St Magnus 900th Anniversary

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Three Roman Catholic archbishops and nine bishops have celebrated Mass in St Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall. The service was the culmination of a pilgrimage by the diocese of Aberdeen.

They were in Orkney to mark the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of Magnus, joint earl, who was killed on his cousin’s orders. The anniversary has been marked by a number of other events, including the setting up of the Magnus Way pilgrimage route. It is believed to be the biggest gathering of bishops and archbishops in Orkney’s history.

Reflecting on the Magnus pilgrimage, RC Bishop of Aberdeen Diocese, Hugh Gilbert OSB said:

“The whole pilgrimage has been blessed. The weather has harmonised with it, and the hearts of all the participants have been uplifted. After Friday’s talks and Saturday’s pilgrimages to Egilsay and Birsay, the highlight was Sunday’s Mass in Kirkwall Cathedral, by kind permission of Orkney Islands Council and the Minister, Kirk Session and Congregation of St Magnus’s Cathedral. The occasion was historic, with bishops from Scotland, Denmark, Norway and England – the first time there had been such a gathering of bishops in Orkney.

The Cathedral was full, with the Lord Lieutenant, representatives of the Council and of several Christian denominations as well as pilgrims and visitors in attendance. The music, words and movement of the liturgy conspired with the Norman setting of Kirkwall’s Cathedral to lift spirits, recall St Magnus’ noble offering of his life for peace, and the life-giving fruits of peace, healing and creativity that have flowed from it. It was good to be reminded of the Christian inspiration of our culture.”

The following is an extract from the homily by Bishop Hugh, given at the Cathedral of St Magnus:

“So, the harvest of Magnus has been one of peace, of healing and hope, of artistic creation. Christ, and Christianity if it keeps the plot, give life. Here is a culture worthy of humanity. A culture of peace-making, health-making and the making of beautiful things.

Magnus was a flesh and blood man, as [Magnus scholar] George Mackay Brown said, a man of his world. But it’s clear – it’s clear from his character, his behaviour on the Welsh campaign, his years co-governing Orkney, clear above all in that fateful tryst on Egilsay – that he was a man to whom Christ’s Gospel had spoken. He was a man who had heard the Beatitudes with the ear of his heart. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.’ He was someone who had reflected on the logic of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, and seen the dying and rising of the seeds year after year. And so, when the moment came, he could be ‘as cheerful as if he’d been invited to a feast’. He could make death not just something that happens, not just, in this case, the undergoing of violence. He could ‘commit his soul to God and offer himself as a sacrifice’. He could forgive and pray for his enemies. He could keep his dignity to the end. (Cf. OS 50). And here’s the point: he acted. Even in brutal circumstances, he exercised his freedom as a human being. It was an inspired touch of Mackay Brown’s to link Magnus’ death with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s.

He could have linked it to those of Sophie Scholl or Edith Stein or Maximilian Kolbe, or so many others. To Oscar Romero’s. To… Magnus belongs to those who, as Pope Francis has recently underscored, made the ‘offering of their life, who ‘voluntarily and freely offered their lives for others.’ ‘How far that little candle casts its beams’, says Portia in the Merchant of Venice, ‘so shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ St Magnus showed the power of a good deed. A personal, freely-chosen, fully human, self-transcending Christ-like act. ‘Unless the grain of wheat dies’, not passively but willingly. From a love inspired by hope and faith. Consciously choosing the true and the good. Willing the common good. There’s the root of the good life in the truest sense, in the family, in communities, on the streets, in education, business, government, everywhere. There’s the seedbed of a new culture, for Orkney and Scotland and all of us. This is what brings a harvest of peace.

‘Return to us, Magnus, laden with cornstalks.’ In St Magnus and his shining deed, a great gift has been given Orkney and through Orkney to us all. It has shone for 900 years. Let’s keep it shining in our turn, tell it to our children, make a festival and pilgrim way of it.

‘I say several times a day, ‘St Magnus, pray for us.’

‘O Magnus [goes an old Gaelic poem] …remember us
…give growth to grass,
and corn, and sap to plants
…O Magnus of fame
…on the crests of the waves,

On the sea, on the land,
Aid and preserve us. Amen.’