Suspension of public worship

The Bishops of England and Wales have suspended all public gatherings for worship until further notice.

All Lent groups, first Holy Communion and Confirmation groups are also deferred until further notice.

With churches closed, it won’t be possible to visit them. The celebration of Mass will continue, but without a congregation. We have a page of video of our Masses in church, and other locations will be streamed on Facebook. Do like our page and keep an eye out for updates. We’ll also publish homilies here.

We have a page entitled Liturgy in a Time of Crisis. Please make use of the resources available on that page. In the sidebar here, there are links to Offices from the Liturgy of the Hours through the day: perhaps you can call a friend who is self-isolating and say the service together. WhatsApp will allow calls between up to four people.

Pastoral visits are suspended, although in an emergency which requires the sacrament of anointing for the dying, a priest will be available. If you have a need for sacramental confession which cannot be satisfied by an Act of Perfect Contrition in the meantime, please make contact with a priest to work out together what’s possible.

It is imperative at this time to think of those most vulnerable and to have a eye for our neighbours.

The office phone and my mobile should be rung for those who need help and supplies. I am hoping that a few volunteers who are DBS checked will come forward and help in our endeavour. Those who wish to help but without DBS can still help with phone calls and dropping off gifted food parcels.

Above all, pray.

Fr Neil

    Love, life and resurrection: Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

    Again, we have a very long reading from the Gospel. To help us grasp what’s going on, we have to cast our minds back to last week’s reading and Jesus’ conflict with not only the Pharisees but actually, as John says, the Jews, in relation to the blind man. Jesus upsets them by pointing out that it wasn’t the blind man who was truly blind, it was they, the Pharisees and “the Jews” who were blind for they could not see the presence and work of God what was before them. 

    Now in saying “the Jews”, John and the Scriptures are not meaning the entire Jewish race: Jesus was a Jew; his blessed Mother was a Jew; the disciples were Jews; Mary and Martha and Lazarus were Jews. The reference is really about the ongoing conflict that Jesus had with the ‘Judeans’, which included the Pharisees and the people of Judea in and around Jerusalem. These southern Israelites thought they were more pure and more religious than the rather dubious people from the north, from Galilee. Jesus is seen as coming out of Galilee, and that was one of the reasons why they really struggle to accept who Jesus truly is — “Can anything good come out of Galilee?” was a common phrase in the south.

    Having got something of the context of this story, we next have to ask why Jesus acts the way he does when he is told that the person he loves is ill and is likely to die? We are told he loves Lazarus very much, and yet he waits two days before going! It’s counter-intuitive: it’s not what we would do. If we have a loved one who is dying or desperately ill, we’d drop everything. We wouldn’t say, “I’ll carry on with my lectures for the next three days,” or “I’m at a clergy conference and I don’t want that disturbed; I’ll see them at some point when I get back.”

    One can put forward a case that as Bethany is only just outside Jerusalem which is the centre of those who would like to kill him, he delays in an act of self preservation. Thomas’ response when he does announce that he is going, “let us go that we might die with him,” is telling and backs this theory up. However, this wouldn’t be the first time a disciple as misunderstood what Jesus intended. Something far deeper is going on here. We are told that Jesus loves Lazarus and his family deeply, and it is this love that stays his hand from leaving immediately. What is the nature of this love and its end?

    But there is a twofold mystery to the dying and raising of Lazarus from the dead: the first is that Jesus not only heals, not only opens the eyes of the blind, but has power over sin, and death itself. Not even death can hold back the power of Christ, who calls us to life. Even if I die, he has the power to raise me up, he has the power to bring new life to me, which reveals the depth of his profound love. what is the greater gift, to have your eyes opened or to be raised from the dead? Which has the greater promise? This is his great gift and act of love for Lazarus.

    The second mystery is more difficult for us to grasp. Somehow, to follow Jesus and to be his friend requires us to enters into his suffering that we might enter more fully into his life. 

    Think about the disciples; his own Mother, our Blessed Lady, who has a sword pierce her own heart; and all the great saints: look at their lives — they are never straightforward. There is always struggle, persecution, suffering, martyrdom, rejection, and the carrying of great illnesses. To be a saint of God is to accept an invitation to enter into the Passion of Christ himself. Lent and Holy Week forcefully reminds us that to take hold of the gift of the resurrection, we must first travel the Way of the Cross. It is only through Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, that we can experience the resurrection life of Christ Jesus.

    We see this in reality with Lazarus. Mary and Martha know that Jesus can do wondrous things, they know something of the resurrection, but this is the point that Jesus wants to teach. There is a last day; there is a rising of the dead; but he wants them to understand that he is the Resurrection and the Life. Resurrection is not an event but a person. It is Christ himself who is that hope. No other has power over death. No other can raise to life. That Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life is demonstrated here, in the very reality of Lazarus’ death and rising again.

    It is not insignificant that Lazarus is in the tomb for four days. Jewish belief at the time was that after being laid in the tomb, it was three days before the soul properly departed from the body. The Jewish practice was not to embalm; they used spices against the smell, and once the body had decomposed they gathered the bones into an ossuary. Martha, ever-practical, tells Jesus that after four days, “it’s going to be a bit smelly.” 

    It is on the fourth day, once Lazarus is truly dead, that Jesus reveals — even more powerfully than last week — who he truly is. He reveals the loving communion with his Father in heaven through prayer, and he speaks the word, “Lazarus, come out!”

    It is a mystery for us to grasp: Christ holds our life, and it is in him alone that we experience something of that new life now, not just on the last day. We too can enter into communion through prayer — especially at this particular time, with everything around us and the restrictions we need to accept; with people dying whom we seem powerless to help. We might say “What is there to do? I’ll just pray.” But that is the first thing to do! It is a communion with the Father; a conversation with God, with our Lord Jesus, and an invitation for him to enter into our lives and allow him to work his good grace through us. Even in the midst of death, we know that he has triumphed, and his love is stronger even than the grave.

