Given at the Mass celebrating the silver jubilee of episcopal ordination on 23rd January 2017 at Westminster Cathedral.
I thank you all for your presence this evening, especially those who have come, some at a great distance, for this Mass of thanksgiving for 25 years of episcopal ministry, which has been God's gift to me.
I thank especially my brother bishops, not least for their unfailing friendship, their honesty and their deep desire to protect and promote the collegiality between us, which is the context in which we best live this remarkable ministry. I thank too the priests, of Birmingham and Westminster, for their loyalty to me, especially when I have made mistakes and just got things wrong.
But now it is time for all of us to acknowledge our sins and seek the mercy of God as we prepare to celebrate these sacred mysteries.
In recent days I have spent a little time reflecting over these twenty-five years. I am conscious of so much happiness and joy which I have found and been given. Indeed, I thank God for every moment.
Yet there are also two other abiding impressions, neither of which is original or startling. They are simply that as I get older time seems to pass so much more quickly; and that, as I get older, my sense of joy and happiness is matched by an ever keener sense of the mystery of life with the burdens and struggles we all bear and the sinfulness that we all have to face. My ministry as bishop and pastor is lived in this awareness.
With all this in mind I came to the readings given to us by the Church for today, especially the First Reading. There we are told, unequivocally, that through the shedding of his blood Christ has overcome the burden of sin. This is the promise we receive: that his death took place to cancel sin. Indeed, it struck me that this reading and the Gospel passage we have just heard, come together to acclaim that anyone who does not believe that sin has been dealt with is, in fact, guilty of that eternal sin: the despair that is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and the power of God's mercy towards every person.
Reflecting on these themes, one moment from the last twenty-five years returned to my mind with dramatic vividness: the Mass celebrated here by Pope Benedict on 18 September 2010.
In preparation for that visit, I asked Pope Benedict if he would kindly preach on the mystery of the Precious Blood of Jesus. 'Oh', he said, 'that is not easy these days. But I will certainly try.'
His homily was masterly and based on a text from the Letter to the Hebrews similar to the one we have just heard.
He started by pointing to this great crucifix, saying that it 'portrays Christ’s body, crushed by suffering, overwhelmed by sorrow, the innocent victim whose death has reconciled us with the Father.’ He described the Lord’s outstretched arms, lifting us up to the Father for he is indeed our great High Priest. To him we bring our sorrows and our sins.
Pope Benedict then explained that pondering on the mystery of the Precious Blood ‘leads us to see the unity between Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, the Eucharistic sacrifice which he has given to his Church, and his eternal priesthood, whereby, seated at the right hand of the Father, he makes unceasing intercession for us, the members of his Mystical Body.’
It is the great privilege of the bishop, my privilege, our privilege, to be the principal celebrant and minister of this mystery, with its three dimensions, in which lie our hope and glory.
First, the once-and-for-all sacrifice of the Cross, which is ‘the well-spring of that divine life which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit’; then, this same sacrifice, celebrated in the Mass 'in every time and place until the Lord returns'; and thirdly, the Mass ‘embracing the mystery of our Lord’s continuing Passion in the members of his Mystical Body, the Church, in every age.'
How powerful those words are as we remember the widespread suffering and persecution of the disciples of Christ. Ours is an age of callous disregard for the value of human life; an age of ideologies that see their pathway of growth lying in the belittling and destruction of others. Often, and by no means exclusively, Christians stand in the front line today and thereby are one with the martyrs of old who, in the words of Pope Benedict, 'drank from the cup which Christ himself drank and whose own blood gives new life to the Church.'
Today let us thank God for the courage and faithfulness of so many who suffer for their faith. Let us ask the good Lord to strengthen them in their times of trial and to prepare us for ours.
Pope Benedict then pointed again to this crucifix. His words: 'Here the great crucifix which towers above us serves as a reminder that Christ, our eternal High Priest, daily unites our own sufferings, our own needs, hopes and aspirations, to the infinite merit of his sacrifice. Through him, with him and in him, we lift up our own bodies as a sacrifice holy and acceptable to God (Rom. 12.1). In this sense we are caught up in his eternal oblation, completing, as St Paul says, in our flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his Body the Church.’
Here is a great unfolding of the richness of the mystery of our faith, a proclamation of the redemptive power of suffering, a vision that is beyond the sight of so many today even though the dilemmas of human suffering are faced constantly by everyone and often dramatically debated in our society.
This is the mystery which we celebrate in our Mass this evening.
For me it is a great priestly privilege to celebrate Mass so often in this cathedral. I have learned, in more recent months, as time hastens by, to treasure every celebration. I often make my own, at the end of Mass, a Maronite prayer, so that as I kiss the altar I pray that I may be given the blessing of returning to it again to renew in this place the mystery of our salvation.
On that day, Pope Benedict concluded by saying that in looking at this crucifix we 'contemplate our participation in his eternal priesthood and thus our responsibility to bring the reconciling power of his sacrifice to the world in which we live.'
Surely here he put his finger on a crucial aspect of our mission. Today so many speak about the need to build a more coherent society, one in which we share benefits and burdens, working to overcome recent divisions of opinion, uniting in a new project. Our mission is to speak again and again that such unity of purpose has only one ultimate source: our unity in God our creator. And there is only one ultimate power of reconciliation: the person of Jesus Christ, whose Gospel is not a constriction of human freedom, but truly 'liberates our minds and enlightens our efforts to live wisely and well, both as individuals and as members of society.'
Thank you, Benedict, our Pope Emeritus!
There is one other day that I would like to recall, even if very briefly. It is, of course, the 24 January 1992. Many of you were present for my episcopal ordination. I have never forgotten it, nor the words of advice given by Cardinal Hume.
As was his wont, he lifted our hearts to the saints, reminding us that ‘great men and women are generally more inspiring than great thoughts’. Tomorrow is the Feast of St Francis of Sales and he received honourable mention. Speaking of that saintly pastoral bishop, the Cardinal said this:
‘He was a true shepherd, seeking out the stray, endlessly patient and understanding. He was gentle but firm, a combination which helps us to sustain and guide the faithful. It is never easy to keep these two qualities in harmonious balance. If one is to be favoured at the expense of the other let it be gentleness, a gentleness born of strength. The key to all ministry is to love the people as Christ loved them and to be ready, as he did, to lay down our lives for them.’
This memory shapes my every day. I hope it continues to do so, well into the future, for me and for the daily ministry of us all. Let us always favour gentleness, a gentleness born of strength, for then the mercy of God, which flows in abundance from the side of our crucified Saviour, will never be out of reach, and no-one, we pray, will give up final hope in that greatest of gifts, the forgiveness of our sins.
As priest and pastor, then, I thank you again for your presence here this evening and please do, always, keep me in your prayers.