Bishop Stephen Robson’s homily – 17th April 2019
On Monday night, after returning from Mgr McInally’s funeral, I turned on the TV, to see some breaking news that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was on fire. Flicking to BBC News 24 and glued to the screen, in the space of 90 minutes 850 years of Catholic Church history was all but destroyed. Of all the beautiful buildings dedicated to the worship to God all over the world, Notre Dame, as the archetype of the Gothic style of architecture, 200 years in the building and dedicated to our Lady, was consumed by fire. How many prayers, Masses Pilgrims, Visitors – 13 million a year – have passed through its doors? Whether drawn by curiosity, or by Faith, the beauty of Notre Dame is a ‘Feast for the Senses’ drawing visitors and pilgrims alike into the Mystery of God.
James Day, an American News anchor, speaking on Tuesday morning commented: “It took flames to engulf the French soul to remind us that cathedrals remain one of the best evangelizers, and France was once hailed as “the most Catholic country.” Yet on Monday of Holy Week, the jewel of that once deeply Catholic country, Notre-Dame Cathedral — as central a character in Victor Hugo as Esmeralda and Quasimodo, as iconic as anything Paris added to its cityscape in the 850 years since it was constructed, and so durable that it stood fast during Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being ceremonies in the French Revolution, withstood Napoleon’s emperorship, and stood tall as Nazis occupied its great city — was still yet evangelizing even as she burned, like Joan of Arc before her, like the martyrs”.
Notre Dame was home to wonderful works of art; bronze statues of saints; a beautiful oak roof with literally a forest of original 12th century roof rafters and beams; a gothic wooden carved choir; a magnifiant beautifully shaped soaring chapel dedicated to Our lady behind the High Altar; the relics of Christ’s passion and the precious relic of the crown of thorns; the world’s finest 12th century stained glass rose windows all created by the exquisite skill of medieval glass craftsmen and enclosed in frames of lead – ALL created by the hand of man for the Glory of God and yet engulfed burned and melted, shattered and destroyed – all in the space of 90 minutes. All seemed lost. Did all this destruction nullify the beauty that man had created to glorify God?
French President Emmanuel Macron, on visiting the site of the conflagration said to the Parisians who had gathered: A part of us is burning. For the French, and especially for Parisians, Notre Dame is an Icon of national identity. For French Catholics, Notre Dame is the mother church in France of devotion to the Mother of God. A terrible tragedy this, for the French and I think for us too!
However, the mood on Tuesday morning was very different. The fire raging through the night had been extinguished. The damage was devastating. But gone was the inferno and the tears and the mourning of the good people of Paris, especially the Parisian Catholics for whom this magnificent cathedral was their Mother Church.
And standing still proud in the morning sun after a night of devastation was the elegant stone skeleton of the medieval Cathedral. The twin Gothic towers, partly burned but were still there. The delicate tracery of the rose windows with at least some of the 12th C medieval glass. The majestic Gothic walls and the flying butresses and broad shape of this beautiful Gothic House of God. They were all still there.
The roof and much of the interior was now gone but the language, the faces of the people who had prayed and sang all night, and the responses on the news bulletins were markedly different, infinitely more hopeful. Our Lady of Paris would rise again! Some 800 million euros had been pledged to restore her beauty: the Phoenix would rise from the ashes. For far from being a medieval shell, albeit a beautiful one, this wonder of the world is still home to a living Catholic Community.
Yesterday morning on BBC World early on, I caught a news bulletin where some nuns were being interviewed on the Left Bank of the River Seine opposite Notre Dame. They corrected the comments of the news reporters on the TV, putting some much needed Catholic Faith into the storyline. The Church is not dead. She is alive and the Lord will rise! After all, Notre Dame, beautiful as she is, is also a monument to Faith – Faith in Christ, his Mother, and also in the Church, in a sense the common home of all of us. We love our history and our Catholic past but also with hope we live in hope our Catholic Future, viewed through the lens of Faith, not only history. Such a building is, however much a monument, an expression of inspired creativity, art and Faith. For the Church is also made of living stones. And the Lord will rise this week.
Within this observation we can Christianise our response, not denying the terrible destruction caused by fire. For fire burns and destroys, but it also purifies. So suddenly the fire becomes a metaphor for us:- for our religion, yes; but also for the sickness of our wounded and struggling Society; for our broken Politics, for the intransigence of our political leaders over the seeming the interminable Brexit question, and the schlerotic arguments used by our supposed leaders, seemingly made of stone like the gargoyles on the drainage pipes and parapets of Notre Dame.
Also, the narrative of our social story is alight. Social experiments including the overturning of God’s laws must surely anger God. In recent years the up-ending of the truth of marriage, of human sexuality, the weakening the already weaked bonds of marriage – such that still exist in law; the social deconstruction of gender, and the enshrining of them all as part of the body of Positive law of the land – in which all of us are constrained by this law to follow whether we like it or not.
But, Brothers and Sisters, there are laws far more powerful for us Catholics, far more powerful than those espoused in Party political agendas and pushed by the vested interests of powerful pressure groups: Natural law, the structures of the human personality built into mankind by God the Creator into the mind and heart of human beings, and the Divine law, the law of Almighty God expressed in the Commandments and in the New Ways of Jesus Christ, illustrated so clearly in the Gospels; Divine and Natural Law which we must always obey and which can never be trumped by the Laws of man, however democratically expressed by Parliament – whichever Parliament – when they clash with the Laws of God.