    The live-streamed video of Mass is available on Facebook.

      Mary, Gate of Heaven: Homily for the Annunciation

      Fr Neil’s homily at Mass on the Annunciation, 25 March

      The mystery of what we are celebrating today is so utterly profound that it is really beyond our ability to capture.

      What we are asked to understand is that God, for whom nothing is impossible, might have — and could have — chosen to come any other way. But he didn’t. He chose Mary to be the Mother through whom he would enter into this world. We call Mary “the Gate of Heaven”, because it is through her that the Word was conceived and was born into the world.

      God chose her, and indeed prepared her with her own Immaculate Conception, and filled her full of grace that she might be that living tabernacle where the presence of God is amongst his people.

      Thus, as God in Christ has come to us through Mary, so indeed we access the gifts and graces of Christ through Mary, seeking To follow her example and know the power of her intercessions. At the end of the Gospel, in the scene of the Passion with Christ on the Cross, our Lord gives Mary to the apostle John, and the apostle John to Mary. In so doing he creates the family of the Church — seeking that she might become the Mother of all who are the children of God: that we ourselves might become her children. He did so knowing the she would seek always and everywhere to lead us to the place of reconciliation and the gifts that he himself longs to bestow on us; that we in turn might, in our devotion to her, grow so much stronger in our love for and devotion to Christ, and know all his gifts of eternal life.

      The live-streamed video of Mass is available on Facebook.

        Light for the blind: Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

        Fr Neil’s homily at Mass on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 22 March 2020

        Jesus said, “I am the light of the world”

        Our Lord encounters a man born blind and is asked if his blindness is due to sin, either his or his parents’. Jesus emphatically says that, no, this kind of blindness is not due to sin but in fact will glorify God.

        Our Lord’s manner of healing the man may seem strange to us. Why would he spit into the dust to make a clay and put it into the blind man’s eyes? He could obviously have just spoken the word as he did for the centurion’s servant or the ten lepers. This isn’t a case of bad social manners. For those steeped in Jewish tradition his actions were clear.

        In our Ash Wednesday mass at the imposition of the ashes the minister say; “From dust you came and unto dust you shall return: repent and believe the gospel.” In these words one of the things we are being reminded of is the creation story when God got down into the dust to form humanity. Jewish tradition elaborates and speaks of God spitting into the dust to form the clay from which humanity was made. Their common phrase was “you are made of spittle and dust.” The healing also takes place on the Sabbath, the holy day given by the Lord after he had completed his act of creation.

        Therefore, in the manner of this healing, our Lord is revealing his divine authority, to those who pick up the signs he is performing. The man born blind has new eyes created from the spittle and dust — a sign of recreation and the reserve of God alone.

        During this long episode of the man born blind, the gospel is teaching us about what true blindness (excuse the pun) really looks like. The healed man not only recovers his physical sight but also recovers a growing illumination of spiritual realities. In the man’s dialogue with the Pharisees he reveals his burgeoning understanding: first by stating that Jesus must be a prophet, then a man approved by God because God doesn’t perform miracles through a man separated from him by sin, and finally in response to our Lord revelation of himself states, ‘“Lord I believe,” and worshipped him.’

        This man’s growing understanding stands in sharp contrast to the Pharisees who ought to know the ways of God, but refuse to see what is before their eyes. They first don’t believe he is the man born blind; they cannot see the gift for the fact that it happened a sabbath. Then they belittle the man for pointing out that only through God can these sorts of miracles happen, when they wished to portray Christ as a sinner.

        In complete contrast to the man born blind, the pharisees’ spiritual blindness and refusal to believe that Jesus is the light of the world is a blindness caused by their own sin of which they are guilty and for which they are responsible.

        Samuel, from our first reading, listening to the Lord, rejects all Jesse’s older sons for the youngest. From a human perspective it is the most unlikely one, David, whom the prophet anoints as King. God sees to the heart of man. The Pharisees, for their part, couldn’t see beyond mere appearances to what lay beneath the surface — they were blind to the deeper truth and greater realities of the God-man who stood before them.

        Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” He invites us to believe who and what he is so that we might, in his light, see things for what they really are. We have to trust and believe so that we might see the deeper truths about ourselves and the world within which we live. Only then will we find consolation and feel secure despite what might be happening around. This seems to be especially relevant in as we face the crisis of the coronavirus and the total disruption to our normal pattern of living out our lives and faith.

        On one hand, worry and anxiety leads to wild imaginations and selfish and thoughtless acts of panic buying. On the other, the refusal to take seriously the potential dangers pushes us to ignore what is before us and act in an irresponsible way towards others’ vulnerability.

        There seems to me to be a invitation to open up new doors of spiritual practice that could lead to a deepening of our relationship with our Lord, a greater thanksgiving for the things we might have taken for granted, and a new wonder of the beauty of the mass. It also give us a chance to put into practice in a concrete way the means by which we might love our neighbours.

        Allowing ourselves the opportunity to be drawn deeper into the light of Christ illuminates the possibilities and path through this crisis by asking our Lord — as that great Newman hymn has it — to lead us on:

        Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
        Lead thou me on;
        The night is dark, and I am far from home;
        Lead thou me on;
        Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
        The distant scene: one step enough for me.

        The live-streamed video of Mass is available on our video page.

          Anglia dos Mariae: Why England needs Mary

          Fr Tristan CranfieldA talk given by Fr Tristan Cranfield on 15 March 2020, at Our Lady of Ransom Church, Eastbourne

          Introduction

          In its basic meaning, consecration is the ‘setting apart’ of something for the duty of serving God alone. Think of the consecration of an altar in a church; it means that that altar cannot be used for any secular purpose, but that it becomes an instrument of worship. We talk about the altar being ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, but that it is not, of course, meaning that the stone table itself possesses any special qualities.

