Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Investiture of Joanna Bogle into the Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great

A number of people have asked me for the text of my Homily which I am happy to publish here.

Dame Joanna from a photo by Mulier Fortis

When Joanna asked me to preach this evening on the occasion of her investiture into the Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great, I accepted gladly - I’ve known Joanna since I was little more than a child - but as I came to put pen to paper I kept remembering something I heard once after a priest’s funeral: commenting on the homily someone said, “The Bishop said such lovely things about Father in the sermon”. Then there was a pause and another person replied, “Yes. It’s a shame he never got to hear it himself”. So my dilemma is, how to do justice to an occasion such as this without sounding as if I’m preaching Joanna’s funeral oration!

I am sure that, like me, you have been very struck by some of the things our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, has been saying since his election. He has an ability to speak very simply and yet challenge us profoundly. We have had three remarkable Pontificates in recent years. Pope John Paul II will surely go down in history as the greatest Pope in modern times. I think some people forget - and perhaps others are too young to remember - just how confusing things were when he was elected in 1978. I was sixteen at the time and well-remember the mantra, “Oh, we don’t believe that any more”. The Religious Affairs correspondent of The Times had published an article entitled, “The Runaway Church can she be Caught?” and concluded that the momentum for change was such that there was no stopping her - seemingly oblivious to the irony that runaway vehicles usually end in carnage! I was in Rome for much of Pope John Paul’s Pontificate and for many of his great encyclicals. For me it was as if with each document we were witnessing him going back down into the quarry to hew out the great blocks that he would then use to rebuild the Church. When Pope Benedict was elected that work had already been done. For the most part people were no longer teaching that Confession was unnecessary or denying Christ’s substantial presence in the Eucharist. Pope Benedict dragged out and opened up some of the crates where treasures had been packed away for safe-keeping. He would draw things out and explain their significance to us, things that were perhaps sometimes in danger of being forgotten. He reminded us to take time to value beauty as a way to God. He embellished the Church with things both old and new including the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and the other Ordinariates that have been established to facilitate unity while embracing a legitimate diversity within the Church. How fitting it is that Mgr Keith Newton should preside at our Mass today as Joanna’s Ordinary. So now Pope Francis, who comes to the See of Peter with the Church beautifully restored and embellished, reminds us of the need to go out and evangelise because unless we invite people in, she will become a museum or, worse still, a mausoleum. He does this by challenging us all very directly. On the day after his election, speaking to the Cardinals, he cautioned against becoming a “charitable NGO but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord” and he went on to say, “we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord”. The Holy Father is calling each one of us to an examination of conscience. It is so easy to become distracted and divided by external things. We can become Church experts, bureaucrats, politicians and all sorts of other things, but are we really disciples of Jesus Christ? A disciple is more than a follower. A disciple is someone who spends time sitting at the feet of the Master, listening to him, asking him questions, being challenged by him. So the fundamental question Pope Francis puts to each one of us is “What is the quality of my discipleship, of my relationship with Jesus Christ?”

I have to admit that in the last few days I have had to fill a gap in my knowledge of  Pontifical Orders. I hope that doesn’t come as a shock to those of you who can recount their history, explain their privileges and describe their attire - both formal and informal! Even now don’t ask me to explain their various grades. Not having a head for that sort of information I am consoled by the note of caution sounded in the First Reading of today’s Mass. “The Lord”, says the author of Ecclesiastes, “is no respecter of persons”. It is not rank or title that matter to God, but what you have done. The quality of one’s discipleship is manifest in one’s deeds. 

I imagine that in an age that exalts ‘equality’ at the expense - as we see in the current ‘same sex marriage’ debate - of difference and complementarity, some people would question the very notion of conferring honours upon individuals. It is a bit like the ideological imposition that sought to abolish competitive sports in schools because not everyone could win. I find there is something scary, not truly human, about such arguments. In watching the Olympics last year we didn’t grumble that we were excluded. Rather we celebrated the athletes' achievements and all our spirits were greatly lifted. 

