Given on at Our Lady of Dolours Church, Fulham Road, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, 14 September 2014.
For 150 years, the Servite Friars have served our Catholic Community here in this part of London. While this parish is not quite that longstanding, the mission of the Servites really is. So today I join in thanking and congratulating them on this great anniversary and for all that they bring to the enrichment of our life of faith.
As I am sure you all know, the roots of the Servite Order go back to the feast of the Assumption, 1233 when the Blessed Virgin appeared to seven noble men of Florence who had withdrawn from their busy lives to follow the exercises of the Confraternity of the Laudesi. Mary greeted them and bade them leave the world and live for God alone. On the following feast of her Nativity, 8 September, these same seven good men retired to La Camarzia, just outside the walls of the city of Florence and later on to Monte Senario, eleven miles from Florence. Here again they had a vision of the Blessed Virgin. The details of this vision are worth remembering and pondering. Indeed they explain to us so much of which we are familiar today.
In this vision, Mary held in her hands a black habit; a multitude of angels surrounded her, some bearing the different instruments of the Passion, one holding the Rule of St. Augustine, whilst another offered with one hand a scroll, on which appeared the title of Servants of Mary surrounded by golden rays, and with the other a palm branch. Mary addressed to them the following words:
"I have chosen you to be my first Servants, and under this name you are to till my Son's Vineyard. Here, too, is the habit which you are to wear; its dark colour will recall the pangs which I suffered on the day when I stood by the Cross of my only Son. Take also the Rule of St. Augustine, and may you, bearing the title of my Servants, obtain the palm of everlasting life."
Today here in this parish it is the same Friars who minister to us and bring to us the fruit of that wonderful revelation.
Today, too, we remember the wider Servite family, the Servite Sisters with all their tremendous work, who were aggregated to the Servite Order also 150 years ago. Not surprisingly they were here first, having come as the newly formed Congregation of the Sisters of the Compassion at the encouragement of their founder, Abbé Chantome.
It was on 11 October 1864 that the first two Servite Fathers arrived, Fr Philip Bosio and Fr Augustine Morini. It was the first venture of the Servite Order into the English speaking world and it was inspired in part by the anti-clerical persecutions of Garibaldi and Cavour in Italy and in part by a strong desire to spread the charism of the Order. They and their companions were men of vision and hope, bringing the powerful devotional life, centred on the seven sorrows of Mary, which comforts us so much in our sorrows and in our trials. From here they went on across the Atlantic to the United States to begin another foundation in Wisconsin.
In the Church's calendar, today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and tomorrow is the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. They are two sides of the same coin and, as a mark of this occasion, we are celebrating them more or less together today. Taken together they bring us to the heart of the pathway by which the Servites enter into the mystery of our salvation. This pathway is vividly portrayed in the hymns of Fr Frederick Faber, himself a Servite Tertiary. Who does not know these words, which certainly are deeply rooted in my heart?
'O come and mourn with me awhile;
See Mary calls us to her side;
O come and let us mourn with her:
Jesus, our Love, is crucified!'
And then a later verse:
'Come take thy stand beneath the Cross,
And let the blood from out that side
Fall gently on thee, drop by drop:
Jesus, our Love, is crucified!'
This is true teaching for our hearts as well as for our minds. By this path we come to know the unswerving love that Jesus has for us and the depth of the compassion and forgiveness that he brings. By this path we come to feel the embrace of Mary who not only carried in her heart the sorrows promised her by Simeon, but also always opens her heart to us whenever we come to her and whatever burden and worry we bring. This is such consolation and joy.
Yet it is more than that. A contemporary of Fr Faber and a person whom Fr Bosio and Fr Morini may well have known was the Blessed John Henry Newman. He too understood the journey of faith as a journey of the heart. He insisted that a faith deeply set in our hearts through devotion is a sure foundation for our witness in society. He said: 'Let us but raise the level of religion in our hearts and it will rise in the world. He who attempts to set up God's Kingdom in his heart, furthers it in the world.' These are words of such importance as today we all try to see how we can share our faith and witness to it in our complex and vibrant society. Let this day be a reminder to us that faith is very much a journey of devotion in our hearts and is witnessed among people today whenever, in Newman's words, 'heart speaks unto heart.' If such true devotion nurtures our own hearts then we can be sure that it will touch the hearts of many others, hearts which, like ours, are hungry for love and nourishment.
Today, then, we hold in our hearts the Cross of Christ. We give a special place in our hearts to Mary. As Pope St John Paul II said:
‘Mary is our Spiritual Mother, and the mother always understands her children and consoles them in their troubles. She has that specific mission to love us, received from Jesus on the Cross, to love us only and always, so as to save us! Mary consoles us above all by pointing out the Crucified One and Paradise to us all!' (1980).
In his words from the Cross, words we have heard again in today's Gospel, Jesus gives the first shape to the Church, to be his Body in this world: 'Woman behold thy son.' And 'Son behold thy mother.' So it is that in taking our place at the foot of the Cross we find our place in the Church and from there receive our true task in life, that of making real in our lives the love that we see and receive there, and that of drawing others to share in that same joy.
Today we thank all the Servite Fathers and Sisters for the ways in which they lead us in that journey.
So, as we honour our Blessed Mother, our Lady of Sorrows, we honour her as the faithful disciple and exemplar of faith. As we do so, let us pray in the words of the opening prayer of the Mass this morning: “Father, as your Son was raised on the Cross, His Mother Mary stood by Him, sharing His sufferings. May your Church be united with Christ in His suffering and death and so come to share in His rising to new life.” Amen.