Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
When I was a boy there was a hymn we used to sing at primary school which I loved. It conjured up all kinds of pictures in my youthful imagination. It might be familiar to others here from their school days. It begins like this:
When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old
He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold
With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand
For God and for valour he rode through the land.
These words came to mind when I thought of you, dear Neville, and the honour of Knighthood of the Pontifical Order of St Gregory the Great, bestowed upon you by our Holy Father.
All that we celebrate today, with you and for you, with immense pride and gratitude, flows from you answering that decisive question put by Our Lord to anyone who would follow Him: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Your life has been, and continues to be, shaped by the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God and that the Church He founded on the Rock of Peter’s faith ‘subsists in the Catholic Church.’ (LG 8)
Your personal journey of faith and witness brought you into full communion with the Catholic Church. In addition, and unassumingly, since 1991 you have exercised national leadership of Aid to the Church in Need UK, the Pontifical Foundation, working internationally, to support Catholics and other Christians who face persecution, oppression, and pastoral hardship. This mission, and your contribution to it, are echoed in St Paul’s words to the fledgling Christian community in Thessalonica: ‘we have come to love you so much, that we were eager to hand over to you, not only the Good News, but our whole lives as well.’
The Papal Knighthood of St Gregory requires ‘proven loyalty to the Holy See.’ This is certainly true of you Neville. But there is even something more at stake. This award recognises your particular commitment, in the most practical and missionary ways, to our brothers and sisters in the suffering Church, something so close to your own heart. The shield on your arm is one of solidarity with them, in, through, and with Christ. From the lance in your hand flies the flag of resurrection, that preeminent sign of triumph over devastation and even over death. The chivalry we celebrate is deeply ecclesial, ‘like a mother feeding and looking after her own children,’ with true devotion, constant protection, and unfailing love.
I want to record the gratitude of the Church to you Neville, for your service through Aid to the Church in Need. Of course, without your colleagues, a network of volunteers, and countless generous supporters, ACN simply could not operate. But someone needs to guide and direct this vital mission. There is, I hope today, a real sense of reflected glory. Like the ripples from a pebble dropped into a pond, this award reaches out, from you, to all those who are share the work of ACN. Thank you, Neville, for your vision and dedication.
That hymn’s second verse says ‘And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead.’ True, of course, in one sense. But sadly, not in another. Today the dragons breathe a different kind of fire, one that ignites hatred and persecution. The threats come from the refusal to accept and uphold the innate dignity of every human being, from crushing the right to religious freedom. The threats come from discrimination against religious belief and practice which leads to violence, imprisonment, torture and murder. The threats come from political and religious injustice, motivated by tyranny and totalitarianism, driving Christians into fearful hiding, forcing them to flee their homes as refugees. Knights on horseback, roaming in armour, may be no more. But we must speak up. We must stand up. ‘Having fastened on the belt of truth, and put on the breastplate of righteousness,’ (Eph 6:14) we must act.
‘You are Peter,’ said the Lord Jesus, ‘and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.’ Neville, thank you for witnessing to this truth and the hope which rises from the Gospel of Salvation: ‘the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.’ May your legacy at ACN continue to bear fruit. We ask the Lord to give us renewed courage to proclaim His Good News. And we ask the intercession of Our Blessed Lady, Mother of the Suffering Church.
Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
‘Gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed
And let me set free with the sword of my youth
From the castle of darkness the power of truth