All Saints Day 2020
“Acceding to the request of our Brother Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham, with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, by our apostolic authority we declare that the venerable Servant of God John Henry, Cardinal, Newman, priest of the Congregation of the Oratory, shall henceforth be invoked as Blessed and that his feast shall be celebrated every year of the ninth of October, in the places and according to the norms established by Church law.”
With these words in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI, raised the late Cardinal John Henry Newman to the status of ‘blessed’ - not quite a saint, but almost. To be a full saint takes two accredited miracles. These miracles have to be associated with prayers and calls to the blessed one on behalf of someone in need or distress. in 2010 the prayers of John Henry Newman were credited with the miraculous healing of Fr.Jack Sullivan, a deacon in the States who was suffering from a debilitating and incurable spinal condition and in 2018 a second healing of a pregnant woman was confirmed. This led to his canonisation by Pope Francis on 13th October 2019. Now no longer ‘blessed’ but Saint John Henry Newman.
Quite what you or I might make of all this could be the basis for an excellent discussion. This reflection, however, simply the question; ‘Why saints?’
The history of the Christian Church is full of remarkable men and women who have done much to promote the ways of Jesus and to care for those whom Jesus particularly told us to look after. Many died violent deaths in the cause of their faith, some just grew holy and others would probably wonder how they have become saints at all.
At the most basic level the saints are good examples of a Christian life lived well. A life in which others were put before self and a life which was perhaps lived counter-culturally to the way of life prevalent at the time the saint lived. One only has to think of St.Francis stripping off his rich clothes and giving them and everything he owned to the poor and needy. After a reprobate youth Francis changed and embraced poverty for the sake of others. Initially ridiculed Francis bore the insults and shame to overcome his mockers and to live a life that embraced the poor, the sick, and the outcast. At his death his lifestyle had changed the attitude of many that knew him and he was quickly canonised (proclaimed a saint) by his great admirer Pope Gregory IX.
If I asked you to close your eyes and to think about the saints or who you believe to be a saint, who would come to mind? Probably a few well known names would appear; for me it would have to be Benedict and Thomas, Oscar Romero and Maximilian Kolbe and a few un-canonised saints that I have known throughout my life such as prayerful Betty from the church I attended as a young man. In the Anglican Church we have no mechanism for declaring anyone a saint, although we do have lists of holy men and women and remember them on specific days, like ‘official’ saints: people like Elizabeth Fry, Samuel Seabury and Canon Lawrie of Old St.Paul’s. Ordinary people who did extra-ordinary things and whose actions and lives need to be remembered and celebrated as an encouragement to others today. But what about those, like Betty who do not appear on any list?
You, like me as I said above, will I am sure, have known people that you believe to be a ‘saint of God’. People who for some reason have inspired you by the way they lived their lives. They may even be a template or touchstone for you in the way that you try to live your life. These are ‘personal saints’. One of my personal saints, alongside, is the late Canon Norman Wickham. Norman was for me a great friend, mentor and inspiration. I hope one day to be half the priest he was. Norman was great fun to know and he was wise without being pious or anything less than human. He was a good and faithful priest whose judgement was sound and whose heart was big. I loved him and respected him very much and miss him greatly. I have others too, important people who have touched my life and to whom I remain indebted today. These people for me are just as much saints as those with the official title. None of my personal saints would ever have considered themselves ‘saint-like’ but as St.Luke records those who are blessed are not those we would first expect:
“Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.'
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.” Luke 6:20a-21
John Henry Newman would have been one of those people too. He would not have expected to become blessed or on the way to being a saint. He fought too much with the papacy of his day; he was as dissatisfied with the Church of Rome as he was the Church of England. Dogma never sat easily with him and he always wished to question what he was taught or told to believe. In his day John Henry Newman was criticised, reviled and laughed at. He caused quite a furore when he first proposed the idea that theology evolves and develops as culture and time move on. The concept that theology was not static and that we could continually discover and learn more about God was radical, if not almost heretical in the 19th century. What I have always admired in him is that he stuck to his guns and eventually his ideas led to the Second Vatican Council in 1963. The way that the worldwide church has developed over the last 60 years owes much to his thinking. I quote from the biographer John Cornwell:
“The beatification of Cardinal Newman was first formally proposed more than 50 years ago by Mgr Henry Francis Davis of the Diocese of Birmingham, one of Britain's greatest living theologians at that time. Newman's sanctity, an elusive quality after all, may well have been subject to question, if not doubt, down the years, and he has not been a prolific miracle-maker. Yet his vast and continuing contribution to the intellectual and spiritual life of the Church, culminating in the view that he was the architect of the Second Vatican Council, has never been in doubt. As many theologically competent members of the congregation were saying as we spilled out into the bitterly cold afternoon last Sunday: "The wonder is that he wasn't long ago declared a Doctor of the Church."
It seems ironic with hindsight that the very conservative pope Benedict XVI was the one to beatify this very radical, almost anti-papal priest and less surprising that it was Francis who canonised him. God certainly has a good sense of humour in the way he gets things done and by whom.
When any human being is declared blessed or made a saint their relics are dug up and put on show – raised to the altar, is the phrase. Relics so the Catholic Church believes, help to spread the presence of the saint. When Newman’s grave was opened there was nothing left, save a scrap of cloth, a wisp of grey hair and the soil in which he was buried:
“At a glorious Mass for the Feast of All Saints … at the Birmingham Oratory all eyes were drawn, again and again, to the glass and gilded-wood casket, the size of a very small doll's house. This ornate box, containing remnants of the earthly existence of John Henry Newman, was set on a velvet-covered stand, or catafalque, to the Gospel side of the sanctuary. As relics they were meagre indeed, hardly "first class" as they say in the reliquary business: a mere wisp of grey hair, a tiny jar of soil from Newman's grave; a titbit of bloodstained linen (a shaving nick perhaps, treasured by a local convent), and a wooden crucifix you could place in the palm of your hand.”
