Given at Wednesday 22 January 2014 at Westminster Cathedral.
Mark, we gather this evening to pray for you and with you as you prepare to take up your new ministry in the Diocese of Plymouth.
In doing so we readily thank God - and you yourself – for your great love for this Diocese and for your commitment to its life and well-being. Many will think of your work in our parishes, especially in St Mary Magdalene, Willesden Green, in your vital role as Private Secretary to Cardinal Cormac and, of course, in the great responsibilities you accepted as Rector of Allen Hall and as a member of the Archbishop’s Council of the Diocese. We have benefitted greatly from your gifts, your clear mind, your perceptive heart and your generous endeavours. These are the qualities and experience you are now called upon to take into the service of the Diocese of Plymouth. There, priests and people will very quickly recognise your goodness and respond to you willingly and generously. Of that there is no doubt.
Today is the Feast of St Vincent – not Vincent de Paul whom my mother had in mind – but Vincent of Saragossa, in Spain, where he lived in the third century.
He was a Deacon and Martyr, two titles very suited to the ministry of a bishop. The first meaning of the word deacon is servant, and that is most suited to the ministry of a bishop. And he is also an ambassador, a meaning attributed by some scholars to the significance of the deacon.
As a servant bishop you will, from time to time, wear the dalmatic of the deacon as a sign that though you are a bishop you remain always a deacon. That will be a sign of your constant service of priests and people, expressed in so many ceremonies, homilies, meetings and no doubt endless car journeys throughout the length and breadth of your extensive diocese.
The first meaning of the word martyr is witness, and you will often act as a witness to our faith. Time and again you will speak clearly about the fundamental Gospel message, about the joy of knowing Christ, and about the beauty of his message of fulfilment for our human family. You will do this, I am sure, with courage and clarity, and doing so will evoke criticism and scorn, though not perhaps with the same degree of fury that faced young David in his encounter with the Philistine. Nor will you be chopping off any heads!
A Servant and a Witness; a Deacon and a Martyr. These are key notes for all that lies ahead.
This is surely a great time to be starting ministry as a bishop, when we are being presented with such a refreshing vision of the Church by Pope Francis, enunciated with clarity in the Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
There we read that not only are we individually to understand ourselves as missionary disciples but that this is also his chosen title for the whole Church. ‘The Church is herself a missionary disciple’ he says (40). She is not only a community of missionary disciples but must also understand her own very being in that same way.
The Church is a disciple in as much as we together are close to the Lord, always seeing him as Master, never mistaking the fruits of grace and goodness as our own achievements, always joyful and thankful in his friendship and company.
We, the Church, are missionary is as much as we wish, fervently, to share this friendship and companionship with others, wanting to invite everyone into the joy and light of knowing the Lord.
Let me quote the words of Pope Francis:
“If anything should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6.37) (49)”.
Wonderful, inspiring words! A diocese has to gather round this task under the leadership of its bishop for the diocese is - and I quote again – ‘the concrete manifestation of the one Church in one specific place and in it “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative” (Christus Dominus 11) (30). And for the task of fostering his diocese as a missionary communion, Pope Francis has a most wonderful description of the work of the bishop:
‘He will sometimes go before his people, pointing the way and keeping their hopes vibrant. At other times he will simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence. At yet other times, he will have to walk after them, helping those who lag behind and –above all – allowing the flock to strike out on new paths’ (31).
Dear Mark, I find these words encouraging and instructive. I am sure you do so too. May they guide you in the months and years to come, just as we here will strive to follow them and be shaped anew by them. As you see the beauties of the coastline of Devon and Dorset and are warmed by the radio-active rock of Cornwall, may you always remain a true missionary disciple and lead your diocese on that same path!
In all of this, as you well know, only a strong and shared relationship with the Lord will keep us true and protect us from harm. The people of the Temple, in the Gospel we have just heard, evidently did not enjoy such a relationship with God, for then they would have rejoiced in God’s work, carried out by Jesus in unconventional fashion, rather than acting indignantly against it. May your relationship with Him always remain strong. Today we offer you our constant love and support as we are united in that one relationship of life and love. In this you are always our brother, always welcome here. Together may we serve Him with ready and loving hearts.