"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012
The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch
“The man who stands firm to the end will be saved.” These words from today’s Gospel for the Feast of the Martyrs of England and Wales are the words of Jesus to his apostles and so they are his words to us as well. They are words that ask for perseverance in our priestly life and ministry, but they are also words that strengthen our hope, for God is always faithful to those who are faithful to him. We see this in the example given us by St Stephen in the first reading from Acts. He, like the Martyrs of England and Wales, was faithful to the end and willingly gave his life for Christ and the Gospel. His fidelity and fortitude led to the conversion of St Paul for the man in charge of Stephen’s executioners was soon called to be an Apostle and the greatest theologian and missionary the world has ever known. Don’t lose heart then and don’t give up the fight, for “the man who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
First of all let me congratulate you, Archbishop Peter, on your appointment to Southwark and assure you of our prayers and support as you prepare to leave Cardiff and return home. I have no doubt that, contrary to our Lord’s experience, you will be accepted as a prophet in your own country and among your own people. We thank you for the eight and a half years you have spent among us at the head of this great Archdiocese. It has been a joy and a privilege to work with you in the vineyard of the Lord and, with your example and encouragement, to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments in this small corner of God’s Kingdom. Our prayers, our thoughts and our affection go with you. We will all miss your cheerfulness and honesty, your availability and clear thinking, your sense of reality and above all your humility. You have been a friend and a companion more than a bishop and a pastor rather than a prelate. Thank you for the support and care you have given to each one of us. As the Poor Clares always say, “God reward you, father.”
It gives me and the Community great joy to welcome you all to Belmont this morning, bishops, priests and deacons of the Archdiocese of Cardiff and Diocese of Menevia. This is where your history, indeed our common history begins, the fascinating story of the re-founding of the Welsh Catholic Church in modern times. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of Belmont in 1859 and the consecration of the church in 1860, we have organised a number of different events. On 2nd February we welcomed the religious of the two dioceses and today the clergy. In three weeks’ time it will be the turn of our Anglican and Protestant brethren. There will be a big jamboree on September 4th, Feast of the Dedication, but we thought it best to invite our friends and colleagues to smaller, more homely celebrations where we can just be ourselves.
This church and monastery were originally built to commemorate the conversion to the Catholic faith of Richard Francis Wegg Prosser of Belmont House. Ironically, he had just received an inheritance from an Anglican clergyman relation who had stipulated that a church be built with the money. The Church of England contested the building of a Catholic church, but Wegg Prosser won the court case because his uncle’s will didn’t actually say that the new church should belong to the Established Church. And so it was that Bishop Thomas Joseph Brown, who is buried in the north transept beneath the window of the Welsh saints, came to accept the gift of land, church and monastery for the use of the English Benedictine Congregation and as the cathedral for his new Diocese of Newport and Menevia. He was Prior of Downside when appointed Vicar Apostolic of the Welsh District, that is the whole of Wales together with Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, in 1840. Then in 1850 he was named Bishop of the new diocese, a post he held until his death in 1880. Without exaggeration he can be called Father of the Catholic Church in modern Wales.
It is important to remember that when Brown became Vicar Apostolic in 1840 and was consecrated by Dr Wiseman there were but 750 Catholics in the whole of Wales served by nine priests. Catholicism was at its lowest ebb. Only a man with his tenacity, ingenuity, faith and vision could have set about building up the Church in such unpromising circumstances. To be truthful, he was not happy about the reintroduction of the diocesan system in 1850 and would have preferred that Wales remain a missionary vicariate. In 1850 the six northern counties of Wales became part of the Diocese of Shrewsbury, whereas the rest of Wales together with Herefordshire became the Diocese of Newport and Menevia. Now Brown wished his cathedral to be built in Newport, the only large town in his diocese at the time, but neither Downside nor Wegg Prosser were willing to grant him his wish. So he had to make do with Belmont. It is interesting to note that Downside did eventually build a church in Wales that was worthy to become a cathedral, St Joseph’s, Swansea.