John Cornwell again.
It seems likely that Newman, fearing that someone might try to make him a saint requested that his remains were covered in a mulch to aid decomposition and that they were to remain ‘until the last trump’ with the remains of his long-term companion Fr.Ambrose St.John, who died 30 years before him. Newman wanted to be buried obscurely in the graveyard attached to the Oratory Church on Hagley Road Birmingham and not for his bones to be raised to the altar in a golden reliquary. Well, he almost got his wish and what scraps are on show are probably as much his as they are Fr.Ambrose. So perhaps they are not yet separated.
Whatever John Henry Newman’s beatification says about his life and ministry is, I think, unimportant to the example his life sets for others. He was radical; he was prepared to do that which he believed to be right. His complicated personal life encourages me too. None of us are perfect but his love and commitment to the faith as he discerned it and to his friend and companion is admirable. Newman was a flawed man and he makes a flawed saint, thank God.
Thank God because we need the imperfect to encourage us in our imperfection and we need saints and holy people to inspire us to get on and live the ways of Christ best we can.
The saints are there to guide us and to encourage us in the muddle we call our lives, many of them muddled through, not quite knowing what they were doing but they were assured of the fact that they were trying to live the life that Jesus called then (and us) to live.
All Souls Day 2020
Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.
What are we doing as we commemorate and remember our loved ones departed?
In some expressions of the Christian Church the belief is held that by praying for by name at the altar, those who have died get days or years knocked off their time in Purgatory. Purgatory is deemed to be a place of trial that the soul went to after being judged by God, time was spent their working off one’s sins before being fully cleansed one could enter heaven or if one’s sins were so great to be confined to hell fire. Some Christians remain happy with this concept but it is not one that I subscribe to and I suspect that there are many of you who would not do so either. The God, I have come to believe in is not a God of rejection but one of loving acceptance, who always offers us the chance to repent and enter fully in to his presence without having to jump through hoops or to endure hell fire.
The most helpful comment I have ever heard about what might happen to us on our death was from Canon Jane Millard when she was working as chaplain to those living with HIV and AIDS. She said that in the many journeys to their death, that she had accompanied those dying, she had come to believe that we die at the point that we reach our ultimate human perfection and that when we do so we are too perfect to remain in this world and thus enter in to the presence of God.
The second most helpful comment for me comes from the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who once wrote that he believed that at the point of death we get to whisper into God’s ear all the things we want to tell him, with the opportunity to say sorry for the things we got wrong, knowing that as we do so we are fully accepted and welcomed into his loving embrace. We are given the choice to do this or not. If we choose not to, then by our own choice we spend eternity out with the presence of God. God does not reject us we do it ourselves.
For me it is this act of whispering that takes us to the point of perfection and leads us into our death. These comments have helped me move away from any idea of Purgatory and to hope that in death we come fully into God’s being in ways that we cannot comprehend in this life. The first reading this morning seems to me to back this idea up for it tells us that the dead are:
- In the hands of God, safe and secure from torment
- They and we have hope of immortality in God’s being
- God finds us worthy of his love and that in death we will abide in that love forever.
As helpful as these comments are they do not remove the pain of loss and separation that we feel when our loved ones die. That pain is often raw for a long time and I actually think that one never really gets over it but learns to live with the pain better as time passes. The one thing we never do is to forget those we have loved and lost – they remain alive in our memories, hearts and consciousness. In the SEC revised funeral rite there is a phrase in one of the prayers of farewell that asks that the departed will:
“...live on in the hearts and minds, courage and consciences of their family and friends...”
What this means is that every time we think of them be it with tears or with laughter, or when we do something they taught us, we keep their memory alive and in doing so bring ourselves comfort.
There is another funeral prayer that talks of using the time that we have left aright:
“Grant us, Lord, the wisdom and the grace to use aright the time that is left to us here on earth. Lead us to repent of our sins, the evil we have done and the good we have not done; and strengthen us to follow the steps of your Son, in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
I like this prayer for it reminds us that we all pass through this life quite quickly and that we should try and make the most of it as we do so. We need to regularly reflect upon our lives and to give thanks for the good things and to make amends for the things we got wrong wherever we can. It is a prayer that encourages one not to live one’s life with regrets and to get on and do the things we want to do. We cannot change the past but we can apologise for it, we live in the present and we can deal with things as they arise and we can hope for the future and perhaps control it to some extent too.
So returning to my opening question what does All Souls Day say to us?
It tells us to remember our loved ones both with smiles and sorrow and it tells us not to squander the time we have left. I also think it says to us not to worry about what we may or may not leave behind either. For what we leave behind is ultimately decided by those who are left, for it is they who remember what is important to them about us. This does not mean that we should not try to live a good life, far from it in actual fact because I suspect we would all like the memories we leave behind for others to be good ones.
This morning we are remembering with kind thoughts and prayers of thanksgiving those we love and as we gather at the altar the living and the departed are united in Christ and thus we sing God’s praise; ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord’ for we have a generous and ever loving God and he is our thanksgiving.
Oh! On a final note – what is heaven like? It is a question that we could spend the whole of our lives discussing but I once heard someone on ‘Desert Island Discs’ say that he thought heaven was remarkably like this life but that you had had the nose job!