40th Anniversary of Diocese of East Anglia

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Given at the Mass celebrating the 40th anniversary of Diocese of East Anglia, on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, 3 June 2016, at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, St Giles' Gate, Norwich. 

Pope Francis has a great gift for using a memorable phrase. One such phrase, in Amoris Laetitiae, his recent exhortation on ‘Love in the Family’, describes the family as 'the engine of history!' 

Now the very stones of this cathedral bear witness to the truth of that expression. It was built, starting in 1882, in thanksgiving to God for a happy marriage. The Fitzalan Family, Henry Fitzalan-Howard, the 15th Duke of Norfolk, gave £200,000, a staggering sum for the time, for this church to be built in thanksgiving for his happy marriage to Lady Flora. We thank God today that the happiness of this family became the engine that drove the construction of this building, in all its magnificence and beauty. 

Despite its majestic proportions, the Church of St John the Baptist has not always been a cathedral. That came forty years ago, when Pope Paul VI approved the creation of the Diocese of East Anglia, and, on 2 June 1976, Bishop Alan Clark was installed here as its first bishop. Thus this church of St John the Baptist became a cathedral church, one of the largest in the country. It is, indeed, a building of faith and a fine starting point for reflection on why we are gathered here today, and for what we should be thankful. 

I begin behind me, in the chancel. It has been furnished in a variety of ways over the past forty years. These days, it houses images of three East Anglian saints of the first millennium: St Felix, St Etheldreda and St Edmund: a bishop, an abbess and a king. They remind us that faith in these parts is as old as the hills (though that is not, perhaps, the best way of putting it in Norfolk!). And they offer us a challenge to be diligent in our mission to live out the faith, playing our part in the continuing story of Christianity in East Anglia now and into the future. As we play our part in this history we are to be, in the words of the Second Reading, 'filled with joyful trust in God’. 

Before these particular images of the saints came along, the bishop’s chair was there, placed in the chancel. The first reading and the Gospel speak of the care of the shepherd for his flock, collectively and individually. It is not beauty or majesty that gives a cathedral its title; it is the ‘cathedra’, the chair of the bishop, around whom the flock of the diocese gathers. The brief history of this diocese already has two Bishop Alans! How many more will there be?  It is good that the second Bishop of East Anglia, now Archbishop Peter Smith, can be with us today; and we pray for the repose of the soul of Bishop Michael Evans, even as we do for Bishop Alan Clark. And to this Bishop Alan we offer an assurance of our prayers as he strives, in the words of Ezekiel from the First Reading, ‘to look after my flock and keep all of it in view’. 

Earlier again, the old high altar, with its prominent tabernacle, stood at the east end of the cathedral. That altar and now the new altar are powerful reminders to all who enter the cathedral of the centrality of the Eucharist to our Catholic faith.  In the celebration of this Mass, as in every Eucharist, Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, is made present for us, vulnerable for us, in the sacrament of his love. In the Blessed Sacrament we are given the surest token of that love, and a pledge of the future glory of heaven. It is the very heart of our faith, for it is the person of Jesus, with us constantly, opening his arms to us in welcome, urging us to come to him, to lay down our burdens at his feet so that we may stand tall again and go out, ready to be his heralds. 

And so it is most appropriate that our celebrations today have the Eucharist at their heart. Paul VI, who was the Pope who brought this diocese into being, reminds us in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei, that in the ‘Mass an abundant treasure of special salutary graces enriches the celebrant, the faithful, the whole Church, and the entire world’. 

The holiness of the people of God, the ministry of the bishop, and faith nourished and sustained by the Blessed Sacrament find such a focus in today’s Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. ‘The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given us.’ So writes St Paul to the Romans in the Second Reading. It is a love that has been expressed in public witness and private prayer alike by so many in this diocese over the past forty years. 

‘Sweet heart of Jesus, fount of love and mercy, today we come thy blessing to implore.’ This old and favourite hymn expresses our purpose today so clearly, for this is what we do. We ask the Lord’s blessing on us as we seek concrete ways of continuing to make his love manifest. We need his blessing so that in this Year of Mercy the boundless mercy of Christ may, through us, touch many lives with its healing and gift of new freedom. 

In conclusion, there is one other person I should like to mention. I do so by drawing your attention to a chapel over in the transept on my right, rather intimate in the context of the grandeur of the cathedral as a whole. This is the Walsingham Chapel, and its windows tell the story of the shrine. What a privilege it is for this diocese to have within its borders what is now the Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham! How good it is that Our Lady of Walsingham is the principal patron of the diocese, and that her statue has been brought from Walsingham to the cathedral today. It is my prayer that all that goes on there may continue to make Walsingham an ‘engine of history’ for the Catholic faith in our country, for it truly is the shrine of the Holy Family, the inspiration and challenge to all families today. 

We celebrate this anniversary with joy in our hearts. We entrust ourselves and the mission of the Church in the Diocese of East Anglia for the next forty years and beyond to the intercession of Our Lady of Walsingham, full of confidence in her motherly care.