Mgr Keith Newton's sermon from the Mass held at the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor, Westminster Abbey Saturday 5th November 2016.
The Mass was celebrated by Mgr Keith Newton with about 35 people present. The Abbey was shut to the general public due to an afternoon service, so those present had the blessing of a very quiet Abbey in which to worship God.
‘Martyrdom’ said the writer George Bernard Shaw ‘is the only way in which a man can become famous without ability’. Whether that is true or not martyrdom is the fast track method to canonisation and often we know little more about early martyrs than the fact that they died for professing the faith. Only this year the Holy Father has hinted at the beatification of Fr Jacques Hamel the French priest murdered at the altar of his Church near Rouen. Of course, the origin of the word martyr does not really mean someone who dies for the faith. It means a witness. In fact a martyr is not one who dies for the faith but one who lives for it so much that he or she is willing to suffer the consequences of discipleship, even death, in order to be faithful. Today we celebrate Mass next to the shrine of St Edward not a martyr but a confessor of the faith. Originally that title was used for those Christians who publically witnessed to the faith in times of persecution and were punished, imprisoned and tortured for their fidelity to Christ. Later the title was used much more generally for those men and women who had shown remarkable virtue, lived heroic lives of sanctity and became objects of devotion and veneration. Such a man we commemorate this evening and though many saints can be called confessors, I don’t know of many for whom the word is part of their title though presumably this is to distinguish him from his uncle St Edward the Martyr. Edward lived at a difficult time politically when England was dominated by outside rulers and influences. He was not an ambitious man, more content to feed the poor and give shelter to strangers. He lived a simple and pious life. As a young man, exiled in France, he had made a vow to go on Pilgrimage to Rome if he returned to England, but once he became king he felt it would be irresponsible to leave the realm for fear of what might happen. The Pope of the time allowed him instead to found a monastery dedicated to St. Peter. Rather than founding an entirely new Abbey in London to the east, Edward decided to rebuild an existing house to the west of the city, hence the name Westminster - always to be under royal patronage. So Edward's greatest achievement was the construction of this building where virtually all English monarchs from William the Conqueror onwards have been crowned. The abbey was consecrated at Christmas, 1065, but Edward could not attend due to illness and died a week later. Like the Epitaph to St Christopher Wren in St Pauls Cathedral ‘If you seek a memorial look around you’. In his sermon preached at St Edwards Golders Green in 1922 Monsignor Ronald Knox speaking of the Abbey says ’As if it were a symbol of the life he lived, built together from little acts of kindness and little sacrifices of self, stone by stone and arch by arch rose the Abbey Church of Westminster, which for all its additions and restorations that have altered it in the course of centuries, we still call his church’ But more important earlier in that sermon he says ‘When we venerate St Edward we venerate a failure’. His life and reign could not be thought of as successful in the world’s terms. He did not marry so left no heir which led to the events of 1066 and the Norman invasion. But as the prophet Samuel said to Jesse “the Lord sees not as man sees, man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 1 Sam 16:7. Rather be called a Confessor than a Conqueror.. What ultimately matters is how we are seen in the eyes of God. Worldly success counts as nothing. Power and wealth and human achievements count as nothing. In the South Choir Aisle of Canterbury Cathedral is the tomb of the 15th Archbishop Henry Chichele. It is an example of what is rather pleasantly called a Cadaver Tomb. It was made in his lifetime and shows the Archbishop on the tomb dressed beautifully in the robes of a bishop, but underneath in a sort of bunk bed arrangement is the archbishop in death his body rotting. It was, of course, intended as an allegory about how we are all going to end up and a reminder of how transient earthly glory and success is. What is of ultimate importance is our relationship to God and fidelity to Christ. St Paul writing to the Church in Corinth says: “People must think of us as Christ’s servants, stewards entrusted with the mysteries of God. What is expected of stewards is that each one should be found worthy of his trust. Not that it makes the slightest difference to me whether you, or indeed any human tribunal, find me worthy or not.” 1 Cor 4:1 Not much there about success and fame, rather the judgement of the world is irrelevant. Like Edward in his age we are to be confessors of the faith; to confess it publicly and openly. I suspect that this will become more and more difficult for Catholics in an increasingly secularised culture. It is becoming more and more obvious that the Catholic faith is counter cultural. We are not here to provide a Christian gloss in a secularised country where in many places Christian teachings are not upheld. We should be content even rejoice to be failures or even objects of scorn in the eyes of the world. The world may not outwardly persecute us. It may not hate us but it will often find us difficult to understand and may often ridicule us for witnessing to our faith but that should not discourage us. Aided by the example and prayers of Our Lady of Ransom and St Edward the Confessor may we be bold and courageous in confessing our faith in all its fullness, proclaiming the good news of salvation to a world that so desperately needs it so that, in the words of St Pope Pius X, ‘all things may be restored in Christ’
Monsignor Keith Newton 5th Nov 2016