Given at the Requiem Mass for Deceased Clergy in Westminster Cathedral on 22 November 2023
The eight priests for whom we pray today were so different in character. Looking again at their names, here on the Mass booklet, brings back precious memories of each of them. How different are their stories, the steps they took on this earth, their weaknesses and failings, their strengths and goodness. Yet in common is this one overarching fact: each made an offering of his life to the Lord and now, we pray, they are with him. Jesus says, 'Whoever comes to me I will not turn away…..I will raise him up on the last day' (John 6.37, 40). As we pray for them, and all our deceased clergy, we may reflect and draw learning and hope from this moment.
The Reading from the Book of Wisdom directs us first of all to the qualities of life that are crucial for our lasting hope. Those qualities are described in terms of 'the heart' and 'the tongue'.
We are urged to have a 'simplicity of heart', a disposition that resists the temptation to put everything to the test and thereby to distrust the Lord. We are to avoid having 'a crafty soul', well described by the word 'furbo', which sees itself as 'smarter' than others and proud of its own interpretation of events and the motives of other people. As the reading remarked 'selfish intentions divorce from God.'
The tongue, too, shapes our stance in life. We are told to ‘beware of complaining about nothing and keep your tongue from finding fault.' Truth in speech is crucial: 'The lying mouth deals death to the soul.'
The reason these qualities are held before us comes in a rather unusual phrase. We are to keep our hearts free from pretence and our tongues free from falsehood and bitterness because it is all entirely within the hearing of the Lord. And his, we are told, is 'a jealous ear'.
I do not often ponder the mystery of God as characterised by jealousy. Yet God is the one who watches over us with a total love that is indeed consistent with a jealous zeal. God wants no harm to come to us, least of all the harm that is self-inflicted. So let us be warned: 'not so much as a murmur of complaint escapes' the hearing of God and therefore 'the most secret word will have its repercussions'.
These are not easy standards to attain. And we fail. So today we pray for our departed brethren that the jealous love of God for each of them will now embrace them and hold them with tenderness and mercy.
Indeed, it is this longer horizon of life with the Lord that we do well to maintain. We are to live by this longer horizon.
This was suggested to me, years ago, in two different moments and phrases. They both concern the choice of friends or indeed of a life partner in marriage. I was once told 'Choose your friends sub specie aeternitatis', I did not understand at the time what that meant nor did I take much notice. And then I've never forgotten the comment of a couple preparing for marriage when the bridegroom told me that his choice of wife was, ultimately, because he was sure that this woman would, above all else, help him to get to heaven.
What can we learn about trying to live by this horizon of heaven? How may this hope of heaven, our greatest gift, be explained and interpreted?
One lesson concerns our attitude towards our bodies. We are to remember that this garment of skin in which we now live will, one day, be replaced by a robe of glory. Yes, all those wrinkles, all the effort of body maintenance, all that time spent in front of the mirror, will be rendered anew by the robe of glory which will be placed over us as our true fulfilment. But this reality of flesh will not be lost, for even our bodies will come to their fulfilment, too. 'My body longs for you', we pray, 'like a dry weary land without water' (Psalm 63). The resurrection of the body is part of the promise and should shape our peaceful living today. It gives true meaning to the care we give to our bodies, with their instincts and longings, for they too urge us to reach out to the wonder of God. This is the deepest reason for our bodily care: to nurture our bodies for eternity.
In this horizon of eternity, then, we learn a new relationship with our physical selves. And in that light, we see all suffering in a new way. It is a preparation for what is to come: that slow transformation from what is pleasing and pleasurable to us into a new reality in which our entire self, body and soul, receives the ultimate crown
And one other thing we can learn: that all we have been given, our make-up, our history, our innate flaws, our talents, our creativity, all of this, while it certainly conditions our path of life and our daily successes and disappointments, it does not determine our ultimate outcome. We are not prisoners of our weaknesses, even though we may often fall because of them. But that is never the whole story and we become truly entrapped if we think there is nothing more. But there is more to come. Indeed, there is a judgement that we will meet, the only judgement that truly matters, which sees beyond those conditioning elements, searching with a jealous love for that remnant of goodness and godliness which is the first gift we are given, made as we are in the image and likeness of God and destined to be with God forever. As Cardinal Hume so attractively said: 'This judgement is whispering into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life which I had never been able to tell.’
It is this judgement through which our departed brethren have now passed. Now, we pray, they reign in the supreme glory of the purpose for which they were made.
This, surely, is the strength of the affirmation proclaimed in the final verses of that First Reading: 'Death was not God's doing, he takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living. To be - for this he created all'. Yes, we are created for life, eternal life. Ours is the task of announcing and proclaiming this joyful truth and of striving, as best we can, to live by it each day.
For those whose journey is now complete, we pray: Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.
✠ Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster