Updated: May 24
Watch the livestream of this homily below:
In preparing to preach to you on this commemoration of our great patron saint, it was impressed upon me that there was a particular thing with which St John Fisher was preoccupied: wishing to improve the standards of preaching. To this end, when he became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge in 1501, he obtained permission from the Pope for the University to appoint twelve suitably-qualified priests to be able to preach throughout England, Ireland, and Scotland. So here I am to preach to you today, feeling no pressure – honestly!
It did make me wonder what a homily is for – not that I’ve never known what a homily is for, you’ll be pleased to know! But what is it for?
First of all, I turned to the introduction to the Lectionary – the book that contains the readings for Holy Mass throughout the year. There I read: “the homily sets forth the mysteries of faith and the standards of Christian life on the basis of the sacred text”. Well, that’s certainly true.
I found it a bit dry. I wanted to go deeper. In 2014, the Vatican published the Homiletic Directory to improve the standards of preaching. In there, I found something more satisfying: it says that the homily is above all “an act of worship”. That might be a surprise to some of you. But it makes sense because from the beginning of the introit or the Sign of the Cross to the dismissal, the whole of the holy sacrifice of the Mass is an act of prayer. It is an act of worship.
And of course, many of the Church Fathers, especially the early ones, like one of my favourites, St John Chrysostom, often used to conclude their long homilies with a doxology, praising God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – and, importantly, finishing with ‘Amen’. It was an act of prayer. And I found in the Homiletic Directory this lovely quotation that “the homily is a hymn of gratitude for the magnalia Dei” – the wonderful works of God – “which not only tells those assembled that God’s word is fulfilled in their hearing, but praises God for this fulfilment”.
So, within that insistence that the homily is primarily an act of worship, an act of prayer, it must mean that the person who is preaching is engaging actively with God, bringing to life the mysteries of faith to the hearers.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council emphasises the two different parts of the Mass. It says that “through the readings and homily, Christ’s paschal mystery is proclaimed” – again, that word “proclaimed, reminding us that the homily is an act of worship, an act of prayer – but then, for the second part of the Mass, the Constitution writes: “through the sacrifice of the Mass, it becomes present”. So, the first half of the Mass reminds us of the wonderful works of God and praises God for them, but then it prepares us in the second half of the Mass for that sacred encounter with the Word made flesh himself, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
It reminds me of that scene in St Luke’s Gospel of the two disciples, on the day of the Resurrection returning on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35). They encounter Jesus along the way, but of course, they do not realise at the time that it is him. “Are you really the only one”, they say, “who hasn’t heard of the things that have happened in Jerusalem over the past few days?” Our Lord says “what, what things?”, and they tell him. And then he proceeds to explain to them why these things should take place, calling to mind many references in what we now call the Old Testament of the Jewish scriptures, and then we know how the story ends: they reach their house in Emmaus; they do not wish him to go further in the darkness; they invite him to stay with them for the night. And he sits at the table, he takes the bread, and he breaks it, and he vanishes from their sight. And then that lovely sentence – “did not our hearts burn within us while he walked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the Scriptures?” Their hearts burned within them when Jesus himself was opening the Scriptures to them, but they did not recognise him.
If we now transfer that to the Mass, the priest – or the deacon or whoever is preaching – in a sense stands in the authority of that hidden Christ on the way to Emmaus, proclaiming the wonderful works of God – but preparing our hearts to burn, to desire, to encounter, and to receive him, in the Holy Communion of the Mass. In other words – and this is true not just of the preacher, but everyone present – their hearts must be burning for Christ, burning for the love of God, burning for Jesus Christ himself.
St John Fisher used to despair sometimes of the standards of the clergy, how often they would be absent from where they should be – be they a bishop, be they a humble parson, or, indeed, on occasion, be they the Pope himself. Writing about the penitential psalms, St John Fisher writes that “all fear of God, also the contempt of God, cometh and is grounded on the clergy”. You can see how the good standard of the clergy affected the laity. Of course, the laity can feed themselves – they’re especially encouraged now to study the Bible, pray upon it, and engage in Lectio Divina. All these things are very important. But the role of the preacher is no less important now than it was in the past. A good sermon, yes can inspire us, but a good sermon above all kindles the flame within us for the love of Christ; it makes us happy and rejoice for all the things he has done and still does for us in our lives.
