Homily at the Annual Meeting of the Catholic Women’s League and Union of Catholic Mothers at St Columba’s Church, Chester, on 30th August 2012
This week we have seen Hurricane Isaac gathering off the coast of America and the anxious preparations for the moment this tropical storm finally strikes land. Our ancestors lacked computer simulations mapping out the likely courses of hurricanes but they were attentive to the atmospheric changes portending storms to come. Today, as Christians, we increasingly notice such changes within the atmosphere of British society often manifested in a growing hostility to the public profession of faith. Changes in attitude which are sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant when in the gentle reign of Queen Elizabeth II Christians have been threatened in their employment or even brought before courts for their witness and the Church’s social care agencies have been closed down by legislation which recognises no place for the Christian conscience. The determination of the present Coalition Government to legally re-define marriage may soon present new questions of conscience and legal threats to those who continue to profess the truth about marriage as the lasting union of one man and one woman.
It would be exaggerating to suggest that Christians in Britain face outright persecution. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, showed us clearly during those unforgettable days of September 2010 there remains a vital place for the Christian voice and witness in the public square. However, it would be foolish to ignore these atmospheric changes around us which may point to a gathering storm for believers. We must not fail to heed the repeated words of Our Lord in the Gospel, “stay awake …” and “stand ready …” (Mt.24: 42,44) nor can we fail to take courage from the Apostle’s assurance today that: “He will keep you steady and without blame until the last day” which will be “the day of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 1:9). The truth of Christ will finally prevail. Of this have no doubt. In the meantime, Pope Benedict reminded us yesterday, the truth is the truth. Recalling the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist the Holy Father reflected he, “did not keep silent about the truth, and thus he died for Christ who is the Truth … Christians in our times …” Pope Benedict said, “cannot give in to compromise when it comes to the love of Christ, for his Word, for his Truth” (General Audience 29th August 2012).
Today we remember three women of such faith and courage honoured by you as the Catholic Women’s League and the Union of Catholic Mothers. From Yorkshire we honour Margaret Clitheroe; from Essex, Anne Line; and from our own Diocese of Shrewsbury we honour Margaret Ward, born in Congleton within this Cheshire County. All are now recognised as Saints of the whole Church because when a storm broke across their lives, their homes and families, they continued standing in the faith they shared.
On this August day in 1588 St. Margaret Ward crippled by appalling torture went to the gallows accompanied by four lay men and one priest. The contemporary record tells us they went to Tyburn singing! At her trial she had told the judge that she would be ready to lay down many lives, if she had them, rather than go against her conscience or do anything “against God and His holy religion.” St. Margaret Ward saw that the truth is the truth and she could not, in the Holy Father’s words, give way to compromise when it came to the love of Christ or His Truth, no matter how ferocious the storm or how tempting the false promises of a short-lived peace.
Pope Paul VI when announcing his intention to canonise these three women among the forty martyrs of England and Wales spoke of their “genuine faith which will have nothing to do with ambiguity or false compromise.” Pope Paul wanted to high-light their example of Christian charity in an age which had stirred up hatred, “such attitudes,” he said, “are completely foreign to these heroes of the Christian faith.” Speaking more than forty years ago this prophetic Pope spoke of the threat to the spiritual heritage of our civilization and wanted future generations to recognise that, “these blessed martyrs did not hesitate to surrender their lives in obedience to the clear voice of conscience and the will of God, and are a glowing testimony to human dignity and liberty” (18th May 1970). In this way Pope Paul foresaw that the witness of these Saints and Martyrs of a previous era would speak clearly to our own.
Pope Benedict is now inviting us to celebrate a “Year of Faith” from October this year until the Solemnity of Christ the King next year. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the great ecclesial event of our life-time, and the twentieth anniversary of the publication of The Catechism of the Catholic Church as its authentic fruit. The Holy Father tells us that professing our Catholic faith must lead to “public testimony and commitment.” “A Christian,” he writes, “may never think of belief as a private act. Faith is choosing to stand with the Lord so as to live with Him … The Church on the day of Pentecost demonstrates with utter clarity this public dimension of believing and proclaiming one’s faith fearlessly to every person” (Porta Fidei no. 9). Amongst the initiatives in this Shrewsbury Diocese I am asking all our parishes to consider a public act of witness to the faith we share within their own circumstances and locality. It was, indeed, wonderful to see on the streets and roadways of London, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Glasgow this public testimony in those great crowds during Pope Benedict’s visit to our country almost two years ago. Yet it is with those brave and holy women honoured today that we each recognise the need for that personal stand of faith amidst the gathering storms of our life-time so future generations may echo the words of St. Paul today: “the witness to