          When it comes to consecrating a person, things are somewhat different. Here, consecration can then be spoken of in three ways. It refers to a ‘setting aside’ that comes about by way of an external ceremony: think of an ordination, or the consecration of a virgin. But human beings are not merely material creatures, but also spiritual: they have knowledge (with that faculty known as the intellect) and desire (with the faculty known as the will), and thus consecration for them cannot be merely a matter of externals. For consecration to be truly received, there also has be a second element: engagement of this free will inside them, ‘to go along with it’. And thirdly, for it be a more than a token consecration, for it to be truly fruitful they need to actively desire it; to become only for God in all they do. This is the difference between a man who has been ordained priest, and then does not live his priesthood, and one who tries with his heart to renew his priesthood every day.

          In just over a week’s time, we will be called to make a consecration of ourselves and our country, England. Primarily, on Sunday 29th March, there will be an external consecration being performed by our bishops on us, and on our land. But as well, on the Wednesday before (which is the feast of the Annunciation) we are be also asked to make the second type: an inner consecration made through our own desire, that will accord with this outer dedication. And this is the consecration that we will have also to live out and let grow and flourish.

          Today then, I want to talk about what making such a consecration really means. Why Mary — and why England? What is so special about this land, traditionally known as Mary’s “Dowry”? And why should it need a re-dedication? To answer these questions, I will be looking at both the theology of Our Lady’s role in salvation (Mariology) and at the history of England; firstly discussing Our Lady as Mother and Mediatrix, then passing to her Patronage of England, before returning to the notion of what a personal consecration entails. Hopefully, discussing these elements separately will allow it to become clear why England badly needs this Marian consecration. May Our Lady be our guide!

          Our Lady: Mother and Mediatrix

          It all began with a ‘yes’. Our Lady’s consent to the angel: “Be it done to me according to thy Word” (Lk 1:38) is the moment the world changes. In agreeing to become the Mother of God, Mary allows the plan of salvation to take place. God called her into existence for no other reason than to fulfil this most awesome of all vocations. But still, she is a free agent and so, He asks her permission to take part in the plan to save mankind from sin. It is in this way that Christ’s taking on of human nature involves humanity’s freedom from the very start, reversing the bad use of freedom that was made by humanity’s forebears at the Fall. St Bernard speaks in the most marvellous way about this moment:

          If you consent, straightway shall we be freed. In the eternal Word of God were we all made, and lo! We die; by one little word of yours in answer shall we all be made alive…Answer, O Virgin, answer the angel speedily; rather, through the angel, answer your Lord. Speak the word, and receive the Word; offer what is yours, and conceive what is of God; give what is temporal, and embrace what is eternal.¹

          This last point of St Bernard’s is crucial: thanks to God’s extraordinary condescension, we can speak of a true exchange here between Him and Mary — almost as if between equals (although there really is no equality between God and any creature, even her). This exchange is important when we consider Mary’s role in our salvation as ongoing. It means that she stands as the gateway to our relationship with Christ, God made man; by God, she is employed to do two things that are really two sides of the same coin: she both brings Jesus to us, and us to Jesus.

          Let us consider these two sides. Firstly, then, Mary brings Jesus to us, and this is through the continuing effects of her ‘yes’. After the Holy Spirit’s power conceives Jesus in her womb, all that we receive from God comes through His humanity, working like an instrument; as St John puts it: “From His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16). And it is in this humanity, that he suffered, died and rose again, cancelling out sin and unlocking the gates of heaven. But the fact remains that it was Our Lady’s exchanging of her will, so to speak, to become one with God’s, that this took place. Even at the foot of the Cross, filled with a pain as perfect as her love for the child she was losing, she willed Jesus onwards, because she knew His mission to be the desire of her Father and His. That is a result of her sinlessness, never to will anything contrary to God’s plan. In heaven, this still continues, her only desire that salvation be given to God’s elect. We can say then without a shadow of a doubt, as the Second Vatican Council affirmed, that she is ‘mediatrix’ of all graces.² Thanks to her ongoing ‘yes’, it is through her that Jesus’s power touches us, every time our will joins with that ‘yes’ too. It is through her ‘yes’ that we consent to baptism, and thus she is our mother, not in the order of the flesh, but in the order of the Spirit.

          That is how Mary continually brings Jesus to us. Now: how does she bring us to Jesus? This is through not just her consent, but through what Jesus Himself asks of her. Mary is only mediatrix of graces for the reason that, in the first place, God has made her a mother. She is mother of our adoption into God’s family, because God entrusts us to her. She is our refuge, our safe haven. At the foot of the Cross, this is made clear in one of Christ’s Seven Last Words: “Woman, behold your son!” as he entrusts John to her keeping, and her to John’s: “Behold, your mother!” (Jn 19:6) At that moment, the members of the Church, who are Christ’s body, and their mother, are given to one another in a unique way. That feminine intuition, and confidence in the will of her son, that we see her employ at the wedding feast of Cana, works on our behalf too. Our desires, if pure and true, are hers also: our nourishment her concern, our daily problems tug at her heartstrings. This is the secret of understanding Mary’s intercession for us in heaven. People sometimes wonder, if Jesus hears all our prayers and is the only Mediator between humanity and the Father, why we would bother pray to the Virgin Mary. But this is begging the question. God has not orchestrated our salvation in such a way that we can avoid praying with and through Mary; we are her spiritual children whether we like it or not, and every time we pray, it is through her to her Son who shares in her flesh. She is always involved in all prayer! That is part of God’s providence.

