‘He knows what he is about’
A year ago today, the Fathers and some of our parishioners were in the Pope’s Cathedral of St John Lateran, together with bishops and priests of England and Oratorians from all over the world, for the Mass of Thanksgiving following the canonisation of St John Henry Newman our Cardinal. This was the end of an unforgettable weekend of prayer and celebration, culminating in the Holy Father enrolling St John Henry among the saints of the Church at a Mass in St Peter’s Square on Sunday. It was a moment of immense pride and joy for us: not only was Newman’s portrait hung in the very centre of the facade of the basilica, but our own Brothers Benedict and Henry had been chosen to be deacons for the Pope, standing next to the Holy Father as he canonised five new saints.
The celebrations continued back home in England, beginning with a lecture by the famous evangelist Bishop Robert Barron in the University Church here in Oxford, and then Masses of Thanksgiving in the London and Birmingham Oratories and Vespers in Westminster Cathedral. Yet in the midst of all the joy came a moment of profound sadness. Fr Jerome, who had been battling cancer for two years, died suddenly while some of the Fathers were visiting him in Sobell House. Fr Jerome had touched so many lives throughout his forty years of priesthood, through his extensive writings, through his preaching, and especially in the confessional. He was and is a great loss to the Oratory family and is still greatly missed. Our own Mass of Thanksgiving took place the day after Fr Jerome returned to the Father’s House, and while we were grieving our loss, we could give thanks to God not only for our new saint, but also for the life of another faithful Oratorian priest and scholar, and pray for his soul.
November saw more cause for Oratorian rejoicing as the Pope set up a new Oratory in Manchester and gave independence to the community in York. This was a bitter-sweet moment for, although we are grateful that our Cardinal’s dream to have an Oratory in every major city in this country is closer to being realised, our own community was halved to create the York Oratory.
No one could have guessed at the time how the world would change in the following months, as we were confronted with the coronavirus pandemic and entered into “lock-down”: no public Masses or sacraments for three months, including over the most sacred days of the Easter Triduum, and the unfamiliar experience of preaching, praying and celebrating via live-streaming. But this too has been bitter-sweet: many people who might never have had the courage to come to church before are now wanting to know more about our Lord and his Church and are under instruction to become Catholics, and many Catholics have rediscovered their hunger for the Eucharist and for Confession. We have begun a new Sunday Mass to accommodate all those wanting to come to church.
There are many times in the Christian life, even in the most difficult of times, when it is easy for us to sing, “Praise to the holiest in the height, and in the depth be praised”, and equally as many times when all we can ask is for the “kindly light” to lead us “amid the encircling gloom”. Newman is a saint not because of his theological writings on conscience or the development of doctrine, nor his cardinalatial red hat, but because he trusted and hoped in our God who “knows what He is about”, despite the sorrows and disappointments and failures of his life — and there were many. That trust and hope changed the religious landscape of our country, brought St Philip’s family to England, and has inspired countless men and women since.
We do not know what the next twelve months will hold for us. But we do know that there will be many causes for rejoicing, and many sorrows and losses. “Still, He knows what He is about.” In all of this, our Cardinal can be our guide:
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.