Yes, when preparing the sermon, the preacher must engage in reflection and meditation, but what is at the base of that? It is that preacher’s love of Christ in their own personal and individual ways.
There was an option of a short or long Gospel in yesterday’s Mass. If you had the longer version (John 21:1-19), you would have heard that beautiful scene between Our Lord and Peter – remember that Peter has denied Our Lord three times during the Passion – and on this occasion, he is called to affirm Our Lord three times. Jesus asks Peter: “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes Lord, you know I love you.” “Feed my sheep.” In variation, he says that three times: “Do you love me?” / “Yes Lord.” / “Feed my sheep.”
So the whole priestly ministry is founded upon the love of Christ, the love of Christ personally in the heart of the priest. Because if the priest does not love Christ, how is he going to play his part, through the working of the Holy Spirit and God’s grace, to kindle the hearts of those listening to the readings, listening to the sermon? A great opportunity has been lost, and possibly we leave Mass rather undernourished. Our whole ministry of the priesthood is grounded on the love of Christ, and conversely, of course, also of love of the people – because if we truly love Christ, we truly want to carry out the things that are important to Christ, which is, as St Paul says to Timothy, that “all people should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
That was so important to St John Fisher in his life. He was the Bishop of Rochester, where I lived all my childhood life until I came to Cambridge. He was Bishop of Rochester for thirty-one years. In those days, it was seen as a very inconsequential see – a first rung of the ladder to ecclesiastical excellence in terms of career and prospects. But he remained the bishop of that diocese for thirty-one years, ministering and preaching to the people there, as well as holding many important offices of state, and indeed, in this university. But it was for the love of Christ burning in his heart that he engaged in all these things.
Of course, one of the things for which he is famous is defending the sacrament of marriage in the situation between King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon. He is quoted as saying that “the violation of marriage is no little insult to him who is called the bridegroom”. Not only did he see that what was happening or being suggested to happen at that time was against church law, but it went deeper than that: it was an affront to Christ himself, an affront to his teaching, an affront to the fact that he refers to himself in scripture as the bridegroom, the bridegroom who comes to earth in the Church, to rule the Church – that is all of us – and to carry us all, as traditionally the bridegroom carries the new wife over the threshold of the marriage-house, the house of the newly-wed: he wishes to carry us in his arms over the threshold of Heaven. He is the divine bridegroom and, above all, apart from breaking sacred law, St John saw the violation of marriage as an affront to Christ’s love for us.
And his concern for the reform of the clergy had that at his heart: a lot depends on the clergy. Are they going to be with their people or will they be apart? What motivates them? That was so important to him.
Finally, I think of that lovely second reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans: if God is on our side, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31) St Paul knows what it is to be filled with the love of Christ. He says elsewhere of himself how he was the lowest of the low: he persecuted Christians before his own spectacular, miraculous conversion (1 Corinthians 15:9). He knew his unworthiness, and therefore, by contrast, he was overpowered by Jesus’ love and the mercy without end. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, he says that the love of Christ urges us, drives us forward, in our ministry, to proclaim the wonders of God to the people (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). And that love isn’t always going to be so comfortable: it will bring us to uncomfortable places, putting it mildly, as it did for St John Fisher. In one translation of today’s reading, we are being massacred daily. What a thing to say, being massacred! But, St Paul continues, nothing can come between us and the love of Christ.
So here we are, as Catholic members of this great University, celebrating today our great patron, St John Fisher. Let’s keep what he stood for with us, especially that love of Christ. Let us support each other daily, by asking his prayers for us, but also in loving each other with that same sacrificial love with which Christ loves us and with which St John carried out his ministry in the Church and in the state – that sacrificial love that should have neither depth nor end, because the love of Christ for us has no depth and no end. Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ.
This homily was delivered by Fr Anton Webb, Parish Priest of St Alban’s, Winslow (Bucks), at the Fisher Mass on Monday 2 May 2022. The Mass was celebrated at Great St Mary's, the University Church.
Fr Anton Webb is Parish Priest of St Alban’s, Winslow (Bucks), and has extensive experience in prison ministry. He read Theology at Jesus College, University of Cambridge.