Mass of the Translation of St Thomas of Canterbury At Canterbury Cathedral 7 July 2017
The sermon of Fr Robert McCulloch, Procurator-General; Missionary Society of St Columban; On the occasion of the Mass celebrated in Canterbury Cathedral for the feast of the Translation of the Relics of St. Thomas Becket, 7 July 2017
“Know this, that although the world rages, the enemy rises, the body quivers, and the flesh is weak, I shall, God willing, never give in shamefully or commit the offense of abandoning the flock that is entrusted to me.” St Thomas Becket said this in the first week of October 1164 at a council called by King Henry II at Northampton during which those issues of principle became clarified for Becket and from which he determined not to withdraw and not to compromise.
We may recall the words of the Collect Prayer of this evening’s Mass when we prayed to God “who gave the martyr Saint Thomas Becket the courage to give up his life for the sake of justice”. These words lead us to recall the parallel between St Thomas Becket and Blessed Oscar Romero. Both martyrs. Martyrs for that justice which is the right ordering of human decisions and actions and choices according to the will of God. The fear of dire and dreadful and death-dealing consequences could not overcome their stubbornness in preferring to affirm God’s justice rather than succumb to the standards of justice proposed by the contemporary political authority of their time and country. In the case of Becket, King Henry II was the political authority who accepted no limits and who wished to make the church merely his holy servant. In the case of Romero, the political authority of El Salvador legislated for all but ruled solely for its own vested benefit and interest. Becket’s and Romero’s stubbornness were perceived as foolishness because they threw away the opportunity to share in power. They chose not to share flawed power exercised by flawed political structures according to flawed standards of justice. The contrary foolishness indecision that these two martyrs chose is that about which St. Paul speaks and which surges in the heart and mind and will to enable conscience to say what must be done. The enduring firmness of this cathedral tonight enables us to look about not merely with bodily eyes, but with eyes of memory and embrace the stream of Christian witnesses and martyrs who speak to us from history and affirm the primacy of conscience as we stand before God and man. Not for nothing did Cardinal Newman remark “to the Pope indeed, but to conscience first”. St Peter and the martyrs of the early church, Becket almost 800 years ago, Romero just four decades ago. On several occasions in recent weeks, most recently being 29 June on the feast of St. Peter and St Paul, Pope Francis has highlighted the witness we now in these days, receive from our Christian brothers and sisters who are being persecuted in many places and countries because of their steadfast commitment to the faith which they hold as the anchor for their living. Pope Francis has noted that 80% of all people in the world who are suffering religious persecution today in our day are Christians.
Being on the threshold of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation enables us to hear those clarion and challenging words “Here I stand, I can go no further” with wider historical insight and ecumenical humility as a restatement of what it is that has enabled and still enables the martyrs to shed their blood rather than shed their principles. We remember the 47 young Anglican and Roman Catholic Ugandan martyrs of the late 19th century who suffered brutality and were cast into the fires. Their bodies were broken, their lives were burnt away because they chose God’s justice instead of the perverse ways of King Mwanga II. The memory of that political power in Uganda who ordered their death has been eroded by the memory of his victims whose witness of faith and moral principle rises before us each year on their feast day. Our enriched historical knowledge enables us to rise above the huge divides which separated Latimer and Ridley from Roman Catholics and Campion from the Reformation so that we perceive and understand that it was for principle and conscience that they would not turn from being killed.
What we are celebrating tonight took place on 7 July 1220. The occasion of this evening when we commemorate the Translation of the Relics of St. Thomas Becket from the undercroft to the Trinity Chapel in the upper Cathedral, but also the setting of this cathedral where he was martyred, where he was venerated by Christian pilgrims for 300 years, and where his presence and memory continues to be recalled by pilgrims in worship and prayer and by visitors in their own way, alert us. We are alerted to remember and celebrate not only Becket but also the long enduring and continuing testimony of our martyrs to principles which flow from faith and which are carved into conscience and from which there can be no turning.
In and of our present day and about numerous countries, well may we ask whether faith can be conformed to a political party’s manifesto which has been cobbled together to save a majority rather than to serve the common good, whether principle remains intact if it can be changed by a caucus vote, whether conscience can retain its integrity if it must be contorted to embrace certain party platform planks which are touted as the means to electoral salvation but which are more often and mostly white-anted by ambition. “Here I stand, I can go further”. “… The King’s best friend, but God’s first”. “Will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest”.
The shrine of Becket has gone, his bones are mostly scattered, but he lives in devotion and historical memory. It is most likely that the great 13th century Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas was named not after the apostle of Our Lord but after the martyr of Canterbury. Aquinas was born in 1225. His father’s lands included the town of Segni between Rome and Naples and it was in Segni that Pope Alexander III canonised Thomas Becket in 1173.
Becket is a saint from that time in history when we were one in faith. Today at this Mass and earlier at Evensong we, Roman Catholics and Anglicans, have celebrated the enduring memory of Becket. He is a witness of fidelity overcoming fear, of constancy in great tribulation, of trust in God when confronted with wild hatred. Becket speaks to us about friendships lost, about having to put up with whisper campaigns and in-the-face opposition, about making mistakes because of uncertainty, about wanting to live a pure and chaste life, about choosing between having it all and holding to principles, about wanting to be united to God, about doing what conscience says is right, about not being trapped by political correctness, about being both full of fear and courageous just as he was in the last when he fell under swords that came from the king.
We acknowledge tonight the ecumenical hospitality and kindness of Dean Robert Willis. He has opened to us this evening not only the doors of this great cathedral but also the heart of the Anglican Church. On this day just two years ago in 2015, a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church celebrated Mass at the High Altar of the cathedral, the first to do so since Cardinal Reginald Pole. It happened because of the great generosity of Archbishop Welby and the “all things can be done” working of Dean Willis. Pope St. Gregory the Great sent St Augustine to do great things for God in England. Dean Willis has done great things for God by drawing the hearts of Anglicans and Roman Catholics closer to each other. Cardinal Newman’s motto was cor ad cor loquitur: heart speaks to heart. Greatly and in many ways Dean Willis has enabled our hearts to speak to one another as they do tonight. I should like to present to him a gift from Rome as a reminder that, as Augustine being sent by St Gregory did great things for God, so Dean Robert has done great things in the sight of God so that we may be one again. The gift to seal our thanks is a relic of Pope St Gregory the Great.
Honouring the Very Reverend Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury with relic of St Gregory the Great