Updated: Jul 13, 2022
St John Fisher’s patronage of the Cambridge University Catholic Chaplaincy remains both crucial and challenging –
crucial, because the University’s most famous martyr stands as an example of a man who put first things first and was prepared to die for his following of Christ; and
challenging, because a martyr of the 16th century in the context of a society which was almost entirely Christian in its focus may now seem anachronistic.
We can do with St John Fisher’s prayers, but is his personal witness out of season?
When I gave this sermon before in 2005, I looked at Cambridge’s other cardinals, a motley crew like any cross-section of Christian believers, saints and sinners, the celebrated and the forgettable. They made a picturesque group and that short time ago, watered silk and scarlet birettas seemed the flavour of the month. It all now seems perhaps rather twentieth-century.
I am always tempted to look back rather than forward, but I now think – and this is something which has been glaringly obvious long before the ‘Pope Francis effect’ – we must look firmly forward. This is not about jettisoning the past but about the very heartbeat of the Gospel.
What we celebrate as Christians is new life in all its glory and uncertainty and if we forget this, using the Church as some sort of psychological support, we are turning our back on Christ’s message and his living presence. As Catholics, we have a clear priority to be missionaries – evangelists of the word and of Christ – and the changing priorities of the Church are staring us in the face – with a Pope from the southern hemisphere where most of the world’s Catholics, often poor and oppressed, live, and one who is a Jesuit with a worldwide vision. It took me a while as a Benedictine to get used to the idea of a Jesuit pope, but I am now looking for common ground – easier perhaps for a Benedictine than a Dominican – and I am glad that the bicentenary of my community at Downside this year coincides with the bicentenary of the lifting of the suppression of the Jesuits.
With those dreaded European elections this month and the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Anglo-centricity is in vogue and I am suggesting that even Euroscepticity is too narrow. The recent debate on whether or not we are a Christian country, or at least a post-Christian country, set off by David Cameron’s comments in The Church Times may be important as raising the question of our national identity, but the Christian Gospel is much deeper than that. It can never be reduced to a cultural nod towards the past or a brief revival of the dying embers of half-belief. Even less should it become part of the language of party politics.
The resurrection narratives remind us of our place as missionaries and evangelists. Ultimately, our priorities are not about a preoccupation with status and property. Too much debate on secularism and cultural Christianity wastes its energy on the peripheral. We must be Christ-centred – and if this means some simplification, let that be the case, but simplification is not about ‘dumbing down’. If that had been a policy followed by Fisher, instead of being martyred, he would have been content to have remained as a compliant Lord Spiritual. Prioritising is disturbing and unsettling.
Fifty years on, the documents of the Second Vatican Council may now be seen as being too ‘hung up’ with the idea of dialogue with the modern world. In a period beyond post-modernism – a period when change, especially in terms of communication, seems almost endless – a clarity of message is all the more needed. Providing some sort of stability in an age of permanent revolution is Christianity’s central challenge, but a challenge it should be able to meet because the Christian Gospel itself is ever-renewing.
The universities are vital in this evangelical enterprise. The communication of knowledge, the wisdom that comes from understanding, vitality of debate, the long search for abiding patterns, the hard grind of research, are all important ingredients on spreading the Gospel. We need an adult faith and a ‘grown-up’ attitude towards its dissemination if we are to make any impact. The Word and words are obviously important, but in communicating the Gospel we need the visual and the aural as well: in beautiful worship and in high-quality church art, both old and new, we can spread the Gospel. Our dialogue with the word should be both excellent in quality and deep in its impact. There is no reason, given the dynamism of the spirit, why we should be left behind.
I am all too aware of the lure of antiquarianism and nostalgia. I am aware, too, that tradition is an essential foundation of an historic faith, the passing-on and witnessing to the life of Christ. In his time, St John Fisher, as preacher and writer, stood alongside the best of his time. Doing our best does not offend against humility. If we are to be true missionaries, true evangelists, we should use the gifts that God has given us, not least our intelligence and our powers of communication. When St Gregory the Great’s monastic missionaries came to England to bring the Gospel, they had three obvious strategies – the Gospel itself; the visual impact of an icon of Christ; and, perhaps most importantly, the exemplary life of the messengers. St Gregory understood that a community of prayer radiates the Gospel. Our lives lived following as Christ’s disciples is the biggest spur to true evangelisation. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ but ourselves.
St John Fisher, pray for us that we may live our lives well and be true disciples of Christ. The call to holiness is universal.
This homily was delivered by Fr Aidan Bellenger OSB, then Abbot of Downside, at the Fisher Mass on Monday 5 May 2014. The Mass was celebrated at Great St Mary’s, the University Church.