          Surely, then, to follow Jesus’s command to ‘behold our mother’ is to our benefit, and enables us to grasp what God wished Mary to contribute to the relationship with Him in which he has brought her. She bore Jesus in her body; we wish to bear Him in our soul; she taught him, directed him, played with him; we wish to be taught, directed and uplifted by His divine joy. Few sentences express this in prayer better than the dazzling Collect that follows end the office of Compline in the older form of the Breviary, during Advent and Christmastide:

          Deus, qui salutis aeternae, beatae Mariae virginitate fecunda, humano generi praemia praestitisti, tribue, quaesumus, ut ipsam pro nobis intercedere sentiamus, per quam meruimus Filium tuum auctorem vitae suscipere”³

          The complex syntax of the prayer mirrors the mental gymnastics that we have to perform to try and enunciate this mystery, which by faith we know intuitively and quite simply: that Mary’s role in our salvation is essential, ongoing and marvellous. It is clear, too, that it is no way jeopardises the centrality of Jesus Himself. Mary, too, was saved by Jesus, as she was created preserved from sin. She stands infinitely below her God, as her Maker and Redeemer. Yet, it was He who conceded to be subject to her, as Her Son.

          The Dedication of England

          Hopefully, from what I have said so far, we can see that devotion to Our Blessed Lady is necessary for all of us. But is it un-British? Some have said that Marian devotion is not part of our culture, being a Mediterranean affectation, better suited to those people lucky enough to come from warmer climes.

          However, a look at the history of England shows that nothing could be farther from the truth. This is evidenced in the proliferation of shrines, poetry, artwork and devotional practices that the English have produced and loved over the centuries — especially before the sixteenth Century, where the political powers, corrupted by the lure of the Reformation, saw fit to try and supress all things Catholic, including the cult of the Blessed Virgin.

          There could never be enough time to bring forward all the examples of Marian devotion which have flourished in England, but I will take one or two — starting with those best known to us: Christmas carols.

          England is particularly blessed with an extraordinarily rich tradition of carol singing that marks it out among European countries. Many of these carols are preserved in what were called ‘primers’ or ‘books of the hours’. A ‘book of the hours’ was a prayer book for lay-people, often richly illustrated. Such was their popularity, that Books of the Hours were among the first books to be mass produced on production lines, after the advent of the printing press and sold in stationery shops all over 15th Century Europe!

          Mediaeval English carols notably display a deep appreciation of Our Lady’s role in salvation history, and shine with affection for her. One particularly fine example of this is “I sing of a mayden”, found in the Horae Eboracenses, a book of the hours from York:

          I sing of a m[a]yden that is makeles
          kyng of alle kynges to here sone che ches.
          He cam also stylle there his moder was
          as dew is aprylle, that fallyt on the gras.
          He cam also stylle to his moderes bowr
          As dew in aprille, that fallyt on the flour.
          He cam also stylle ther his moder lay
          as dew in Aprille, that fallyt on the spray.
          Moder & mayden was never non but che —
          wel may swych a lady godes moder be.

          The historian Eamon Duffy notes that this hymn marries a great theological depth, and Biblical and liturgical resonances (Gideon’s fleece; the Rorate caeli of the Advent season) with a deeply personal attachment to the Virgin. Duffy also notes that the love of carols is connected to another English fascination, which was the devotion to the Joys of Mary (nowadays normally counted as seven, but in Mediaeval England more commonly five: Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Mary’s Coronation as Queen of Heaven). These joys were familiar to ‘every man, woman and child from their endless reproduction in carving, painting and glass’ all over the country, and they were central to the great cycles of plays that would be performed in towns and villages at Corpus Christi. But even more important than these Joys, Duffy on goes to say, were the Sorrows of the Virgin, which were a particular focus for prayer in time of plague. He notes:

          This quest for a share in the sufferings of Christ, through identification with Mary, dominated the piety of Christian Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It gave rise to literally thousands of treatises, hymns, poems, sermons and devotional images [...] Every parish church contained an image of this Mater Dolorosa, for all were dominated by a Rood across the chancel arch, invariably flanked by mourning figures of Mary and the Beloved Disciple. [...] There was a typical one at Long Melford in Suffolk: “a fair image of Our Blessed Lady having the afflicted body of her dear Son, and as he was taken down off the Cross lying along on her lap, the tears as it were running down pitifully upon her beautiful cheeks, as it seemed bedewing the said sweet body of her Son, and therefore named the Image of our Lady of Pity.”

          Margery Kempe, born in King’s Lynn in 1373, and author of what some consider to be the first autobiography in the English language, was highly devout, and described many examples of piety in her book. She highlights the power of the image of Our Lady of Pity by relating the effect that it had on her in her local church. She speaks about herself in the third person:

          throw the beholding of that pete hir mende was al holy occupied in the Passyon of owr Lord Ihesu Crist & in the compassyon of owr Lady, Seynt Mary, be which sche was compellyd to cryyn ful lowde & wepyn ful sor, as thei sche xulde a deyd. Than can to hir the…preste seying, “Damsel, Ihesu is ded long sithyn.” Whan her crying was cesyd, sche seyd to the preste, “Sir, hys deth is as fresche to me as he had deyd this same day, & so me thynketh it awt to be yow & to alle Christen pepil. We awt euyr to have mende of hys kendnes & euyr thynkyn of the dolful deth that he deyd for vs.”

