Mass for Deceased Clergy, St George’s Cathedral, Southwark – 10 November 2013

Mass for Deceased Clergy, St George’s Cathedral, Southwark – 10 November 2013

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Dear brothers in the ordained ministry

On the Via Giulia, one of Rome’s most exclusive streets, stands a Church with a curious dedication: to St Mary of the Prayer and Death. It was built in 1575 as the headquarters of the Society of a Good Death, a religious confraternity founded to bury the deceased poor, many of whom were retrieved daily from the river Tiber. The Church had a mortuary to house the dead respectfully until their funeral. Under the patronage of Our Lady of Sorrows it was, quite literally, a place of ‘Prayer and Death.’

Still visible on the Church’s façade is an ominous marble plaque. It depicts a hunched, winged skeleton – the personification of the Angel of Death. A bony hand holds out a motto to all who pass by: hodie mihi, cras tibi. It is death, speaking to us from beyond the grave, reminding us ‘what is mine today is yours tomorrow.’ This momento mori is slightly more intimidating than the epitaph a priest I know wants on his tombstone. To capture the dynamism of his ministry, he would like inscribed: ‘Paralysed by Zeal.’

What is mine today is yours tomorrow.’ During November, as autumn gives way to winter, we remember prayerfully those whose earthly pilgrimage is complete. For them, and for all of us, we believe there are many rooms in our Father’s house. And we believe, too, that it is Christ who is the way, in truth, to a blessed eternity.

The two liturgies that begin this month of the Holy Souls set the tone for each of its days. We keep alive in our hearts the Church’s communion with the saints in heaven, alongside her interceding commemoration of the faithful departed.The saints bear witness to our hope that nothing – nothing, nothing, nothing – not even death, ‘can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.’(Rom 8:38-39)

It is right and just that we offer Mass in our Mother Church for the deceased bishops, priests, and deacons of our Archdiocese, and those who have served our Archdiocese. We remember especially those who have died during the pandemic, for whom it was not possible to have the kind of funeral we would have wanted, including for my beloved predecessor Archbishop Peter.

Our brothers in Christ so often celebrated, or assisted at, the Eucharist for others in times of loss and grief. Now we do the same for them, commending them to God’s mercy, praying that they who were united to Christ in a death like His may also be one with Him in His resurrection. Writing on such Christian hope, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recalled: ‘The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today.’ (Spe Salvi, 48)

In praying for our departed brothers we continue the tradition of the early Christians who celebrated the Mass over the tombs of the martyrs. It is here, at the altar, that our prayer for the dead is most potent. Not because of us, but because of Christ. In the Eucharist we, and all with whom we stand in spiritual solidarity, are caught up into the great act of redemption. Christ, says St Paul, not only died for us, immense though this would have been. No, even more magnificently, He rose from the dead and stands forever, pleading for us, at God’s right hand. (cf. Rom 8:34) Trouble, worry, persecution or attack are no match for such death-defying love. We triumph through Him who loves us like no other. To anyone frightened by evil, we give witness that there is no ultimate competition. Easter’s victory is love. A promised place of grace and mercy has been prepared for us by the Risen Lord.  

‘Between the Word taking flesh,’ says St Augustine ‘and the flesh rising again, death, which came between, was consumed.’[i]Christ consumed death so that we might consume life. He, who offered Himself on the cross, shares His risen life through the bread and wine, transformed into His body and blood in the Mass, to be consumed as the food and drink of heaven. Our all-consuming union with Christ is foreshadowed in the sacrifice of the Mass. We pray this pledge of future glory brings not judgement and condemnation, but protection and healing through the Lord’s loving mercy. We consume Christ now so as to participate in His life in the world to come.

Our deceased brother bishops, priests, and deacons shared the same privilege we have. They before us, and we still now, raise the pattern and elevate the chalice, uttering in Christ: ‘Through him, and with him, and in him.’ This is the authentic epitaph for every disciple. Whatever their struggles or imperfections, our brothers knew whose love captured their hearts. They knew whose strength sustained their service. They knew whose mercy and grace flowed through their ministry. We pray that anything lacking in them is pardoned and perfected ‘though him, and with him, and in him.’

I read recently a book called The Last Homily, a series of conversations with an American priest, Fr Arne Panula, recorded as he moved through the final stages of terminal cancer until his death in July 2017. It struck me that there will come a time for all of us clergy to preach a last homily. This will be true, of course, in a liturgical sense, even though we might not know when. But perhaps, more importantly, it will be true through the homily we preach in our personal dying on the way towards rebirth in eternal life. The foreword to the book about Fr Panula has these words: ‘And when the time for his Passover came…those who loved him and shared his Easter faith knew that it was less a matter of losing a friend than of gaining an intercessor.’[1] May this be true of all our brothers.

It is never death who truly says to us hodie mihi, cras tibi – ‘what is mine today is yours tomorrow.’ It is only ever Christ. It is Christ who promises that everything He has now, all He has received from the Father, will be ours. His present is our future. His eternity is our destiny.

May our brother bishops, priests, and deacons, whom we remember with deep affection and gratitude in this Mass, experience the fullness of Christ’s life as we offer for them His sacrifice, raising high the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation.

Eternal Rest grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen

✠ John Wilson

Archbishop of Southwark

[1] Mary Eberstadt, ed., The Last Homily – Conversations with Fr Arne Panula, Emmaus Road Publishing, 2018, xiii. The Foreword is by George Weigel.

[i] Tractates on the Gospel of John 26.10.