Pastoral letter and thought for the week - All Saints
Have you ever met a saint? I suppose most of us, if asked that question would say yes, we have.
That is not surprising. For most of us, in common parlance a saint is someone who is very good – perhaps a person who has coped with a great deal of trouble perhaps “Oh she is such a saint.” We might perhaps mean someone who is a good in terms of care for others.
Another meaning that we might refer to is someone whom we regard as a good Christian. In New Testament times the term Saint referred to any and every member of a Christian community. So, for example, St Paul could write to “The Saints who are at Ephesus.” (Ephesians 1:1)
But none of those general descriptions are what we mean when we refer to the glorious Feast of All Saints. Over the centuries the term Saint has come to refer to those men and women who are recognized by official ecclesiastical declaration by the Church as having an exceptional degree of holiness or likeness or closeness to God. The recognition of sanctity may well, often has, begun by popular acclamation; but nevertheless, the formal recognition by the Church is required before they can be officially described as ‘a saint.’ The saints are those, who by their exceptional Christian character are declared to stand already in the closer presence of God. At All Saints we give thanks to God for the witness and example of the Saints through the ages. We also ask the Saints to pray for us as we follow our earthly pilgrimage.
By contrast on All Souls Day, we pray for those who have died but who are not yet in the closer presence of God. They are not saints. Now, referring to the above, this does not mean that they are bad, or not quite good enough! Rather, they are in death like almost all of us in life – a mixture of good and not so good, certainly not quite ready yet for heaven. In classic Christian teaching, the faithful departed are on a journey of purification along the journey to the perfection of the Saints. Our prayer is our way of continuing to show real practical love for someone even after they have died.
The saints do not need our prayers – they are already in heaven. The faithful departed are not in heaven yet, and we pray for them as they journey on.
What does that mean for us now, in our present situation? Read on!
Now as we know the Prime Minister has declared another ‘lockdown’ for about a month. As a part of that lockdown, churches are once again to be closed for public worship – though thankfully not this time for private prayer. I am totally opposed to that decision to cease public worship. A huge number of people including senior bishops and Church leaders from across the spectrum have written of their objection to the Prime Minister and individual MPs. I can do no better than quote directly from a letter recently published by the Bishops of The Society
Our nation is facing a crisis of a scale and proportion unknown for over seventy years and as we write we are acutely aware of the desperate needs of those whose work is insecure, whose businesses face bankruptcy, whose education is being disrupted, whose mental health is being damaged by fear and anxiety and who can barely afford to feed their children.
We are equally aware of the extraordinary energy, agility and imagination that so many of you have demonstrated in recent months as you have risen to the task of meeting the spiritual and physical needs of the people you serve. The dedication you have shown has been profoundly moving to witness and we take great pride in the ministry you have offered.
But all that we do as God’s people flows from our worship. The Mass is and must always be the very heart and centre of our lives, our gravest duty, our sweetest joy. As we meet the Lord at his altar, we are inspired to serve and to witness. Without the Mass, ministry becomes meaningless and any acts of love and service are swiftly rendered unsustainable. We can never allow our worship to be seen as dispensable, nor can we collude with a culture that wishes to see it as one activity amongst others. The Mass is literally a matter of life and death. Without regular re-orientation towards the life of God in the Mass, we are lost, we are nothing.
That is why the decision that has been made by HM Government and which will be debated later this week in parliament to suspend public worship for a second time this year is such a grave one, and we write above all with the assurance of our prayers as you lead your people through this wilderness. We are aware of a profound disappointment, bordering on anger, in many of our congregations, an expression of the deep longing of the people of England to gather for worship.
We are very grateful to Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop McMahon for the measured lead they have taken and the wise words they have spoken in recent days. Our experience is that the Mass has been offered in the parishes we serve with huge care and great attention to safety and so we too would ask for clear evidence of transmission of the virus within congregations before we felt able to support even a brief second suspension of public worship. We express our solidarity with the Cardinal and the Archbishop in asking HM Government to rethink this aspect of the Regulations which will be presented to Parliament later in the week.
Of course we acknowledge our duty as subjects of Her Majesty to play our part in overcoming this deadly danger to our national life. Should the Regulations be passed as they now stand, we look to our priests to act strictly within the law and suspend all public worship as they will have been directed to do.
However the sacraments of the Church are life-giving not just for us but for the nation and we cannot simply turn off the source of sacramental grace. We therefore urge our priests to use their imaginations once again in celebrating the Mass within the law as local context allows
And that is exactly what I shall do, here at St Stephen’s. Morning and Evening prayer (as it always is) will be said daily for the whole parish we are called to serve. The Mass will be offered most days though, unless the ‘rules’ change, without a congregation. I shall continue to support as best I can the lonely and separated from our congregation and community and of course, without hesitation, I shall respond to those in urgent need of the sacraments of the Church.
But what has this to do with All Saints and All Souls? Well, I think a great deal. If we look to the Saints we can gain a sense of perspective. They have faced situations which even by comparison to today, are beyond our ken. The Holy Martyrs gave their lives in times of persecution, many gave their lives in the service of other. Many were tortured in the most horrible of ways. Others fought against error; others again risked everything in spreading the Faith to others. Many gave everything they had in support of others less fortunate than themselves. All of these and more, in the face of terrible difficulties, maintained their faith in the love of God and the kingship of Jesus over all creation.
In these times of trial and difficulty we need to gain a bigger, a wider perspective so that we can recognise even in the darkness the light of the resurrection of Jesus. A proper understanding of the lives of the Saints can help us do just that.
And of All Souls? Well, as I said earlier, the primary purpose of All Souls is to give us an opportunity to aid the departed along their journey to God. As once again we are locked down many will need our help. Not least there will be those who need practical help in obtaining food and other supplies. Yet more will be terribly lonely and isolated. In all those situations we can help. Some shopping, a phone call, a letter, a card through the door. All these things can make a world of difference to someone who feels trapped by four walls day in and day
Century after century the saints have borne witness to the fact that the prime act of our Christian practice is to receive Holy Communion, which is our union with Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, which also joins us together in his Mystical Body - the Church. The shutting down of public worship will hamper that when we need it most. As the Saints show us however, three things will be important for us in the next weeks: “Digging deep into our life of prayer and cultivating a profound relationship with the Lord; allowing our faith to bear fruit in care of our neighbour; being a people of hope, carrying the hope of Christ in our lives.” (Cardinal Vincent Nicholls)
The Mass, our prayer and our practical support are part of what it is to be a Christian, As Pope Francis put it: “You pray for people then you feed them – that’s how prayer works.”
With my love and prayers,