Final Mass of Thanksgiving – St John’s Seminary, Wonersh – 22 October 2021

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Dear friends

The great soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa made, perhaps, one of the most sublime recordings ever of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Composed in 1948, when Strauss was 84, the songs, originally one piece – are titled ‘Spring,’September,’ ‘When falling asleep,’ and ‘At Sunset.’ Apart from ‘Spring,’ they all touch on the theme of dying, ‘suffused with a sense of calm, acceptance and completeness’[1]three important words for today.  

Dame Kiri’s recording has its own unique tone. Her mother died while she was learning the songs and the emotion is tangible in her voice. They remind me of my parents, she said in an interview, and ‘I never want to forget them.’[2]

Now, I don’t supposed that’s really cheered anyone up has it? This is not a Requiem Mass, but a Mass of Thanksgiving. And yet our own last songs in this liturgy, in this chapel, are inevitably marked with sadness; for some, even with a sense of grief for a faithful mother, this seminary, whose formal mission concludes after 132 years. With thankful hearts, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the loss we feel today.

Mourning, of course, has its rightful and proper place. But it can never be the dominant melody of Christian life. How could it be for people of the resurrection? Preaching at the Easter Vigil in 2019, Pope Francis said Easter teaches us ‘that believers do not linger at graveyards, for they are called to go forth to meet the Living One.’ It is the Living One, the Living Christ, the Son of God, to whom we unite ourselves at this time of transition.

Strauss’s first Last Song, ‘Spring,’ is composed around the words of the poet Herman Hesse. Hesse wrote:

I feel the healing touch

of softer days, warm and tender.

My limbs tremble – happily, too much –

As I stand inside your splendour.

Here echoes the song of hope; the primordial hope of which we sing in the Exultet, the preeminent and pivotal chant of victory in Christ. Whatever we feel today must be overridden and overwritten, with the deepest gratitude to God for all that has been achieved. St John Paul II, whom we recall today, described his personal reflections, looking back on his life, as Memory and Identity. Two other important words today.

From first beginnings, in 1889 at Henfield Place, moving here to Wonersh in 1891, up until July this year, we give thanks for the work of priestly formation at St John’s in the service of Christ’s Church and His people. Times change. Difficult decisions have to be taken. Yet faith continues because Christ is alive, calling us always to one and the same hope: as the Father loves His Son, so Christ loves us. Whatever else changes, we remain in His love.

It’s not over the top to say that we love this place, and everyone who sacrificed and worked to build it; everyone who has supported and staffed it; everyone who has come here to discern a call to priesthood. And we will remain in this love. Shepherds have been sent out from here to announce the Good News, to celebrate the Sacraments and care for God’s people; to look for the lost, to bring back the stray, to bandage the wounded, and make the weak strong. The gift St John’s Seminary has been to the Church is something of which we can rightly be proud. And the legacy will continue.

Maybe today we can voice four other last songs. Please relax. I’m not going to sing to you. But I would like to share with you what these songs might be titled and what they might mean.

The first comes directly from the Lord Jesus. It contains words of reassurance for every disciple and, not least, for every priest. Non vos me elegistis, sed ego elegi vos – You did not choose me, but I have chosen you. Here is a truth of faith: Christ chooses us. And with a brother’s love, His choice calls some men to the priesthood. How important that these words are inscribed here over the tabernacle. It is the Eucharistic Lord Jesus who calls each priest to ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’

This choice comes neither by right nor by merit, but through a vocation, through the Lord’s gracious calling to rise and follow Him. The nurturing of this call, the formation for priestly service, has been the Lord’s work in this place. How we need this call to be heard in our day and age. How we must pray for, and encourage, vocations to the priesthood. Working to remove whatever obstacles might impede someone answering a priestly call, we continue to sing the beautiful song of Christ’s choice, His choice of shepherds for His Church.

The second song comprises the words of Martha to her sister Mary found in St John’s Gospel: Magister adest et vocat te – the Master is here and is calling you. Like so make before us, we walked under these words as we entered this Chapel, inscribed over the doorway. They were first spoken in Bethany, when the Lord Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb. The Master is here. He is calling you and He is calling me. Calling us to what? Calling us to faith, a faith like Martha’s – ‘I believe,’ she said ‘that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.’ Faith and conversion are the source of discipleship and all vocation. We continue to sing the song of the Master’s call.

The third song is an act of hope: Spes messis in semine – the hope of the harvest is in the seed. A seminary is like a potting shed or, more elegantly, a greenhouse. Planted by the Lord the seed of a vocation is, by God’s grace, brought to fruition. This has been the mission at St Johns for well over a century. It could never have begun without the seed of hope sown in the heart of Bishop Butt, the seminary’s founder, and Father (later Cardinal) Bourne, the seminary’s first rector. The Lord continues to call, to sow seeds. As the Lord has provided, so the Lord will provide, in new ways and in new places. Our invitation, our responsibility, our commitment, is to continue to sing the song of hope and harvest, remaining in Christ’s love and faithful to His commandments.    

And finally, our fourth last song carries the words of our Blessed Lady – Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum – Let it be done to me according to your word. Every disciple, every priest, desires to imitate the first disciple, Mary the Mother of Our Lord, Mary the Mother of priests. In God’s often mysterious will a plan unfolds. In God’s sometimes challenging providence a purpose is brought to birth. Upon perplexity God breathes peace. Into our fear and misunderstanding, God brings light and love. In our younger or older age, we follow Christ with hearts like Mary’s, trusting that God is faithful, believing that His word is true. We watch, and we pray, and we wait, in a spiritual carousel. May His will be done to according to His word.

I feel the healing touch

of softer days, warm and tender.

My limbs tremble – happily, too much –

As I stand inside your splendour.

We stand in the splendour of faith before the risen Christ. We believe in the power forever released by the resurrection. This is what built this seminary. This is what sustained its life. With St John Paul II we ‘remember the past with gratitude, live the present with enthusiasm, and look forward to the future with confidence.’[3]

Today, with Our Lady, we sing that song which will never end: the Almighty has done great things for me; the Almighty will do great things for us; and holy is His Name.



[3] John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, 1.