Archbishops celebrate St Thomas of Canterbury

Liverpool born Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Apostolic Nuncio to Guatemala, and the Most Reverend Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham, together with other Venerabilini, celebrated Mass on the Feast of St Thomas of Canterbury at Our Lady, Star of the Sea, church in Seaforth.

Both Archbishops are 'old boys' of the Venerable English College, Rome of which St Thomas of Canterbury is the Patron.  The Mass and reunion were organised by Parish Priest, Father Thomas Wood, who also attended the College.  The music of the Mass included a four-part Mass setting by William Byrd.

The Homily was preached by Rev Andrew Robinson of the Pastoral Area of St Charles Borromeo, Widnes, and is reproduced below.

Homily preached by Rev Andrew Robinson at Mass on the Feast of St Thomas of Canterbury.  12.00 noon on Wednesday 29 December 2010 in the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Seaforth.

I have to say, feast days like this always make me feel just a little bit uneasy – and even more so today as I find myself preaching in front of a very discerning congregation, two Archbishops and a group of priests who are far better at this kind of thing than I am!

But actually, feast days like this always make me feel slightly uneasy because they make me ask myself a challenging question: if I had been in St Thomas of Canterbury’s shoes, would I have done what he did?  Would I have put loyalty to the Pope before loyalty to the King?  Would I have been prepared to sacrifice my life for the faith?  Would I have been prepared to be killed in cold blood: murdered in the Cathedral?

I’d like to think I would have done. I’d like to think I’d have been spurred on by Our Lord’s words in today’s gospel when he says, “Have no fear of those who kill the body”.  I’d like to think I would have done what Thomas did.  But then I wonder would I really have gone through with it in the end?  If I were St Thomas, might I not have given in and compromised with those who had the power of life and death over me?

To be honest, I’ve no idea what I would have done if I had been in St Thomas’ shoes, but when all’s said and done, does it really matter anyway?  After all, St Thomas of Canterbury lived and died more than 800 years ago.  Since then, the situation for Catholics in England has changed beyond recognition.  We’re hardly likely to have to shed our blood for Christ today, are we?

So does that mean, then, that for us, St Thomas’ martyrdom is really nothing more than a distant memory from ancient history?  Or does it still have something important to say today?  Well I think it does.

And that’s because while we may well not have to undergo the blood-red martyrdom of Thomas of Canterbury, all of us are called to face what’s known as ‘white martyrdom’.

White martyrdom: what’s that?  Well, white martyrdom happens when we witness to our faith but we suffer for it.  White martyrdom means living out our faith fully and openly whatever the cost.  And all of us in this Church today are called to do just that.  So in that sense, all of us have a vocation to white martyrdom.  But how does it work?

Well, for Archbishops and priests especially, white martyrdom can come when we resist the temptation to court popularity.  White martyrdom can come when we preach the gospel ‘in season and out of season’ even though some take offence and perhaps even attack us no matter how sensitively and compassionately we try to deliver the message.  Faithful priests, like the priests and bishops you see here today, love being priests – of course we do - but we do have to face our share of white martyrdom from time to time, especially if, to paraphrase St Augustine, we ‘feed the flock as Christ’s flock, not our own; if we seek Christ’s glory, not our own; if we promote Christ’s interests, not our own’.  For the clergy white martyrdom can very much be part and parcel of life.

And it can also be part of life for the laity.   Just think back a few months to the days leading up to Pope Benedict’s visit to the Britain last September.  I think it’s fair to say that in the build-up to the visit, parts of the media did a hatchet job on the Church.  And the result was that Catholicism was being talked about all over the place – in shops, in offices, in pubs.  So, as Catholics, we suddenly found ourselves having to witness to our faith in quite a hostile environment, didn’t we?  It took courage to do that; it took its toll; it came at a price – the price we call white martyrdom.   And yet the witness of white martyrdom really is a price that’s well worth paying.

We saw that once Pope Benedict’s visit was underway.  Perhaps some of you remember that wonderful moment when Pope Benedict emerged from Westminster Cathedral in London to talk to the young Catholics gathered on the piazza outside.  A young man, called Pascal Uche came forward from the crowd and spoke on behalf of all the people.  This is what he said.

“Holy Father,” he said boldly to the Pope, “We are convinced that the Catholic faith gives us a wonderful experience of God’s love.  We want more young people to have this experience.  We truly want to be saints, saints of the third millennium”.  Imagine the courage it took for that young man to say those things, in front of his peers and after all the negative publicity surrounding the visit.

His witness was the witness of white martyrdom but just consider the effect it had.  Even the most hardened sceptics in the media were impressed.  They were amazed that he’d spoken with such passion and conviction.  They warmed to him and they interviewed him - over and over again.  All of a sudden the tone of the coverage changed; much of the negativity evaporated.  Pascal Uche’s white martyrdom, surely was a price worth paying.

And so that brings us back to St Thomas.  Because of white martyrdom, I don’t think we need worry too much about whether or not we would have done what Thomas did more than 800 years ago.  That’s not the point.  The point is that we can learn from the way St Thomas embraced his blood-red martyrdom in his day, and we can imitate him as we embrace our white martyrdom in our day.

And so, at this beautiful Mass, let’s ask St Thomas to pray for us; to pray that God will give us the grace we need to witness to our faith whatever the cost and, in that way, to do what today’s first reading talks about: ‘to complete what is lacking in Christ’s suffering’, through our own white martyrdom.

St Thomas of Canterbury, pray for us.