The Law of God is a much higher Law, the ultimate Law. To rebel against the design of the Creator is a grave matter indeed!
The Church too, never exempt from the destructive impulses of sinful men is ablaze with wave after wave of scandal, breeding instability and further faithlessness. The Church too can never trump God’s Law – Ever – ‘To she who is given much, much will be expected’. God’s love and mercy, but also God’s judgement, excludes no one. No one.
Our Bishops and Priests often feel overwhelmed. They are also often overburdened and overwhelmed with the guilt and the sins and crimes of those others who have tarnished the priesthood and the Episcopate – and yes, even the Papacy. As ministers of the Gospel, we are all held guilty by association – simply for being priests and bishops, highly visible and vulnerable members of the believing community.
But as we’ve said, the flames that destroy can also sterilise and purify, they can bring low and call to repentance, to change the direction of our hearts and to make us start out again. On the one hand, the laws made by men can constrain our bodies but they can never bind our souls, if we refuse to let them. But the laws of God remain forever. The designs of God remain forever. They can be changed by NO Man on Earth. Witness the Martyrs who would rather die that accept the Laws of God to be trampled on by men. Witness St Thomas More.
The conflagration of Notre Dame has been a shock for France and for the French. But as President Macron reminded us on Monday: ‘When Notre Dame burns we all burn’ – the Medieval cathedral consumed by fire seems to me to be an excellent metaphor for our time. It embodies all the hopes and fears, the history and the destiny of all Frenchmen, and somehow by analogy, of all of us – even the people who never go near the church or darken her doors.
But I say it again: the fire that burns and destroys can also heal. As our Lord in St John’s Gospel reminds us: The seed must die in the ground before it germinates and rises. And with the greatest Good News of Holy Week, just as the Lord endures his passion and death only to rise, passing through the darkness of death, so are we called to be an Easter people of hope who are destined to the follow in the same path to Resurrection.
In spite of the mess, the instability, the threats the gathering storm clouds in politics, in business, in families, in the changing social climate, in the social engineering experiments of recent years which show man wanting to rebel against the Creator and go against the Natural Law and the Law and Design of God. All his can and will end.
The fire that burns and destroys can also sterilise and purify and heal. Broken politics can be mended; fractured society can be re-united; Violence and stress and contention can be solved and salved; the wounded Church we love so much, despite the flaws human sins inflict on her, can be once again be purified and healed, if we have a mind to cooperate with the Lord’s Grace. Some of the old Self needs to die; the dead wood needs stripped out; the tarnished face of the church needs re-cleansed; and the solution for this healing is to radically turn to God and leave aside the broken promises of the world – at whatever cost to ourselves.
And what does the Liturgy ask of us tonight? We receive the message to re-awaken us from our torpor. At this most awful juncture, when the Church is being pulled in so many different ways by so many – within and without – the liturgy askes us to do something radical and powerful: at the very time of our greatest feeling of weakness and vulnerability: to go out to witness and to preach Christ by the way we live our lives.
In the context of the evil and treachery that lies at the heart of Holy Week, we are being asked to set the world afire with the cleansing power of Christ. In contrast to the death and decay of a broken world, we’re being asked to set out and refashion it with God’s grace after God’s pattern, in the image of God and though the power of Christ. At the nadir of our weakness God is calling us radically to become bolder than ever.
In this context we come to Mass to bless the Healing, Welcoming and Spirit-filled Holy Oils to be used in the Sacraments that build up the Church, heal the church and fill her with the Lord’s spirit.
They are used not only to anoint us as Members of the Body of Christ, but also to heal us in the Lord on our Christian journey and to fill us with the Spirit to become witnesses to Christ’s Truth. The word Witness of course comes from the Greek word for a martyr. To lay down, as Christ did, our lives for our brethren.
Ironically in this age of unbelief it has been the 20th and 21st centuries that have been the most prolific period of martyrdom (not as popularly thought the 1-3 C). Throughout the world in the Holy Land and Middle East, in Syria, Iraq, among the Catholic minorities in atheistic countries, in Africa, in Asia, in South America and in Europe martyrdom proliferates. In fact, the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) tells us that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world. According to them, 900,000 Christians have been ‘martyred’ in the last decade alone, equating to 90,000 a year and one every six minutes.
The second century Church Father Tertullian once said: The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians. And we need the spirit of martyrdom today for the Church to be cleansed and to grow. Perhaps not bloody martyrdom, but martyrdom of a spiritual type: witnessing to the Faith. Despite the negativity and instability and the blackness all around us, we need witnesses to stand up for the Church and to stand up for Christ and the values of our faith: – For the truth of the nature of the human personality. For the truth and nature of human sexuality and for Christian marriage. For the uniqueness of our Divine Lord Jesus who is our only Saviour. For the Church, his Spouse, which despite being the wounded Bride of Christ because of the sins of her members, but which is yet the Sacrament of our Salvation. The blood of the martyrs – those who witness to Christ’s Truth are the seeds of new Christians!
Photos – courtesy of Eddie Mahoney