But we haven’t come here this morning for a history lesson, though it is important not to forget the past, not to forget our history, a history of which we should all be very proud. Belmont is the mother church of two dioceses and for 150 years, not to mention the long period of between the dissolution of the monasteries and Catholic emancipation, we Benedictines have contributed, usually beyond our means and often beyond the call of duty, to building up and supporting the life of the Church in this land. We should remember, for example, the diocesan priests trained here at Belmont alongside their Benedictine contemporaries. Until the 1940s many of the Cardiff and Menevia clergy were ordained here at Belmont, the last being Frank Murphy, Cyril Schwarz and Trevor Driscoll who received the minor orders in 1943 and 44. The Archbishop would come up to Belmont and spend the whole morning ordaining people. It must have been an extraordinary carry-on, but then, unlike us today, they had both stamina and vocations in those days.
St Paul insists in the letter to the Ephesians that there is but “one Lord, one faith and one baptism” to which from his teaching of the Church as the Body of Christ we can add “one Church”. The history and the present reality of the Catholic Church in Wales (and not forgetting, as we sometimes do, Herefordshire) is the story of a joint venture, a united mission, a great work we all undertook and continue in faith to undertake together, bishops, priests, deacons, religious of all kinds, both women and men, and our lay people, whose contribution continues to grow and bear fruit. Together we are the successors of the Martyrs whose feast we keep today. This year we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the execution at Leominster of the Herefordshire martyr Blessed Roger Cadwallader, like St John Kemble a secular priest. We are also the descendents of penal day Catholics, of converts to the Catholic faith, of Irish, Italian and other 19th and 20th Century immigrants and today we serve a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Church that in many of our parishes is vibrant with new life.
If you were to believe what the media says, then you might be misled into thinking that the Catholic Church in this country is on its last legs, struggling for survival and doomed to die an early death. Some regard this as a fait accompli and it is sad to say that there are prophets of doom even within the household of the faith. But are we going to succumb so easily to fashion? Remember the words of Dean Inge, “The man who weds himself to fashion will soon find himself a widower!” What has to stop is the petty squabbling and backbiting that’s going on among Catholics in the public forum, above all on internet and in the press. “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand,” said the Lord Jesus, but he was talking not of the internal life of the Church and of fraternal relations, but of Satan and his gang.
Now we have the spirit of Bishop Brown and of his great successor Bishop Hedley, who between them served our Church as bishop for 75 years. We have the spirit of the Martyrs. Above all we have the Spirit of Jesus and we live by his word and the truth of his Gospel. “The man who stands firm to the end will be saved.” The time in which we live and serve Christ and his Church is no time for pessimism or negativity. This is a time for hope and for action. This is the moment God, in his mercy and love, has given to us. Because this is true we should rejoice and our joy should be infective. We have not lost the missionary spirit of the early Church or of our English and Welsh martyrs. We will do no less than Bishop Brown, Bishop Hedley and those who followed them and their contemporaries. We believe in the saving power of God’s word, in the grace of the Sacraments, in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the efficacy of prayer, all this in a living community that is aglow with a charity which is practical rather than theoretic and a sense of justice and of human rights that recognise the true dignity of every living creature and the right to life from conception to a natural death. No other Church has the fullness of the riches of God’s own life which through the Incarnation of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit he shares fully with us, so that we can say, in the words of St Paul, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”
Inflamed with the love of God and the knowledge of his grace, we have a message to preach that is worth preaching and a life to share which is worth sharing. Following the example of our Martyrs and relying on their intercession, we can play our part in the transmission and preservation of the Catholic faith. Walking in the footsteps of Thomas Brown and Cuthbert Hedley and of the other great heroes of the Catholic Church in modern times, we too can instil new vigour, new life and new hope into a Church which is thirsting for renewal, for renewed vitality and missionary zeal. This is our vocation, this is our mission and this is our time, this is our God-given moment. What a judgement awaits us if we let it slip away by through fear, indolence or indifference. May Our Lady of Penrhys, of the Taper, of Tintern, of Madley and of her countless other names and titles pray for us and fill us with enthusiasm by her maternal encouragement and chiding. Her word for us today is the same message of hope she heard from the lips of the Archangel Gabriel, “For God nothing is impossible.” Fathers and brothers, sisters and mothers, on what we do today depends the future of the Church and of the faith in our land. It’s a matter of life and death, and infinitely more important than a General Election.
Praised by Jesus Christ. Amen
The Abbot, Dom Paul Stonham with Dom Andrew and a guest.