On behalf of the Belmont Community I would like to thank Archbishop George for his kind invitation to sing Vespers in the Cathedral this afternoon. I am rather less grateful to him for asking me to preach. Only a small number of us can be here today: some of our younger monks are studying at Oxford and in Rome, some of the brethren are busy in the many parishes we care for, while the elderly and infirm and their carers have to stay at home.
“Be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind.” (Phil 2:2)
These powerful words of St Paul, from the Letter to the Philippians, are an excellent commentary on this year’s theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, “What does God require of us?” This is a fundamental question that all of us ask and it is one we find twice in the Old Testament, in the book of Deuteronomy and in the writings of the Prophet Micah. In both these books we also find the Lord’s own answer. Although these answers are similar they are also complimentary. In Deuteronomy we are told, “to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deut 10:12), whereas in the Prophet Micah it is God who asks us, “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8)
The word of the Lord in both cases needs no commentary but it does need application, by which I mean putting into effect in our lives as Christians, as sons and daughters of God, who have been called to new life in Christ through water and the Holy Spirit.
Unity in our convictions and in our love and having a common mind and purpose are entirely dependent on our fidelity to that programme of life, a life of faith that was outlined so well in the Old Covenant. This was long before God became Man in Jesus Christ so that in Christ nothing might be impossible for those who have faith. In the Letter to the Philippians St Paul clearly explains how this can be done. “It is God, for his own loving purpose, who puts both the love and the action into you.” (Phil 2:13) If we have faith in God, then he will do all things for us, even the impossible. That was how the Archangel Gabriel explained the Mystery of the Incarnation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. That is what Jesus ultimately taught his disciples by dying and rising again and that is why our heavenly Father pours out the Holy Spirit on all those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and, who believing, have life in his Name.
Now it is an amazing thing, that we today have that same faith to which St Paul was called on the road to Damascus. That decisive moment in the History of Salvation is central to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, for unity will only come about through conversion. And it can only be the work of Christ, if we allow him to lead us gently by the hand as old Ananias led Saul to Damascus, injured from his fall and struck blind, helpless and no longer in control. The unity of Christians must be placed in the hands of Jesus, our lack of unity being our own contribution to the persecution of the Church, a persecution that comes not from without but from within. Like Saul we have to be struck blind by the light of Christ in order to recognise that our only hope is in him and we have to believe that Christ can make possible what to us seems and is impossible. Christ who broke down the wall separating heaven and earth, Jew and Greek, believer and gentile, can surely break down the barriers that separate Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. Why else do be pray. “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”?
Archbishop George was very keen that I should say something this afternoon about the origins of Christianity in Wales and the Church in Celtic times and it strikes me that we might have here a model for unity, a unity centred on Christ and built on conversion, a unity which is the work of God and not the result of human effort, no matter how fervent and well-meant, the unity for which Christ prayed, a unity not shackled by uniformity or bigotry, a unity that allows everyone to live and breathe in the freedom of the sons of God, a unity centred on a life of prayer in Christ, a unity that calls for a strong sense of our sinfulness and an even stronger sense of God’s mercy and forgiveness. To quote St Paul again, “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”. (Rom 5:20) That extraordinary utterance of St Paul sums up the spirituality of our great Welsh saints, the saints of so-called Celtic Church, for there is no one and nothing that cannot be saved in Christ.
As this is a homily during Solemn Vespers and not a lecture, it is not possible to go into great detail, but there are important lessons to be learned from our local saints and the times in which they lived. To begin with we need yet again to bury the myth of a Celtic Church and the notion of a specific Celtic expression of Christianity as though it were different from the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church. No such thing ever existed and we should not confuse the insular outposts where Celtic languages are still spoken today with the world of the Celts that extended through most of Europe after many waves of invasion in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. The term Celt wasn’t used for these people until the 18th century. To the Greeks the Celts were simply barbarians. The Romans spoke of the inhabitants of our isles as Britons, a fearless race of many tribes speaking strange languages and of even stranger appearance and customs. Just read what Julius Caesar had to say about them. And, of course, Christianity came to Britain and so to Wales with the Romans. Our first martyrs, SS Julian and Aaron of Caerleon, were probably put to death for their faith about the year 304, just like St Alban. Indeed, it was the Roman Empire that gave not only St Paul but all early Christian missionaries the relative freedom and security that enabled them to travel all over the known world proclaiming the message of the Gospel and setting up small local churches or communities that grew and in their turn sent out missionaries. Under the Romans, the roads and seas were relatively safe. The truth is that by the end of the 3rd century there were Christians all over the Empire and beyond it, and that included Wales. Truly here is the parable of the mustard seed brought to life
The presence, ministry and martyrdom of SS Peter and Paul in Rome, and Rome being the capital of the Empire, caused that Church and no other to become the Mother Church of Christendom. Although to begin with Greek was the lingua franca of the Church and was used as the liturgical language in Rome well into the 6th century, gradually Latin became widespread, especially in Gaul, Central Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. This was also true of Britain. So it was that Latin became the language of the Church in this land and Rome regarded as mater et magistra. By the age of the great saints, David, Teilo, Illtud, Dyfrig, Cadoc, Beuno and so on and the thousands of local saints, the Church in what is now Wales and the Marches was simply part and parcel of the Catholic Church in Europe, in communion with the See of Rome and its Bishop and using the Latin language for liturgy and study. What is true is that from the 6th to 8th centuries there was a great flourishing of church life in our land, something that was to be repeated later in Norman times with the coming of the Cistercians and during the Methodist Revival in the 18th century. I sense that we are on the verge of a great revival today, but are we ready for it, even preparing the ground for it? Life attracts life, while inaction leads to death.
Having said that, the Church of the Age of the Saints in Wales did have some fascinating and outstanding characteristics that should be looked at closely, but beware, not through the eyes of medieval hagiographers nor the wild dreams of Victorian romantics, who have coloured and warped our understanding of the Church in so-called Celtic days by misinterpretation or sheer invention. To begin with, it must be said that until the fateful separation of the Church in our land from Rome at the hands of Henry VIII, there was never an independent or national Church in these isles. Secondly, until the heresies of the Reformation, there was never disagreement with or deviation from the doctrinal teaching of the universal Church in communion with Rome, a Church which, until the Great Schism was in fact, the whole Church, both East and West. Fidelity to the faith of the one Church and obedience to the traditional rule of faith clearly marked the life and teaching of our great saints, as it did, for example, the life of the great English saints such as the Venerable Bede and St Dunstan. Remember that St Teilo, among others, went to Rome to be consecrated bishop by the Pope himself. Our ancestors might have lived on a small island peninsula on the edges of the European continent, but they were firmly part of Europe and of the Latin speaking Church which looked to Rome for guidance and leadership. It is said that Pelagianism is the only heresy to have begun in Britain, but Pelagius was born in Brittany and spent most his adult life in Rome and Carthage. Today many hold that he was actually orthodox in his theological views on grace and free will. Nevertheless, no traces of that doctrine or of any other heresy can be found among our saints. For them salvation was God’s free gift to his beloved children, which we claim through faith and purity of heart.
We have mentioned fidelity to the doctrine and tradition of the Universal Church, union with Rome and the Latin language and liturgy, What other traits are there? There are three vital elements in the expression of faith found in Wales from 6th to 8th centuries: monastic life, learning and missionary activity. The Church in our land was, above all, a monastic Church with vast, important monasteries scattered all over Wales. Locally we think of Llantwit Major and Llancarfan, further afield of Hentland, Llandeilo and St David’s, centres associated with SS Illtud, Cadoc, Dyfrig, Teilo and David. These were monasteries with exceptionally large communities, which were, at the same time, great centres of learning and of missionary outreach. Attached to these monasteries were what can only be described as the universities of the day, where study went hand in hand with a profound life of prayer in a climate of fraternal charity. But the monasteries were also centres of evangelization, from which monks went out to small, isolated rural communities to bring the consolation of the Gospel and the Sacraments to all men and women. In addition to monasteries, there were also hermits, both male and female. It is astonishing to find whole families of saints and these families living in association with a great monastery. Now this was not Benedictine monasticism, but the sort of autochthonous monastic life that sprang up all over the Christian world from Egypt to Ireland and from Syria to Spain from the end of the 2nd century onwards. It was to form the basis from which St Benedict eventually forged his Rule. And there was a lot of toing and froing with continental Europe and far beyond, with missionary endeavours and pilgrimages to Rome and to the Holy Places. Wales was neither insular nor isolated. Add to all this, a profound love for the Mother of God. Have you ever counted how many places and ancient churches in Wales are named Llanfair and dedicated to Our Lady?
Pope Benedict XVI venerating a mosaic of St David of Wales.
Why did I say at the start that this way of living the Christian faith could be a model for unity in the future? Well, our forebears enjoyed a fullness of Christian living that is sadly lacking in our lives today, a life wholly centred on Christ and the love of Christ. There was a passion and a joy in the lives of our saints that is often missing in our own. You cannot be a half-hearted Christian: there is no such thing. You cannot be a disciple of Jesus unless you go the whole way and live your life fully for him, who alone gives meaning to who we are and what we do. Prayer imbued with a love of the Scriptures, study, community life, a powerful sense of family, hard work to keep body and soul together, the desire to share our faith with others and the commitment to live life as an adventure of faith, with such trust in God as to really believe in Divine Providence. All this in a Church where everyone is welcome and anyone can find a home and where the only rule of life is Christ himself and the simple authenticity of the Gospel. Our constant prayer should be for the faith, the holiness, the vision and the missionary zeal of our saints, together with their joie de vivre and good humour, and the grace to follow in their footsteps. This is exactly what the good Lord requires of us today.
So then, “Be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind.” (Phil 2:2) And may the good Lord, in his mercy, make this possible. To Him be glory and honour, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Ame
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