          Many people must have had the same experience as Margery in being united with the pains of Mary as she beheld her dying Son, as it is said that there was scarcely a church in the country that did not contain such an image. That said, Our Lady of Pity was by no means the only way that the English loved to relate to the Mother of God. Another especially English devotion was that of Our Lady of ‘Gesine’ or ‘Bedgang’ — that is to say: ‘childbirth’. Our Lady is depicted lying down, with the child Jesus in her arms or at her feet, as if she has just given birth.¹⁰ In the case of difficult births, English women were recommended to wear a girdle with the Magnificat written on it.¹¹ Men and women wore rings inscribed with an image of Our Lady on the gem-stone — a practice that seems to be uniquely English.¹²

          Devotion to Mary permeated every walk of English life and every English institution. We know that before the Reformation schools such as Eton and Winchester were dedicated to Mary. At Oxford colleges, hymns to the Virgin would be sung in the evening, and the poorer students would go begging from door to door, singing the Salve Regina. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes a student’s room in Oxford, and depicts the devotion of a poor scholar to Our Lady:

          His Almagest, and books both great and small
          His astrolabe, belonging to his art,
          His algorism stones—all laid apart
          On shelves that ranged beside his lone bed’s head;
          His press was covered with a cloth of red.
          And over all there lay a psaltery
          Whereon he made an evening’s melody,
          Playing so sweetly that the chamber rang;
          And Angelus ad virginem he sang.¹³

          Even the names of English flowers, once upon a time, prove how the English imagined the beauty of Our Lady, as the highest of God’s creatures, to be reflected in the rest of creation. Each flower was also associated with the feast of Our Lady that would take place around the time of its blossoming. Snowdrops, for example, pushing up out of the ground in the chill and dark first days of the year, were known as ‘Our Lady of February’, or ‘Purification Flowers’. Lungwort was ‘Our Lady’s milk-wort’, and associated with the Annunciation. Clematis was called ‘Virgin’s Bower’ as it bloomed around the Visitation. Spiranthus, for the Assumption, ‘Our Lady’s tresses’. Gentian, for Our Lady’s Birthday, ‘Our Lady’s Fringes’. Milk thistle still had the same name — but the ‘milk’ in question referred to the white spots on its leaves, as if milk had splashed from Our Lady, as she fed our infant Lord when He was little.

          All these beautiful names have sadly been lost; all except one: the marigold. This flower seems to have made people think of the glorious beams that shine around Our Lady’s head in so many depictions, and was associated with every feast.¹⁴

          England also abounds with some sixty shrines dedicated to Our Lady, many of which were destroyed at the Reformation, of which Walsingham today is the most famous, and the modern centre of Marian piety which we are celebrating in this re-dedication. Sadly, there is no time to go into further detail of these here, fascinating though that would be.

          We have seen that England is a country that can claim a great heritage of devotion to the Blessed Virgin. But certainly this is true of lands throughout the Catholic world. But on the other hand, only England has that strange title: ‘Dowry’ of Our Lady.

          According to the straightforward account, the title of the ‘dowry’ of Mary comes from Richard II, that is to say, at the end of the fourteenth century. But it seems that the title is really older still, and that Richard merely applied what was already well understood by the people. The idea is that King Richard, seeking the protection of the Virgin in a time of political unrest, dedicated England as Our Lady’s dowry in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey on the feast of Corpus Christi in 1381. This event is supposedly commemorated in a painting which was sent to the Venerable English College in Rome, showing the King and Queen on their knees, making an offering of England to Our Lady, through the hands of St John, the inscription underneath reading: “Dos tua Virgo pia haec est, quare rege, Maria” (This is your dowry, O pious Virgin, for you to rule).”¹⁵ This painting has not been seen for many centuries. (However, the very well-known Wilton Diptych, now housed in the National Gallery, depicts a similar scene.) The historicity of this event is attested in documents from Richard’s reign, where again we find the word dos, this time on the lips of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel. At Lambeth, on 10th February 1399, by mandate of the king, he affirmed the special consecration of the English people to Our Lady, among all the nations, writing:

          The contemplation of the great mystery of the Incarnation has brought all the Christian nations to venerate her from whom came the beginnings of redemption. But we, as the humble servants of her own inheritance and liegemen of her especial dower, as we are approved by common parlance…ought to excel all others in the fervour of our praises and devotions to her.¹⁶

          Note that as far as the Archbishop is concerned, it is the ‘common parlance’ that has already had the final say and named the country as dos or ‘dower’.

          England, then, is Mary’s Dowry by common assent, but also by official decree. This consecration of Richard II’s has also be re-affirmed over time. During the Reformation, we can surely say that the many martyrs of England showed their love of Our Lady too, and so the spirit of this ancient title was not forgotten. Furthermore, in the time following the Restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy to England, the title was re-affirmed again, this time by all the bishops in consort with Pope Leo XIII. Pope Leo requested to English Catholics to recall the consecration of their land to the Blessed Virgin; and, at the same time, to place her under the patronage of St Peter. In doing so, he spoke of:

          the wonderful filial love which burnt the hearts of your forefathers towards the Great Mother of God, Christ’s happy minister in our salvation, to whose service they consecrated themselves with such abundant proofs of devotion that the Kingdom itself acquired the singular and highly honourable title of “Mary’s Dowry”¹⁷

          At the beginning of this talk, I started by noting that consecration is a multi-layered concept, with two main aspects: the external dedication and the inner personal consecration. In Our Lady’s Dowry, as we have seen, there has always been both. Firstly, there is the act of consecration or dedication, if you like, that was performed by the archbishop at the behest of the king, and then later by the bishops and pope. This is an irrevocable, objective act. Secondly, there is the consecration that members of the faithful, throughout English history, have made of themselves, offering themselves to Our Lady as a personal commitment to her, knowing that they are, as Thomas Arundel put it, the “liegemen” of her dowry.

          In most cultures, a ‘dowry’ is usually understood as a bride-price: in some, the money that a man must give to the family of the woman he marries, or, in others, that which he gives to a wife as a personal gift upon marriage. Some say that this idea is hardly a suitable metaphor for England being offered to Our Lady. In response to this criticism, Msgr John Armitage, the outgoing Rector of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, has noted that in England, traditionally a ‘dowry’ was quite a different kettle of fish. Here, ‘dowry’ was actually the gift made to a mother: an amount set aside for her in the event of her husband’s death, to provide for her. This usage is reflected in the term ‘Dower House’, the home of the widowed ‘Dowager’, a title we are all much more familiar with again nowadays thanks to Maggie Smith’s role as the Dowager Duchess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey! Richard II’s gift of England to Our Lady was thus a son’s gift of affection to his mother.¹⁸

          But why should such a gift be necessary? The fact is that England, like all countries, is called to be a land of the Gospel. The Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols, meditating on the Third Luminous Mystery of the Rosary: The Proclamation of the Kingdom and the Call to Repentance, has noted that Jesus said: ‘Go into the whole world and make disciples of all nations’ (Mt 28:19). He did not say: ‘make disciples of individual persons’ here and there. The Gospel is meant to be lived in community, and thus to reach everyone, which is only really fully possible if it does not exist in a hostile culture, but permeates the structures of society, institutions. Its message of love wants to live and breathe and shape a culture. Christianity, as we are becoming more and more aware in our post-Christian society, needs not only to be taught, but ‘caught’; as Nichols says: ‘it has to permeate the ethos of education, the practice of business, the art people see, the literature they read, the laws under which they live, the customs they find in place among them.’¹⁹ In a way then, the English Catholic must pray that not only that many people be Catholic, but the land they live in be so too, so that the fullness of Christ’s light can permeate it. This once was a reality here, as England is a country inseparable from its Christian roots. Trying to define ‘Englishness’ is a notoriously difficult thing; people sometimes come out with values like tolerance, fair-play, patience as English virtues…but really they are Christian virtues at the heart, even if somewhat distorted or stunted. Our legal and political structures, sense of the common good and mutual responsibility enshrined in our laws, system of governance, social welfare systems, all ultimately stem from Christ — even if today they might be put to use to do things that are far from consonant with God’s law or virtue.²⁰

          It is the Gospel’s proclamation of the reality of sin, the reality of forgiveness through Christ’s Passion, and the reality of Christ’s reign as King that are desperately lacking in our public sphere. More and more religion is side-lined as a private affair, and Catholicism (along with other belief systems) seen as a competing truth in the market of truths, presided over by a neutral system of non-belief. But such a system cannot be neutral: rather it betrays an ideology by unquestioningly asserting its own supremacy over truth. This is itself dangerous: as it is relativistic. It means that many souls will never be disposed to receive the Gospel, believing it to be one truth available among many, thanks to the prevailing culture; or indeed that they will never hear the Gospel at all, because the compartmentalisation of religion from the secular realm means that they never come into contact with Christians who are free to proclaim it to them. England needs to be docile to the Gospel again — to receive the truth, and not be lost trying to forge a path where there is not truth. Our Lady, docile to the will of God, is her ready patron, who always says: “Be it done to me according to your Word”.

          Personal consecration

          The ‘objective’ or external dedication of the country as Mary’s Dowry is surely not complete without the interior allegiance of Mary’s sons and daughters, who are being asked to make a special, individual consecration to her this month.

          But what is this consecration? Consecration, in this second, inner sense, seems to be related to what St Thomas Aquinas calls ‘devotion’ (devotio). Devotion is an act of the will that directs us to do something else for the honour of God. The things that we do might be varied: something interior, like prayer, or something exterior, like a sacrifice, an offering of money, food or help; a work of charity: visiting the sick or the imprisoned. But for any of those actions to be truly ‘religious’ in the sense that they are performed with God as their motive, a separate, overarching act of our minds needs to take place first. This act of the will reaching out to God, then engages to will to perform these other acts — but that first act is that which Thomas calls ‘devotion’.²¹

          What do we need to perform everything we do for God, i.e. with devotion? Surely we cannot have to say to ourselves every time we do anything: “I do this for God!” But also it is surely not enough just to have said: “I consecrated myself to Mary last week — that ought to do the trick” and while going on acting however we like! The answer is that this inner core of our consecration comes about through shaping the will to always follow God. This shaping is ‘virtue’ — the formation of a good habit. The virtue or good habit in question here is called by St Thomas ‘religio’ — but it doesn’t mean ‘religion’ in the sense we usually use it today. Religion, for Thomas, is a good habit that is part of the virtue of justice — and justice is the virtue of always giving everyone what they are owed. Religion is the virtue of giving God what He deserves — which is everything! Like all human virtues, religion is a habit which we can learn, by constant practice, and which we can be given through prayer; and it also is strengthened by faith, hope and love: those special gifts of God Himself. God wants us to have this habit; it enables everything we do, to be with devotion: it becomes ‘automatic’, and a pleasure for us.

          But why develop such a habit to make acts of devotion particularly with Our Lady as their object? This question has already been answered by what I said at the beginning of my talk, that Mary is the mediatrix through whose ‘yes’ we are directly brought into contact with Jesus the Word of God, and receive His grace. Being able to pray and perform every work, preceded by that act of the will that seeks her out as its motivation, means that each word, thought and deed becomes a petition to her that it be completed in her way — that is to say, with utter, unquestioning love for Christ and the members of His Body. It also means that we grow in a horror for sin — because we become less and less ‘used’ to our will wandering its own way into pleasures that lead us away from her Son. Mary also becomes for us a model which the imagination can hold brightly in mind — all her virtues: faith, hope, love, humility, purity, obedience, courage and so on — which enabled her to be greatest follower of Christ — become the blueprint of our own life where we seek to follow him. The habit of religion animated everything she did, summed up in the very greatest act of the will — her “YES” — which in turn proceeded from the greatest act of devotion that permits all others.

