Celebration of Mass For the 200th Anniversary of Downside Abbey

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Given on Friday 21 March 2014 at Downside Abbey, Radstock, Bath.

As I listened to the Responsorial Psalm in our Mass this morning, memories came flooding back to me. I remembered an autumn morning in Rome, in 1966 I think, and the Church of the Twelve Apostles. I was receiving the tonsure, that circle of cropped hair that was characteristic of the head of a monk. The moment represented, for me, a first public act of commitment to a life-long following of Christ in the pathway of priesthood. As my hair was clipped, the words of the Psalm were recited: "Lord, it is you who are my portion and cup, it is you yourself who are my prize." I was 21 years of age at the time. I meant it then. I still try to live by that same affirmation today.

That moment, and every day, draws me into the fundamental pattern of Christian living, to which we are all invited by the love and compassion of our Heavenly Father. I was identifying my life with that of The Lord. I still do so. That was my choice. But even then I knew, and I know now, that my choice does not stand in the first place. Rather what comes first is the Lord's identification with me!

The first reading of our Mass made that so clear. God says these words to Abram, the father in faith of us all: "I will bless you and make your name famous: you are to be a blessing." God is throwing in his lot with Abram, and his offspring, and for ever.

This is the beginning: not our love for God, but God's love for us; not my commitment to The Lord, but his commitment to me, a commitment which took him to death on the cross.

Only when we understand this ordering of things, only when we stop thinking that we come first, move first, reach out first, will we truly understand the call of our wonderful faith. When our hearts are truly filled with an understanding of the primacy of God then we begin to live in the joy and freedom of faith! Then we understand what St Paul means when he tells us, in the Second Reading: "Let your minds be filled with everything that is true, honourable, upright and pure." We strive for such a state of mind because God has first poured his Spirit into our hearts and we have tasted his utter goodness.

This same truth lies at the heart of the monastic life which we celebrate so wholeheartedly today.

Yes the history of this Abbey and community is remarkable, stretching back to the foundation in Douai in 1605, carrying to England, after the French Revolution, the name and heritage of St Gregory, settling here in Stratton on the Fosse two hundred years ago.

This priority of God's grace, God's action, is written into the lines of the Rule of St Benedict, still guiding the life of the monastery and the life of each monk.

The opening words of that Rule, included in our booklet, make that clear. The first and overriding duty of the monk is to listen carefully to the Master's instructions, attending to them 'with the ear of your heart.' What a wonderful expression: our deepest being, our first focus, is to be attentive to all that God wants to say to us and do through us. If only we could all maintain that focus and priority, how much happier we would all be!

The Rule is also ever practical. It spells out for each monk how he is to behave. And surely these words are a formula for every single one of us:

'They (the monks) should try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another's weakness of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience with one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.....let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.'

Those words of wisdom have endured since written in the 6th century. They are still a sure guide for us all today. They are the rule by which this community has tried to live, in this place, for 200 years. It is a fruitful and rewarding way of life!

There are three monks of this community who have brought that fruitfulness into my life in quite profound ways. I would like to speak of them briefly and personally, leaving the real history to those who know it far better than I.

The first, and this may surprise you, is Dom Bernard Ullathorne. The fact that he died in 1889 doesn't matter. He has touched my life deeply for, as Archbishop of Birmingham, I was one of his successors. I wear his ring today.

He came to this Abbey in 1823, as a young man who has just experienced a profound conversion. 'I felt the hand of God upon me', he said. And he responded whole heartedly. He was a man of great energy, restlessness and initiative. Nine years after entering, at the young age of 24, he was sent off to help develop the pattern of the Catholic Church in Australia. Please note that he took 500 books with him - the fruit of a Downside education!

Not only did he work in Australia, but tirelessly he build up the Diocese of Birmingham which I have been privileged to serve. Indeed, I have often slept in the room in which he died, where some of his last words were to the lady making up the fire in his bedroom. 'Oh, Alice,' he said, with typical Yorkshire humour, 'it's a funny old world.'

The second son of the Abbey who shaped my life is Abbot Christopher Butler. As many of your will know he was the seventh Abbot here, serving from 1946 until 1966 when he was ordained a bishop for service in the Diocese of Westminster. He had played a great part in the Second Vatican Council, especially in the Council's document on Divine Revelation and as a bishop he helped so many understand and assimilate the teachings of the Church through that Council. I remember witnessing some of the early and tense discussions between bishops, as Bishop Christopher made clear the radical and renewing depth of that teaching. He was a gift to me and to so many.

And the third person who has brought to me the fruit of his wholehearted following of the Rule of St Benedict has only just left our earthly company. It is Dom Sebastian Moore. As a seminarian and young priest I had the privilege of talking often with Fr Sebastian when he was serving in the parish of St Mary's, Highfield Street, Liverpool. If Bishop Ullathorne brought to the wider Church the focussed dedication he learned in these cloisters, and Bishop Butler the sharp and incisive learning he acquired here, Dom Sebastian brought his creative and original thinking, uniquely challenging and endlessly provocative. Who else would say: 'I told God that he was boring me and I don't think he liked it because he has never bored me since!' Who else would describe himself as simply filled with 'a desire to understand desire!' Yet he did, and he continued to surprise and stimulate so many until the end.

I pay this personal tribute to these three by way of saluting this entire community and thanking God for all the riches we have received from here.

But maybe the greatest of those riches lie further in the past, in the martyrs of the Abbey of St Gregory in Douai, men who came here, at the cost of their lives, to serve and preach the Catholic faith. Listen to their names and simple chronology:

Blessed George Gervaise, martyred at Tyburn on 11 April 1608, aged 39.

Then two years later:

Saint John Roberts, martyred at Tyburn on 10 December 1610, aged 34

Then two years later:

Blessed Maurus Scott, martyred at Tyburn on 25 May 1612, aged 34.


St Ambrose Barlow, martyred at Lancaster on 10 September 1641 aged 56,


Blessed Philip Powell, martyred at Tyburn on 30 June 1646, aged 52,


Blessed Thomas Pickering, martyred at Tyburn on 9 May 1679, aged 58.

This martyrdom is the ultimate witness, at least an echo of which must find itself in our lives too. That is our calling: to witness to the faith we celebrate today at this Mass and let it be seen in all we do and say.

How did these martyrs do it? Where did they find that courage and joyful determination to be faithful unto death? The Gospel passage which we have just heard, which they too heard and pondered often, holds the answer. Here is God's final promise to us, final because it envelopes our endings and opens for us the vision of such a glorious future. Martyrs being dragged through the streets of London towards Tyburn and cruel death encouraged each other with the sight of the rising sun. For them its dawning was a joyous reminder that shortly they would see the risen Son of God and live for ever in his presence. Death was just a final step. And they also knew that through that death they could bear an enduring witness to the truth of their faith. And how right they were!

Jesus said, and says to us today: 'Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they may always see my glory which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.'

As we celebrate this great anniversary, may these words reassure and comfort us on our journey; may they inspire this community in its faithful way of Benedictine life and give us all the courage to live out joyfully our faith each day. Amen.

+Vincent Nichols

Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster