My dear brothers and sisters,
I picture you gathered at Saint Michael and All Angels on the eve of this Paschal Triduum. Sadly, Covid prevents me from being with you and so I want my first word to be one of welcome and thanks to Bishop Stephen Wright who has generously travelled from Birmingham to stand in my place this evening.
It seems especially appropriate that we gather at Woodchurch, which was the scene of the last diocesan celebration before the lockdown of March 2020. The Chrism Mass is celebrated as Lent draws to its close and in anticipation of the Easter Triduum. It is a moment of rejoicing in the gift and grace of God as we echo the words of the Psalmist: “I will sing for ever of your love, O Lord.” This thanksgiving has special poignancy after two years of a pandemic, and I want us to reflect this evening on ‘the great return’ witnessed in our parishes; and how this must lead us to joyfully recognise the presence of Christ anew.
The Gospel recounts the failure to make this joyful discovery. The people of Nazareth looked intently at Jesus, “All eyes in the synagogue were fixed on Him”.[i] They looked and yet failed to see the Christ, the Anointed One. Impressed by His gracious words they would reject the One who spoke, rising-up with homicidal intent to throw Him down the cliffside on which Nazareth is built. This scene foreshadows His Passion. And we now face the same, unavoidable challenge to accept or reject the claims and the person of the same Jesus Christ.
We glimpse something of this drama in the happy return witnessed in our parishes since the end of the first lockdown. This has not been a mere return of habit rather an invitation ‘to return to the Eucharist with joy.’ The joy of recognising Jesus Christ anew. In the words of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict, this is an invitation to an encounter with “An event, a person which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”– the encounter we come to in the Holy Eucharist.[ii] This is a rediscovery of the heart of the Church’s life, and we want to encourage many more to share our joy.
My brother priests experienced this invitation during the months of lockdown standing alone at the Altar in the strange emptiness of our churches. In both solitude and by utilizing every creative means to ‘virtually’ connect people with the Mystery of the Eucharist, we were able to glimpse anew the Sacrifice and Sacrament which is the unfailing source of the Church’s life. We glimpsed with a renewed joy the vital place of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation as we heard confessions in carparks and makeshift situations. The extreme efforts made to bring the Sacraments to the sick and the dying also recalled the vital place of the Church’s ministry in those supreme moments of human and spiritual crisis. Tonight, we also cannot fail to recall with some emotion, the remarkable response of clergy and people to the challenging and ever-changing circumstances of the pandemic. We did not forget the poor, nor neglect the isolated in our communities. It was your own generous efforts which enabled the re-opening of our churches and allowed them to remain open as among the safest of places. And I have no doubt it was your steadfast witness that led the government to recognise public worship as an ‘essential service’ for the well-being of society. Truly, a witness of faith that will be long remembered.
Tonight, I want us to see ‘the return’ being witnessed in our parishes and the celebration of this Easter Triduum as a personal invitation to re-discover all that has been given us in the life of the Church. For we are being invited to recognise Christ’s Sacrifice when we obey His command “Do this in memory of me”; His Ministerial Priesthood instituted in the same moment as the Eucharist; His call of perfect love in every Christian vocation and the invitation to lift up our hearts in daily prayer; the strength of His anointing received in Baptism and Confirmation and offered in the hour of sickness including our last; His grace and mercy awaiting us in the Sacrament of Confession; His Cross and Passion in which we are invited to take our small share; the Scriptures which speak of Him and unfold the story of salvation; and His risen, living presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. In recognising His grace and presence anew, we can never hesitate to say: “I will sing forever of your love, O Lord.”
May Our Lady, Help of Christians accompany us; and assist many souls this Easter to return to the Eucharist and the Sacraments, with a joy that will never end!
Bishop of Shrewsbury
[i] Lk. 4:20 [ii] Deus Caritas Est & Evangelii Gaudium no. 7