          This form of consecration, however — because it is about a habit — also takes time, preparation and determination. It takes us really to engage our will and practice offering up everything to Our Lady. This is the science behind St Louis de Montfort’s 33-day long preparation for Consecration to the Blessed Virgin. It involves three stages, the first of which is a renunciation of sin and a recognition of our unworthiness and the hopelessness of our state without God. Sinful acts cannot involve devotion — as the will is turned away from God and concerned only with itself. In this way, it cannot join with either the will of Our Lady or Our Lord, both of whom are utterly unselfish and constantly act to praise God and love their neighbour.²² The second and third stages both involve, as well as many prayers and devotions to the Holy Spirit, Our Lord and Our Lady, a conscious raising of the mind to Our Mother throughout the day and before every action, so that, through grace, this becomes a life-long habit.

          With these practices, St Louis tells us, our actions and prayers all become ‘by Mary, with Mary, in Mary, for Mary’, so that we do them perfectly ‘by Jesus, with Jesus, in Jesus and for Jesus’. To understand we only have to think of Mary’s role in our salvation as Mother and Mediatrix, as I explained at the beginning of this talk. We do things by Mary because we follow her cue to say ‘yes’ only to the things of the Spirit, and thus to Jesus. To do this, we must abandon our own desires and plans, and entrust our present to her. We do things with Mary, because she is the Model of the Christian — the Mother who teaches us what every virtue looks like, and thus we do them with Jesus, who also learned from her. We do things in Mary, because as Mediatrix, she is the conduit through which grace comes to us — like that image of the Gateway that I used to describe how she both brings Jesus to us and us to Jesus. Every good action is performed with God’s grace, and we become aware of this the more we think of her as full of grace, and that that fullness is extended to us. More and more filled with grace, we are drawn ever deeper into Christ, and thus in Jesus, rise with Him on the last day to be filled with His glory. Finally, we do things for Mary, because we have been entrusted to her. She becomes Our Mother and thus we desire to please her and defend her as any son would want to defend his Mother, against everything that attacks her — that is to say, sin.²³ With the devotion that comes from these efforts, more and more, we can say that we live for Jesus.

          Perhaps it is this last note — for Mary — that most resonates with the particular notion of England as Our Lady’s Dowry; we are motivated to give back, as it were, all that has been given to us by Jesus through Mary, and consider our lives, and the land we live in too — as a family gift.

          Conclusion

          At this start of this talk, I said that I would address the topic ‘Why England Needs Mary’. Perhaps a better title would have been Why England Needs Mary — and Why We Do Too. The life and health of any country in the end, is not separate from the people who live in it. As Catholics living in society, and especially as lay people, we have a strange double task. We are both to be enemies of what St Paul, St John the other New Testament writers call ho kosmos (the world) — the Spirit of which draws us away from things eternal, and leads us to forget God and His love for us. But also we are called to love ho kosmos the world, which God so loved “that He gave His own begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (Jn 3:16) That is to say: that we are not to abandon our brothers and sisters who do not know God, but draw them to Him, but sacrificing in love for them, so that they can discover the great sacrifice of Christ for all of us.

          Mary is the irreplaceable doorway to Christ. She stands as the image of the Church, humanity fully alive in love, and dead to all sin; she represents the world totally restored in Her Son even as she is Mother of the Church and Queen of Heaven. England, despite her many, many failings, has always had a special significance as being her dowry. It will take more than the bishops’ say so to make this the case. It will take grace, offered to us by Jesus through the hands of Mary, to make us more and more like Her Son, and offer up the direction of our life: in the workplace, in the parish, in the family home, to her guidance, and reclaim this land for her, soul by soul. I end with a few verses that summarise this hope, from an English rhyme:

          Long years ago, ere faith and love
          Had left our land for sin and shame
          Her children called my blossoms bright
          By their sweet Mother’s gentle name
          And when, amid the leaflets green
          They saw sweet ‘Mary-buds’ unfold
          In honour of the Angel’s Queen
          They plucked the Royal Marygold

          I was the favourite of the poor
          And bloomed by every cottage door
          Speaking of Heaven’s Fair Queen to men
          They loved me for the name I bore.
          There is no love for Marye now
          And faith died out when love grew cold
          Men seldom raised their hearts to heaven
          When looking at the Marygold.

          But Marye from her throne on high
          Still looks on England and on me,
          The namesake of the Queen am I,
          The Ladye of the Land is she.
          And surely she must win once more
          Her heritage to Christ’s True Fold;
          Then to her children, as of yore,
          Will preach again the Marygold.”²⁴

          Let us pray:

          O blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our most gentle Queen and Mother, look down in mercy upon England thy “Dowry” and upon us all who greatly hope and trust in thee. By thee it was that Jesus our Saviour and our hope was given unto the world; and He has given thee to us that we might hope still more. Plead for us thy children, whom thou didst receive and accept at the foot of the Cross, O sorrowful Mother. Intercede for our separated brethren, that with us in the one true fold they may be united to the supreme Shepherd, the Vicar of thy Son. Pray for us all, dear Mother, that by faith fruitful in good works we may all deserve to see and praise God, together with thee, in our heavenly home.
          Amen.

