Given on the Solemnity of the Birthday of St John the Baptist, 24 June 2015, at Brompton Oratory.
Yorkshire is not the most obvious place for the Grand Depart of the Tour de France; but that’s exactly where it started last year. Perhaps you remember the stunning aerial shots of the cyclists racing their way through the glorious countryside. I recall one commentator pointing out a village church, informing us it was dedicated to St John the Baptist. Then we were shown another church and told it was also named after St John, though this time the Evangelist. The commentator wondered if St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist was the same person!
Well, no doubt every member of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (to use the full title) would have shouted at the TV: ‘No! They’re certainly not!’ Had you been with that commentator, possibly you would have taken the opportunity to tell him all about your patron (now our patron, since my Investiture [as Bailiff Grand Cross]), whose nativity we celebrate today, St John the Baptist. Maybe, too, you would have explained to viewers why he is your patron; that your noble Order’s origins go back over 960 years, to a hospice for pilgrims in Jerusalem, no matter their race or religion, who at journey’s end were often sickly and destitute. Mention would surely have been made of the monastic community founded by Blessed Gérard that ran the hospice, faithfully fulfilling its mission under the patronage of the Baptist.
Although not the same character, both St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist focus our sight on the same person: Jesus Christ. Today’s feast, one of the oldest in the Christian calendar and extremely popular in the centuries that witnessed the birth and early growth of our Order, is truly Christ-centred.
We celebrate the Baptist’s birth when (at least in the northern hemisphere) we enjoy the most hours of daylight. John the Baptist is certainly a great light. However, his beam shines on another, even greater light. Already the hours of light are decreasing, those of darkness increasing. Sorry to cast a certain gloom over our celebrations, but it’s true. Yet when the darkness seems to conquer, the all-conquering Light is born, Christ our Lord.
And so John the Baptist says to us, even, especially, today, on his birthday: Jesus Christ must increase and he decrease. The Baptist’s only desire is to make known the good news of our salvation in Christ through forgiveness of our sins. His mission is not self-centred, rather wholly directed toward preparing the way for the Lord, who visits us like the dawn from on high. The Baptist’s birth points to Jesus being born among us so to enter the darkest regions of our lives, only to lead us into the peace of God’s kingdom. And with all humility John proclaims: 'I am not fit to undo his sandal'.
Today St John the Baptist, our great patron, commands us: “Don’t look at me, look at Jesus; don’t ask who I am; ask who Jesus is”. He does not wish us to remain his followers. Instead he longs for us to become ever more faithful followers of Jesus. By learning from the Baptist’s witness this is precisely what happens. By emulating the Baptist’s example we too long only to present Jesus, not ourselves, to the world, to let the Lord’s radiant light shine all the more brilliantly.
But how can we let the Lord’s light shine? How can we ensure that the focus is on him? By remaining true to the Order’s motto: Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum. Of course, protecting, nurturing the Faith and serving the poor are inseparable: our faith impels us to proclaim our Lord’s presence in the poor; and the more we serve Him in the poor, the more surely our faith flourishes. Through fidelity to the motto, our mouths, indeed our lives, become that sharp sword of which Isaiah spoke in the first reading.
I understand that when a Knight was received into the Order and became a Servant of the Poor, his sword was blessed. He was instructed that the sword’s brilliancy represented the brightness of faith, its point hope, and its hilt charity. He was to use it for the Catholic faith, for justice, and for the consolation of widows and orphans; for ‘this is the true justification of a Christian Knight’.
May each one of us be such a sword of faith, hope and charity: a sword cutting through the darkness that ensnares the suffering, that they may find freedom in Christ our light; a sword wreaking not death and destruction, but promoting fullness of life by defending the intrinsic dignity of all God’s people.
In this regard, permit me to commend Pope Francis’s encyclical on Care of Our Common Home, Laudato Si. The Holy Father presents a rich integral ecology, embracing not just the natural environment, but also our built environment and our social landscape. He, like his predecessors, understands that an authentic ecology must respect the true nature of the human person and the rights flowing from it. This challenging document invites us to examine our consciences each day as to how we cherish God’s created gifts and take care of creation’s resources for the common good. It requires our professions and businesses to care for the environment, so as to care for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our one world.
We will do this if, with the Baptist, we decrease and let Christ increase. Let the outward vesture of the Order remind us that we are to be clothed in the garments of our Servant King; that attention is never to be on me, rather on the One through whom and for whom all things have been created; the One who will deliver all things to the Father, so that ‘God may be everything to everyone’ (1 Cor 15:28).
Look to the eight-pointed Cross worn outwardly over your hearts and let the beatitudes be deeply rooted in your hearts. The more the beatitudes become the fabric of our being, the more generously we respond to Jesus’ call to go out to the very edges of existence, to serve all who stand in need of his mercy, no matter who they are.
I am glad to say that from so much of what I am learning of the Order you are true to your motto: you strive to let Jesus be at the centre; you allow your lives to be fashioned by the beatitudes. The remarkable range of the Order’s charitable works testifies to this most eloquently. I wish to express my admiration and gratitude for all you do. Strengthened by the Sacraments, most especially the Eucharist, and through the powerful intercession of Our Lady, may all the members of the Order continue to be guided by their patron, St John the Baptist, so as to herald ever more widely the saving presence of Jesus Christ our Lord.