Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Dear Abbot Hugh and brother Canons Regular of Prémontré
Dear friends and guests
In this celebration of Holy Mass tonight, on the Feast of the Archangels, it is with unbounded joy that we inaugurate formally this church and site as the Priory of Our Lady of Sorrows and induct Fr Stephen as Parish Priest. I am delighted to welcome you, dear Norbertine brothers, to Peckham and to the Archdiocese of Southwark; and especially so in this 900th Jubilee Year of your Order’s foundation by St Norbert. Despite his strict discipline, I was encouraged to learn that, while in Paris, St Norbert was inspired by the Canons of St Victor who adopted the ascetic ideals of William of Champagne; so there’s hope for us all.
I extend my sincere gratitude to the parishioners here at Our Lady of Sorrows for welcoming the Norbertine Community so warmly and generously; and to parishioners from Chelmsford, some who are here tonight, where the Norbertines served previously for fourteen years. By God’s kind providence we are blessed to see a new chapter opening in the religious life of this parish under Our Lady’s maternal protection.
The Church of Our Lady of Sorrows was designed by Edward Welby Pugin, son of ‘God’s architect,’ the great Augustus Welby Pugin. It was opened in 1866 under the pastoral oversight of the Capuchin Franciscans with the adjacent Friary completed later in 1884. Since the year 2000, the parish has been shepherded by diocesan priests and, most recently, by Vincentian missionaries from Nigeria who now have a new parish in Camberwell. The legacy of Catholic faith, worship, and evangelisation, for which we are all extremely thankful, is now entrusted to you, dear brothers. We invoke the intercession of Our Lady and St Norbert that you might bring renewal to this parish and community through a ‘monastery in the city,’ a beacon which shines brightly with the light and love of Christ.
Of course, the Norbertine Order has a venerable history in South London and Kent. In a sense, we could say welcome back to the roots planted long before the Reformation and then so tragically displaced. There was an original Premonstratensian Community in Brockley around the year 1182. This merged with the Norbertines at Otham to establish Bayham Abbey in Sussex which survived until Henry VIII’s tyrannical assault upon Catholic England. Still today, St Norbert’s Road in Brockley recalls the historic link between the Nobertines and South London, one now happily restored by your presence and ministry here in Peckham. The arms of your Priory capture aptly the indefatigable truth of Christian hope: ‘If God is for us, who can be against.’ (Rm 8:31)
The Feast of the Archangels – Michael, Gabriel and Raphael – is a wonderful occasion for all that we entrust to Almighty God today. In blending your contemplative and apostolic vocation, each of you, dear brothers, can take to heart the archangelic significance of Michael – God’s likeness, of Gabriel – God’s strength, and of Raphael – God’s healing. How greatly we need you to be like God among us, to reveal concretely in your service God’s Fatherly loving presence and closeness. How we need you to witness to God’s steadfastness in what are changing and challenging times, in the face of fears, worries and uncertainties. How we need you, in our fragility, brokenness and sin, to be channels and instruments of God’s healing and mercy. Your mission here is to be holy messengers who bring to life the joy of salvation in Christ, encouraging people in that holiness you yourselves inhabit. Please understand me correctly when I say please do not be angels in disguise. Be seen and be known, visible and audible servants of Christ who walk these streets as a blessing to whomever you encounter.
Without detracting from these lofty truths, I have to tell you that, pondering today’s Feast, I thought of you recently while walking to my local Tesco Express. The short route from Archbishop’s House takes me past the end of a row of terraced housing. High up, among the red bricks, is a stone carved with a winged angel blowing a trumpet. It signals and brings together two indispensable qualities of your ministry: to praise God in worship and to herald the Good News.
Foundational to your vocation and communal life is the praise of God, through your devotion to Our Lord Jesus in the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament, in signing the Divine Office, in honouring Our Lady, especially her conceived immaculately; doing all this, and more, through the virtue of monastic stability. Your life-long commitment to your community is an act of praise and self-abandonment to God all in itself. You will find and praise God here, or you will find God nowhere. Your spiritual search is not a roving geographic fancy. It can only be primarily an interior journey of the heart, a way of conversion for yourself which overflows towards helping others turn to Christ. The praise of God is where everything originates. The praise of God is where everything finds completion. By your fidelity and worship you give witness to the unceasing glory of the Thrice Holy God, before whom we cry out with the angels – Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Hosts.
I am pretty sure that none of you has wings, but not whether any of you plays the trumpet. Your mission here is to sound the glorious hymn of our redemption in Christ. Your mission is to announce and reveal the truths and mysteries of faith, in St Norbert’s words: ‘not of yourself, because you are of God… not of yourself, because you are the servant and minister of Christ…not on your own, because you are the spouse of the Church… not of yourself, because you are the mediator between God and man.’ Your missionary proclamation of Christ cannot be shrill or discordant, but rather something melodious, an invitational serenade to hear and to take to heart the Good Shepherd’s call to life.
I have no idea how many fig trees there might be in Peckham. But I believe, dear brothers, that you will find figurative fig trees everywhere. Look out for people under the fig tree. The fig tree of the church roof, under the roofs of homes, schools and hospitals, under doorways and lampposts. As you seek out people for Christ embody for them the Son of God and his look of love. With your baptised brothers and sisters build up this parish and community, this portion of the Kingdom placed in your hands. Draw from the talents of God’s holy people as fellow-workers in the praise of God and the proclamation of the Gospel. As you give yourselves to your people, help them to become missionaries and evangelists. With them look for anyone and everyone who needs a glimpse of heaven laid open. Remember with special concern the weakest and the poorest, those for whom life’s fig tree casts a shadow of suffering, sadness and need. Lead them gently towards Christ’s light as you nourish both soul and body.
The Rule of St Augustine, on which St Norbert based your religious life, begins simply and straightforwardly: ‘Before all else, dear brothers, love God and then your neighbour, because these are the chief commandments given to us.’ May this instruction take flesh here, for your holiness of life, for the upbuilding of this parish and community, and for the sanctification of everyone Our Lord places in your care.
May God bless your service, now and in the many, many years to come. Amen.