The Rector writes …
One of the greatest of the English, and said to be its first genuine historian, is the Venerable Bede (672-735). From his monastery at Jarrow this Doctor of the whole Church dispensed a gentle and kindly wisdom. His thoughts about heaven give us a foundation for the coming month of November when we will be thinking in a particular way of those who have departed this life, of their judgement, and, hopefully, of their eternal reward: “when the night of this world draws to its close, in the light of the rising Sun of Easter the saints see the brightness of the true light: and they receive a blessedness which far outweighs the pangs of any torment they could have suffered”. One of the joys of being a Catholic lies in the sense of solidarity we experience not just with one another but also with those who have gone before us: we mourn their passing, of course, and we feel a keen sense of loss, but our communion in the risen and ascended Christ means that we continue to share an intimacy of relationship which, though changed, remains alive and vibrant.
The Letter to the Hebrews (12:2) talks of us being surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses”. By definition a witness is not just a passive onlooker but someone prepared to assume an active role, to participate, to testify to what they know of the truth. Therese of Lisieux famously declared on her deathbed that she “would have a very busy heaven doing good on earth“. Our understanding is that although the veil separating us from those who have died seems so thick as to be virtually impenetrable from our side, this is not so for those who now see us and our needs from the vantage point of God: from their side there is a transparency which is, as yet, beyond our comprehension. The French poet and social commentator, Charles Peguy expresses the longing that those in heaven have for us to join them: “we must all be saved together: appear before Him together. We must return to our Father’s house together. What would he think of us if we arrived without the others returning too?”
Saint Bede writes of this life as “the starting-post for heaven” and the challenge when we contemplate those already in glory is that, while rejoicing in their powerful and loving intercession, we should try to emulate the examples they have provided while here on earth. When Pope John Paul 11 canonised so many saints during his pontificate he was criticised for debasing the coinage, but he defended his decisions in the belief that people of every culture, ability and background deserve icons of sanctity – every single one of us needs to realise that the universal call to holiness (“to live like Jesus”) is offered in our own circumstances and with the possibility that it will mature and be fruitful. All the Baptised share a common vocation to become saints – which is no more, or less, than God’s intention for us from the first moment of our creation. Sanctity does not necessarily mean being recognised as iconic for the whole Church, but it does involve allowing the Holy Spirit to work in our lives so that we become what God has always wanted us to be. “Not all saints have the same sort of holiness. There are those who never could have lived with other saints. Not all have the same path. But all arrive at God” (Saint John Vianney).
Although we are all called to be saints, it is good to remember that Spanish Place could well have already provided the context for someone who might be formally canonised. Raphael Merry del Val was baptised in the old Saint James’ in 1865 and he and his family were much involved in the parish: he became Cardinal Secretary of State to Saint Pius X and died in Rome in 1930 (during an operation for appendicitis). He was recognised not just for his unswerving devotion to the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith, but for his warmth and charity which sprang from an intense and humble spiritual life – his cause was begun in 1953. During November, let us ask our own Servant of God to pray for the parish and for our personal intentions – who knows if God might allow some sign so that the process for his canonisation can make progress?