Given at the National Mass for Altar Servers at Westminster Cathedral on 6th October 2018
A week ago the bishops of England and Wales were in Rome where we visited the tombs of the apostles St Peter and St Paul. We also celebrated Mass in a small church in the Vatican called St Stephen of the Abyssinians. It is dedicated to St Stephen and is the national Church of Ethiopia. Parts of the building date back to about the year 460. We visited the tombs and the altars of these three great saints, Peter, Paul and Stephen. In the Church of St Stephen, we remembered St Stephen the first martyr and prayed for all the altar servers who are dedicated to his care.
Today, with many altar servers from across the country we gather to celebrate this National Mass. I wish to thank you for your faithfulness, dedication, and the time that you give to serving at the altar and serving Christ. When you serve, you stand out from your friends, and step forward to serve Jesus. This is a really important witness to your faith and will strengthen you to be strong boys and girls, men and women for Christ. When I visit a parish, whether to celebrate a Sunday Mass or to celebrate confirmation, I am always impressed by the care with which you serve and the way in which you are proud of what you do. Keep up the good work! It is really important that others in your parish see you serving. It may inspire them to do the same. In this way, you can be called witnesses of Christ.
Last Friday we were privileged to attend an audience with Pope Francis. We were greeted individually by him, sat down in a circle and then invited to ask him any question we wished. It was wonderful to be with him. One bishop asked, ‘what message would you like us to take home to our people?’ He answered, tell them to be joyful in Christ! They should not look as though they have got up in the morning and then drunk vinegar. They need to be joyful and have a smile on their faces. Be women and men, girls and boys of joy and love.
What does it mean to be joyful? It isn’t meant that we won’t be sad at times, that we won’t worry, that life will always be smooth. Rather, it means that we trust in the love of God in every moment of life and know that Jesus is with us and walks with us. It also means that we know the Holy Spirit stirs our hearts and that he will help us to pray and to be strong in the faith. Joy is deep seated within the heart. We are joyful when we place our lives under God’s protection and let our guardian angels look after us. God is like a strong Father who protects his family. God is like a caring Mother who looks out for the good of her children.
St Stephen was joyful because of his faith. The first reading tells us that he was a ‘man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’. He was filled with grace and power’. He preached with boldness and people began to believe in Jesus. Of course, he met much opposition; people opposed him and argued against his preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead. St Stephen stood firm. The crowd became angry and violent. Stephen remained calm. We are told by St Luke that the crowd who surrounded Stephen, when they heard his preaching, were enraged and ‘ground their teeth at him’. Imagine the frightening noise. Stephen confronts them with peace and is full of the Holy Spirit. He sees a vision of the glory of God and forgives those men who began to throw stones at him, saying, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ Father, forgive them.
The picture on the front of the Mass booklet shows Stephen kneeling down, his arms raised towards God, the stones being thrown at him, but he looks to be at peace and trusts in God. St Stephen knew that God loved him so deeply that he could trust in him and that he would come to share in eternal life in heaven. Then he fell asleep.
Being joyful means trusting in God and asking the Holy Spirit to help you. You can always pray ‘Come Holy Spirit, help me,’ which is a good prayer for many occasions. Being joyful means being forgiving and saying ‘I am sorry’. Being joyful means showing love to others and taking small steps to help others. Being joyful means saying, ‘I love you’ and ‘Thank you’. Being joyful also means being strong witnesses, like St Stephen, and standing up for your faith. May St Stephen help you and pray for you.
St Stephen, pray for us.