An honour is rightly bestowed in gratitude for services rendered. It is also a public recognition of those services and encourages others to follow a similar path. This is particularly true of the Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great which was established by Pope Gregory XVI in 1831 by the Bull Quod Summis. In it he says the honour is to be granted on account of an individual’s “praestantia generis, vel gloria rerum gestarum, vel insignum munerum procuratione, vel demum gravibus alliis ex causis” - the excellence of their background, or the glory of their achievements, or their notable generosity, or indeed any other serious reasons - such that they merit reward with “publico Pontificae dilectionis testimonio” - a public witness of the Holy Father's affection and pleasure. It is an honour which is given in public recognition of an individual’s good work, as a sign of gratitude and as a stimulus to others. In fact, unlike a funeral oration, it is not “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into your rest”, but “You’re doing well! Keep it up!” and, “Would that others were doing the same!”

The motto of the Order is Pro Deo et Principe - which a quick consultation with Vinopedia reveals also to be used by a rather nice Chardonnay from 2005! It means, “For God and the Sovereign”. Gregory XVI came to the Papal throne at a time when the very existence of the Papal States were being threatened by revolution and insurrection. He established the Order, in the first place, to recognise those who came to their defence. For us his choice of Pope St Gregory the Great as patron is significant for two reasons. It was Gregory who established the patrimonium Petri, the secular sovereignty of the bishop of Rome with the dedication of the Church's goods to the needs of the poor. Later, of course, in a beautiful text he laments how the affairs of state now distract him from his former life of prayer for which he yearns. But also because St Gregory is the one who spotted the Anglian slaves in the Roman forum and having observed non sunt Angli sed angeli - they are not Angles but angels - determined that St Augustine should be sent to these shores, becoming as he did the first bishop of Canterbury,  whose feast day we celebrated yesterday and whose Catholic successor will invest Joanna into the Order at the end of this Mass.

Pro Deo et Principe. An honour bestowed not only for services pro Deo, to God, but also pro Principe - for a commitment to the reign of Christ in the realities of the secular world. In this Year of Faith, the anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, we can recall that the Conciliar decree on the apostolate of the laity did not envisage an active and engaged laity as a people doing something inside the Church and Church buildings, but rather as making a real difference to the world by transforming its structures from within so that they reflect, respect and promote the dignity of the human person. The Council taught that lay people are called to be saints and that their holiness was to be felt in their family life, in their places of work, and in their commitment to better society. Fifty years on, the questions and challenges facing us in modern Britain suggests that this is possibly the document from whose richness we still have most to learn.

And so Joanna, for all your work and especially for that over the years with Aid to the Church in Need, Pope Benedict decided that you should be honoured by being admitted as a Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great. There are so many ways in which you have defended the faith and the dignity of the human person from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death in the public sphere, and contributed to the life of the Church both locally and internationally, that it is impossible to list them here. I think the Lord himself would have difficulty counting up all the couples you have helped to prepare for marriage! What I would say is that when others have given in to the easy temptation to lament or complain when things haven’t gone well for the Church, your response has been to act, to shine a light, to do something positive: from a fund-raising cake sale for Maryvale - where you will soon complete your degree in theology - , or a Pilgrimage with the Ladies’ Ordinariate Group, to a campaign to support priests and setting up the Towards Advent festivals. You have been able to rely on the support of your family and friends, and of course in a particular way on that of Jamie. You have rallied others to good causes and you have worked with Catholics and non-Catholics alike and it is a great tribute to you that many of the projects (like the Catholic Young Writer Award or the School Bible Project) you have started do not depend on you for them to continue. There is no sense of a “Joanna Bogle Show”. Sometimes perhaps it has seemed a lonely struggle but even without knowing it you have inspired other people. Just before the Papal Visit you had a particularly bruising interview with John Snow on ITV and one of the viewers was so impressed by the need to have more people willing to step forward in that work of defending the faith in the media that Catholic Voices was born and from its fledgling beginning in the UK is rapidly spreading all over the world.

All this is what the Holy Father wants recognised today in making you a Dame of St Gregory as a sign of the gratitude of the Church and as a witness to others. In the Gospel of today's Mass, our Lord promises great blessing to those who leave everything to become his disciples - although not without persecutions. He declares that “Many who are first will be last and the last first”. If it has sometimes seemed a lonely struggle, and you have experienced opposition even from good people, the Church today calls you forward to receive this honour because you have lived the demands of Christian discipleship and because you have encouraged others to do the same.  And, in doing so, she invites each one of us to examine our consciences so that we might rediscover the paramount importance of being first a true disciple of Christ.

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