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Given at the Mass celebrating the 75th anniversary of consecration of St James, Spanish Place, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 28th April 2024

Today’s First Reading finds the Church in Jerusalem somewhat troubled. The arrival of Saul, fresh from his dramatic experience on the road to Damascus, is eager to play his part in spreading the Gospel. Yet this must have been disconcerting. It is the first evidence the leaders of the Church had of the spread of the Good News beyond Jerusalem. But the apostles could hardly believe it. Here was a noted persecutor of Christians, now full of zeal for Christ. Was this all too good to be true?

Much of the early history of this parish was lived out in circumstances of strain and suspicion. During severe penal times, the Spanish Embassy did much, often ‘under the radar’, to nurture the faith of Catholics in London. Was this place of sanctuary, a bit like the arrival of Paul in Jerusalem, too good to be true? Sometimes, it might have seemed so. At one point towards the end of the seventeenth century, the Spanish Ambassador’s house was attacked and ransacked by an anti-Catholic mob. As circumstances improved, in 1791 a new ‘Public Chapel’ was opened, on the corner of Spanish Place, opposite the current church. It became increasingly popular, even fashionable, not least after Catholic emancipation in 1829. But by 1880 there was a problem. The lease on the Spanish Chapel was expiring, and an attempt to extend it was not successful.

From our modern perspective, this turned out to be something of a ‘happy fault’. The site of the current building was acquired and, on 29th September 1890, this church was opened for worship. The architecture of Edward Goldie and the interior embellishments of John Francis Bentley, architect of Westminster Cathedral, were immediately striking. But it took another 59 years, and two world wars, before the Church of St James, Spanish Place could be consecrated, on 28th April 1949, seventy-five years ago today.

It must have been a remarkable ceremony. It lasted five-and-a-half hours and involved six bishops, including the then Rector, Bishop Craven, also an Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster. Today’s Mass is, thankfully some might say, rather shorter and certainly less well-endowed with bishops. But, now as then, we worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, a beauty reflected in this church and a beauty that the years have not dimmed. Thankfully, this lovely church remains open throughout the day, open to all who wish to light a candle, to pray, or to be still. Perhaps the true effectiveness of this witness is known to God alone. Similarly, the generous availability of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is something truly beautiful, for which generations of London Catholics have had reason to be grateful. And the music that has been a constant hallmark of worship here, and is so evident today, is something for which we give great thanks to the Lord.

In acknowledging all of this, we have to be alive to the danger of being overly introspective.  ‘Our love,’ as St John reminds us in the Second Reading, ‘is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active.’ More recently, Pope Francis has put it another way. ‘Faith is not a “lullaby” that lulls us to sleep, but rather a living flame to keep us wakeful and active even at night.’ (Angelus, 14th August 2022). How good it is that this parish matches the beauty of its worship with an outward-looking apostolate, through its care for the homeless in soup kitchens, friendship and practical support, through ministry to patients in the several hospitals within its boundaries, through its work with the St Vincent de Paul Primary School. And in many other ways besides.

‘Make your home in me, as I make mine in you’. So says Jesus in today’s Gospel. This church has, over the years, been a home to so very many people. Generations of Catholics have received the sacraments here, fortified at the font and the altar for their journeys of faith. We have reason to be grateful to many priests who have ministered here, not least Mgr Miles, the longest serving Rector of this church, and Canon Terry Phipps and Fr Christopher Colven, its two living former Rectors. And we know that this church, situated as it is at the heart of one of the major cities of the world, continues to be a spiritual home to many, and will be in the future. 

When Cardinal Hume celebrated Mass here in 1990 for the centenary of the opening of the church, he said these words. They are as important today as they were 34 years ago, and ring as true as they would have done on this day in 1949. ‘Our Lord took possession of this church on September 29th, 1890. It became his house – a house of prayer, of faith, of charity – and central to it, its very raison d’être, is the place where his sacrifice is re-enacted each time Mass is celebrated. It is the place where his presence is special, in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.’

Here, then, in this house of prayer, we make our home. We rejoice in this day, for it is the day that the Lord has made, and gives to us. And, at this altar, we come to know that this ‘Day of the Lord’ reaches from here right into eternity, into the fulness of life promised to all who are called to the ‘Supper of the Lamb’: an invitation that has rung out from here for seventy-five years and, we pray, will continue to do so for many years to come. 

So let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God.


✠ Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster


Photo: Mazur/