Thanksgiving Mass for the Ursuline Community, Westgate on Sea (1904 – 2021) 9 July 2021

Dear friends, but especially, dear sisters

Perhaps like most of our lives to some degree, the life of your patron, St Ursula, is shrouded in mystery. What is certain, is that she was an outstandingly holy women. A woman of Christ who gathered other holy women around her, with whom she lived and ministered, faithful to the Lord Jesus, until their deaths in martyrdom.

Your other patron, St Angela Merici, was another remarkably holy women whose life we know a little more about. She too gathered women around her, to form the Company of St Ursula in 1535 in Brescia, dedicating their lives to the education of girls.

Steeped in the witness of these two saints, it is fidelity to Christ and service to the Church’s mission through education, which we celebrate today, in you, and your predecessors, who have sustained the Ursuline presence, here in Westgate, for the past 117 years. What an incredible achievement, only possible because of the Lord’s call, the Lord’s choice, that we, that you, bear fruit that will last.

How different it must have been for those first sisters who came in 1904 from Boulogne-Sur-Mer. Immediately, they began to educate, a process which continues today. A process which will stretch into the future through the legacy given by those holy women, by you dear sisters, and those who have gone before you. How grateful we are for all that you have given so generously and selflessly. On behalf of our Archdiocese I want to express my sincere gratitude for your presence, for your service, and for your witness.

At its heart, Catholic education is a work of love. It’s grounded in the truth we have received, and for which we have a responsibility to pass on. That’s the meaning of tradition, rooted in the Latin word tradere. It means a handing over or a handing down. How much has been passed down and handed over across almost 120 years of teaching and formation. Everything has been sourced in the Lord’s great commandment: to love each another as he loves us.

This work of love, dear sisters, which has been your mission in education in an expression of what St Paul describes in his letter to the Philippians as ‘improving knowledge’ and ‘deepening perception’ so that those we serve can recognise what is best, what is good, what is beautiful, and what is true. In short, so that they can come to know the living God revealed in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Having looked at some of the writing of St Angela, your foundress, St Angela, she didn’t mince her words. I think if I has picked an argument with her, I would has lost, ground down by love. When it came to speaking about the Christian life, she was refreshingly straightforward: ‘Strive to be faithful to that which God has called you,’ she said. ‘Do now what you wish to have done when your moment comes to die.’ ‘Do something, get moving, risk new things, stick with it, get on your knees, then be ready for big surprises.’ This is timeless good advice for every disciple.

From the first beginning, at 21 Adrian Square, the Ursuline spirit has been alive in your commitment to make disciples through education, to ‘be bound to one another by the bond of charity.’

Now, a new phase begins. The legacy continues, but the sisters are moving on. In a sense, you are doing what you have always done, in the spirit of St Angela. You are moving with the times. Your personal religious mission is never ultimately about a place, even though places and history are important to us. Your mission is about the heart: your heart; the heart of the Lord Jesus; and the heart of those you meet, wherever and whoever they are.  

Your love for the Lord, and your desire to life faithfully according to the Gospel, means you have been, and always will be, changing and adapting, first and foremost on the journey of conversion. Christ calls you friends. Whatever you do, wherever you live and serve, this never changes. ‘What I command you,’ says the Lord, ‘is that you love one another.’ This is inscribed on your hearts. You carry it with you.

Today is about thankfulness for all that has been given and received. It is about gratitude for all that will continue, all that could never have been had you not come here. It’s also about new mission and adventure with Christ. In reality, you have never stood still. You have been carried in the Church by the Holy Spirit. And this doesn’t stop now.

Just pause for a moment and consider the impact of your 117 years here in Westgate: the hearts you have touched; the lives you have changed; the hopes you have kindled; the futures you have nurtured. Not just in the lives of one generation, but in the lives of countless students, their children, their grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond. Catholic education turns aspiration into reality and dreams into possibility, through patient, loving perseverance. This is what we celebrate today.

Dear sisters, I know that pride is something frowned upon in religious life. But today, take a holiday. Be rightly proud of all that you, and those before you, have achieved. Be rightly proud of what you continue to enable by the inheritance you have established. This has been, and remains, the Lord’s work. We are held in the hands of our loving Father. We exist because of his love, we live through love, we serve by means of his love. Be rightly proud today.

When St John Paul II invited the Church to reflect on the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium, he asked us to ‘put out into the deep,’ and ‘to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm, and to look forward to the future with confidence.’ (NMI 1) These are wise words to take to heart today.

One of my favourite prayers of the breviary perhaps sums up our sentiments as we move forward:

Lord, be the beginning and end of all that we do and say.

Prompt our actions with your grace and complete them with your all powerful help.

Lord, be the beginning and the end, and the end and the beginning, of all we do and say. Amen