12:40 PM 3/23/2014 —
When the Son of Man, the First-born of the creation of God, came to the evening of His mortal life, He parted with His disciples at a feast. He had borne “the burden and heat of the day;” yet, when “wearied with His journey,” He had but stopped at the well's side, and asked a draught of water for His thirst; for He had “meat to eat which” others “know not of.” His meat was “to do the will of Him that sent Him, and to finish His work;” “I must work the works of Him that sent Me,” said He, “while it is day; the night cometh, when no man can work.” Thus passed the season of His ministry; and if at any time He feasted with Pharisee or publican, it was in order that He might do the work of God more strenuously.
Those words were preached by Cardinal Newman, whom I've quoted to you many times over the years, under very difficult circumstances. At the time, he was the Anglican chaplain of Oxford University; and, as pastor of the university parish, he was responsible not only for the spiritual welfare of the students and faculty, but also for the servant class who catered to them. He rarely got the opportunity to preach on Sunday morning at the university church because there was usually a guest preacher; but, with money he had borrowed from his mother, he built a small chapel off the university grounds in the neighborhood of Littlemore, in which he provided Vespers for the “lower-born” members of his flock; and there he could preach.
The day that sermon was preached was an auspicious occasion, as it was the anniversary of the dedication of that chapel at Littlemore; but, for John Henry Newman, it was an even more important day: it was the day he had made the decision to leave the Church of England and embark on a spiritual journey which would, in just a few years time, see him received into the Catholic Church. He entitled the sermon “The Parting of Friends.”
As you have no doubt heard or read in today's bulletin, today is my last day as your parish priest. If you find the news shocking and sudden, you should know that it is no less for me, as I received the news only last Monday. What I've written for you in the short letter included with today's bulletin is all the information I have; thus, you know all that I know. There is no secret information being withheld from you.
The last time I was in this situation, just before coming here thirteen years ago, I took the occasion to preach a long, rambling homily which reminisced about all the major events that had taken place during my years in the parish, thanked all the relevant people who needed to be thanked, reminded my parishioners of so many points I wanted them to remember, and encouraged them to love and respect the priest who followed me. I'm not going to do that this time because, first of all, I don't have the physical or emotional strength to do it, but also because you don't need to hear it. The events that have taken place we all remember; the people whom I would thank have never asked or sought after thanks; and, if you show Father Frank even half of the love, devotion, respect and cooperation that you've shown me over the years, he will do well, and you will do well under his kind and gentle spiritual guidance.
But, back to Cardinal Newman, if you will allow. And this story I know you've heard before. When Newman was in his 20's—around 1830 or so—he made a trip to Italy to see the Catholic Church there. The practice of the Catholic Faith was still restricted in England at the time; and, being a religious man, he wanted to see first hand what it was like. What he saw there horrified him: statues, the veneration of relics, a faith which he thought to be very far removed from the Bible-oriented faith of his youth.
On the trip back, the boat he was riding was becalmed in the Mediterranean for several weeks. He became ill with fever, and began to think about where his life was taking him. Already by that time, because of his study of the Fathers of the Church, he had questioned whether his own Church of England was the one true Church. It was there, on that boat, that he wrote his most famous hymn, which is still sung in many Protestant churches today:
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom—
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—
One step enough for me.
Now, if you had been able to go back in your time machine, and talk to Newman at that point, and if you had told him that he would die a Cardinal of the Roman Church and a defender of the Catholic Faith, he probably would have committed suicide. But that's exactly what happened. And when he was in his eighties, just a few years before he died, he looked back on his life, and expressed his thoughts in an epic poem called The Dream of Gerontius, a dramatic portrayal of death and judgment, part of which became another famous hymn, which is still sometimes sung in Roman Catholic churches:
Praise the to Holiest in the Height,
And in the Depth be praise:
In all his works most wonderful;
Most sure in all His ways!
He could look back on his life, on all the changes he had been through, and all the pain that they caused, and see them as part of a deliberate plan on the part of God to bring him to where he now stood. And yet, during all those difficult years of uncertainty and confusion, God never once revealed to him where he was taking him, or even gave him a hint about it, but rather required him to have faith that he was, indeed, “Most sure in all His ways!”
But, while God is certainly sure in all his ways, we are often not; but, there is one thing of which you, as a parish family, can be certain, and that is the commitment of your bishop to the survival and recovery of this parish. It would have been easy to close it; but instead, he sends it the gift of a new priest, one who can provide the kind of care and attention that I no longer can. So, as heartbreaking as this day is for me—and I flatter myself to think for some of you as well—it is also a day of rejoicing. Let your first Sunday with Father Frank be a new beginning, but always remembering, of course, that God's ways are often not our own.
When we celebrated together the twenty-fifth anniversary of my ordination to the Holy Priesthood two years ago, I had told you that, next to my ordination, the greatest joy of my life was being given the honor of serving you as your pastor. That was not boilerplate speech-making; it came from my heart. As I leave here, I ask of you only one thing:—aside from, of course, your prayers, which I'm sure I already have—and that is that you not forget me, in the hope that this occasion is, as it should be, “The Parting of Friends.”
As I began my last homily in this church with the words of Cardinal Newman, allow me to end it in the same way, the way he ended his last sermon to the congregation in Littlemore:
And, O my brethren, O kind and affectionate hearts, O loving friends, should you know any one whose lot it has been, by writing or by word of mouth, in some degree to help you thus to act; if he has ever told you what you knew about yourselves, or what you did not know; has read to you your wants or feelings, and comforted you by the very reading; has made you feel that there was a higher life than this daily one, and a brighter world than that you see; or encouraged you, or sobered you, or opened a way to the inquiring, or soothed the perplexed; if what he has said or done has ever made you take interest in him, and feel well inclined towards him; remember such a one in time to come, though you hear him not, and pray for him, that in all things he may know God's will, and at all times he may be ready to fulfill it.