manning, work began on the new college. On the feast of St Joseph, 1871, the foundation stone of the college church was laid. In March 1874 it was consecrated as the national shrine of St Joseph. The following month, in the presence of the entire hierarchy of England and Wales, by special indult of Pius IX, Cardinal Manning crowned the statue of St Joseph.

St Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, foster father of Jesus, is a truly fitting patron for a missionary society! 

The reasons for this patronage were again made clear three years ago today in the homily given by Pope Francis at the inauguration of his pontificate. Joseph was called to be Custos, Guardian, first of Mary and Jesus, but then of the whole Church. To fulfil this mission Joseph had to be (and I quote), ‘constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own’. And this is so for every missionary society.

Pope Francis continues: ‘God does not want a house built by men, but faithfulness to his word, to his plan. It is God himself who builds the house ... Joseph is a “Guardian” because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will.’ No missionary society can ever forget this. The Holy Father says that it is from St Joseph that ‘we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ’.

It is, then from Christ that all mission flows. The more we are guardians of the presence of Christ in our lives, the more we become guardians of his presence in others, and guardians of all God’s creation. The vocation to be a guardian, teaches Pope Francis, means ‘respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about’.

Then, referring to the second reading, where Saint Paul speaks of Abraham, who, ‘hoping against hope, believed’ (Rom 4:18), the Pope exclaims:

‘Hoping against hope! Today too, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others. To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope; it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of hope! For believers, for us Christians, like Abraham, like St Joseph, the hope that we bring is set against the horizon of God, which has opened up before us in Christ.’

For 150 years the Missionary Society of St Joseph has lived this vocation. Inspired by St Joseph’s faith and courage, you are guardians of Jesus, of Mary, of the Church, of all God’s creation. Your fascinating exhibition illustrates in detail how in your past and present missions in the Americas, in South Asia and the Far East, in New Zealand and Australia, as well as in a number of African nations, you are bearers of hope amongst the most vulnerable and those least cared for.

Your missions show such pioneering boldness. I was struck by how Fr Vaughan told his missionaries in Baltimore, Maryland, serving the African American community, many of whom were liberated slaves, to learn from the Baptists and to build on the Afro-American people’s love for vibrant song and dance.

At the outset, you gladly welcomed the contribution of women to your mission: for example, the group of former Anglican nuns whom Vaughan received into the Church.  But the Franciscan Missionaries of St Joseph merit special mention.  Whilst Bishop of Salford, Vaughan helped Alice Ingham’s company of women to establish themselves as a religious congregation. Not long after their foundation, some Sisters joined the Fathers in the Borneo Mission. This close partnership between the Fathers and Sisters still flourishes. It is lovely that a biography of Alice Ingham will be carried up in the Offertory procession.  Lay women, too, have long been valued partners in your mission, as seen by Dr Agnes McLaren’s involvement in the movement to establish hospitals in India where women doctors could care for women patients.

In thanking God for all this work, we remember too the ways you have enriched the life of the Church in this country, including giving this diocese an auxiliary bishop, Gerry Mahon. Through your following St Joseph, God has nurtured the Kingdom in this nation. Your witness helps Catholics in this land to live as missionary disciples, to be missionaries of mercy. Just as Fr Palotti predicted, the Church in England, and I should add Wales too since the young Vaughan hoped to be a missionary in Wales, has indeed flourished by sending priests to the foreign missions.

May God continue to bless abundantly the Missionary Society of St Joseph, the Mill Hill Missionaries. With St Joseph, may you remain attentive to God, receptive to his plans and so be trustworthy guardians of all God’s gifts, the greatest of which is his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

St Joseph, pray for us.