          1. St Bernard of Clairvaux, Homily 4:8–9
          2. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 62
          3. God, who, of eternal salvation, by way of blessed Mary’s fruitful virginity, for humanity paid the price; grant, we ask, that we might feel her intercede for us — she by whom we earned to receive Your Son, the author of life.
          4. cf. E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, p. 211
          5. cf. ibid., p. 257
          6. cf. ibid., p. 257
          7. cf. ibid., p. 260, quoting W. Parker, The History of Long Melford, London, 1873
          8. cf. M. Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. S. B. Meech and H. E. Allen, English Early Text Society, 1940
          9. cf. E. Waterton, Pietas Mariana Britannica: a history of English Devotion to the Most Blessed Virgin Marye Mother of God, London, 1879, p. 240
          10. cf. ibid., p. 234
          11. cf. ibid., p. 207
          12. cf. ibid., p. 208
          13. G. Chaucer, The Miller’s Tale, lines 22–30
          14. cf. Waterton, p. 194–197
          15. cf. ibid., p. 13. The Latin given by Waterton is surely correct, whereas the version of this quotation given in the Behold2020 literature seems less intelligible.
          16. cf. ibid., p. 14
          17. ‘The Consecration of England to the Mother of God and the Prince of the Apostles: A Letter from the Cardinal Archbishop and the Bishops of the Province of Westminster’, London, 1893
          18. cf. The Tablet, date unknown
          19. A. Nichols, Lessons in a Rose-Garden: Reviving the Doctrinal Rosary, 2012, p. 144
          20. cf. ibid., p. 140
          21. cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia IIae, q. 82, a. 1, ad 2
          22. cf. De Montfort, Louis, True Devotion to Mary: With Preparation for Total Consecration, trans. F. W. Faber, London 1863, repub. London 2013, p. 160
          23. cf. ibid., pp. 118–120
          24. Legends of Our Ladye and the Saints, i, London, 1870, p. 77, quoted in Waterton, p. 194

            Fr Thomas’ homily for 2 February, Candlemass.

            “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come into his Temple.”

            If we turn back into the Old Testament, to when the Temple first came into use, we find an extraordinary scene. Vast crowds gathered rejoicing this profound moment, the priests and Levites lead the people in worship, the Ark of the Covenant which represented God’s presence among his people was carried into the sanctuary, King Solomon offered prayers of dedication, and so many sheep and cattle were sacrificed that the Bible says that they couldn’t be numbered. Then in the moment of climax, the presence of God descended in a cloud, so powerful was this presence that the priests were unable to stand and minister. A truly awesome moment as God arrived to dwell in his temple.

            When Malachi the prophet spoke of the Lord coming to his temple, no doubt this was the sort of idea that he had in his mind. Clouds of the presence descending, amazed on-lookers unable to do anything other than worship God with hearts so full that they are about to burst.

            Then a few hundred years later a couple arrived, carrying a tiny child in their arms, seeking to offer the standard sacrifice for a first-born son. When the Gospel relates the story it doesn’t even mention the duty priest, he probably barely noticed them – here was a normal typical case, quickly dispatch the animals and let the parents give thanks for their son and return to get on with their lives. There would have been many worshippers gathered there, as every day, and they too would barely even notice this couple and their infant son.

            Yet, here was the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy. Here was the Lord suddenly coming into his temple. That tiny child was nothing less than the same God who made the whole universe, the God to whom sacrifices were being offered…here he arrives to purify the sons of Levi, so that they can offer pure and true worship to God.

            This is the same God to whose glory the Temple was built, the same God to whom sacrifices had been offered, the same God whose glory in the cloud meant that the priests couldn’t even stand and minister to him. But here he is, carried in the arms of his mother. On that original dedication, the priests had carried the Ark of the Covenant in a grand procession – now the new ark, Our Lady, walks quietly bearing the new covenant himself. Along with S. Joseph she presents a pair of young pigeons in thanksgiving; but in her arms she carries the greater sacrifice, she carries the Lamb of God, that Lamb who will be sacrificed – not on an altar in the Temple but on the altar of the cross.

            The old and new covenants meet. Remaining obedient to the law, Our Lady and S. Joseph offer a tiny sacrifice, yet as they do so they point forward to the true, the great, the all-sufficient sacrifice. Those old sacrifices were images of the Cross, they all pointed forward to what would come later; but the image is now to be replaced by the true version. We don’t need a portrait or a photograph to let us know what a person in the same room looks like; so too, once Christ has come, once he ascends Mount Calvary we don’t need the sacrifice whose job is to point towards it. This then is the true and purified worship which Malachi tells us will be offered once the Lord has come into his Temple.

            It’s always good to hear how prophecies have been fulfilled; this reassures us that God is faithful to his word, that when he has promised that something will happen then it will come to be at the right moment. But it can all seem very remote. Does this mean anything to us today? is this something which has an impact on our lives today? Does it mean anything to talk of sacrifice?

            Of course, the answer is yes. Sacrifice sits at the very heart of our religion. No longer that long string of individual sacrifices, with various animals being killed; now our sacrifice is that Lamb who was presented in the Temple by Our Lady. The sacrifice offered on the Cross, the place where God’s love for us all was shown to be beyond measure. The sacrifice which is offered anew every day on every Catholic altar – the sacrifice of the Mass. This is what Malachi speaks of when he speaks of purified worship – the Cross, and our taking part in that offering by joining ourselves to it in Mass.

            This is also what the writer of Hebrews is talking about. Christ is our high priest, one who is perfectly pure, and therefore the worship which he offers is perfectly pure. Pure because he is God. But also worship which we can be a part of because he is human too. Worship which will continue for ever, because Christ will continue for ever. This the great mystery on which the Catholic Faith is built. That the action of Christ two thousand years ago can be made present to us today; that we can be brought into that action. That we are invited to worship not as mere spectators, but that by reaching out to God with our hearts we are truly taking our part in the relationship of love which is the true meaning of worship.

            This calls for a response from us. We can hear this, we can be glad of this, but it is only ever an offer until we decide to do something about it. When Christ allowed himself to be presented in the Temple he was offered to the Father; when he allowed himself to be raised on the Cross, again he was offered to the Father – that is what we are invited into. To join with Christ in this is to be offered to God.
            If we do this, then we receive back from God far more than we can even imagine, certainly vastly more than we give to him. But we do need to accept the invitation. We need to decide whether we are willing to be offered, as Christ was offered. If we are, then we can associate ourselves with that offering here at Mass; we can present ourselves spiritually on the altar.

            That is what God asks of us, but in return he promises to give us everything that he is.