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Given at the Mass marking the 400th anniversary of the appointment of Bishop William Bishop and the establishment of the Old Chapter, in Westminster Cathedral on 28th September 2023

Today I remember many of the joys of my years of service in the Archdiocese of Birmingham. Some of them brought me close to the history of the re-establishment of Catholic life in the country after the Reformation.

I recall that the first meeting of the newly appointed Bishops, commonly known of the Synod of Westminster, actually took place in Oscott College in Birmingham. It was a thrill to stand in the pulpit from which John Henry Newman preached the ‘Second Spring’ sermon. It was in Oscott, too, that the first public procession of the Blessed Sacrament after the Reformation took place. Also I learned a little about the character and work of Bishop Ullathorne, who did so much in the establishing of many of the patterns of Catholic life familiar to us today.

But perhaps the star of all these memories takes me back to the hidden villages of Upper and Lower Brailes, in Warwickshire.

The Catholic Church there now is the upper story of a former barn. Fr Tony Simms, a colourful character, was Parish Priest. The church organ was powered by a vacuum cleaner, sitting in the disused barn, with an extended tube connecting it to the organ above. It was better, he insisted, than manual pumping!

Brailes was the birthplace of William Bishop, in about 1554, but I don’t have to elaborate on this today. He was ordained in France in 1583 and promptly imprisoned for twelve months on his arrival back in England as a Catholic priest. Then he returned to Paris, coming back for a further two years’ ministry, and then back to Paris again in 1591.

This pattern of constant travel illustrates that his life was involved in endless disputes between Religious and Secular priests, especially the Jesuits. When William Bishop went to Rome on appeal, he was ‘imprisoned’ in the Venerable English College, under the authority of Fr Robert Parsons SJ. Many of us have been there!

However, in 1623 he was appointed as Vicar Apostolic, with jurisdiction for England and Scotland and so became Bishop Bishop. Yet this brought him no tranquility as the Scots immediately objected and his mandate was limited to England. Again he suffered an unhappy homecoming. After landing in secret he had a twelve mile walk before being met and welcomed!

Then his lasting work began, with the establishment of a Dean and Chapter to oversee the Catholic life in the country. And today the Old Brotherhood looks back to this moment with pride. And even then the Chapter was opposed by the Jesuits! 

Bishop William Bishop died in 1624. Remarkably he was buried in the graveyard of the Brailes Parish Church of the Church of England, an early ecumenical gesture and a tribute to one of the village’s most famous sons.

The tomb is there today and I was privileged to pray there, thanking God for the resilience and dedication of this remarkable man.

You know, of course, that in 1685 England was divided into four ecclesiastical districts and so the initial role of the Dean and Chapter ended, or changed. And that is another story!

Today’s Mass of thanksgiving is a day of true celebration.

Isaiah, in the first reading, sets the tone, reminding us that in all our celebrating there are deeper truths of which we must not lose sight. He tells us that the Lord’s boundless goodness is granted in his mercy, or ‘according to his compassion’. It is never our own achievements that we celebrate, but the mercy and compassion out of which, and in response to our need, the goodness of God flows so abundantly.

Paul gives us a second perspective.

His fulsome praise of the Church in Corinth and the thanksgiving he gives comes as a prelude to his strong admonitions of that community, particularly over divisions within it.

His thanksgiving, and ours, is without any touch of complacency.

And the Gospel, the great commandment of love, of a love that knows no bounds!

Hearing this text today reminds me of the first reading at Mass on Sunday: ‘My ways are not your ways; my thoughts not your thoughts!’ Indeed! Our love always tends to be conditional, careful, calculated even. But God’s is not.

Pope Francis gave a glimpse of God’s way when, last week, he appealed to Europe’s governments not to view immigrants as invaders, but to see them as people seeking a welcome. He said that we were not to turn the Mediterranean, which has been the cradle of civilisation, into the graveyard of human dignity. European governments do not agree. Our ways are not the ways of the Lord. May the Lord have mercy on us.

This reality of immigration is the reality of the Church for which we now have responsibility. Last Saturday I knelt with a thousand pilgrims from this diocese, in the grounds of Walsingham Abbey. We were praying before the Blessed Sacrament. Before us was also the great monastic arch, towering above us, a vivid reminder of our Catholic history, as is this anniversary. But the thousand people from the parishes and communities of this diocese were from all over the world: from Europe, including French, Hungarians, Slovaks; from Africa including from the Congo and Zimbabwe; from many regions of India; from the Philippines, Vietnam, China. I urged them all to see themselves as now part of the rich history of the Church here in these lands.

This is our Church today and all must be within the scope of our love and our vision for the future.

Our roots are deep, complex, full of knots. But they are healthy, full of sap. And the branches are there too, reaching out, bringing fresh oxygen to the life of the tree of faith.

May we all, Old Brotherhood and new, bear much fruit under the gracious blessings of the Lord for which today we give such thanks.


✠ Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster

Photo: Mazur/