General Chapter 2019
16 May, St Simon Stock
Dearest Mothers and Fathers,
For being who you are, for being priests of such faithfulness, such love of the Lord Jesus, such devoted piety, such – and this is the highest praise I can give – such seriousness.
And such fun to be with.
God has done a wonderful thing in bringing this little community together. It is the Spirit, His Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus that we have each responded to in wanting to be together.
Not, as we have always said, to be some new organisation in the church, some new campaign group, some new initiative. But to be fed, renewed, rested, refreshed.
Here, Aylesford Priory, our times together elsewhere, are times in the desert, a desert that the Lord has promised will bloom:
“Was it not our Lord and Saviour who led us into the desert, as a mark of his favour, so that there he might speak to our hearts with special intimacy? It is not in public, not in the market place, not amid noise and bustle that he shows himself to his friends for their consolation and reveals his secret mysteries to them, but behind closed doors.” (Office of Readings, St Simon Stock)
Firstly, an immense thank you to David (Runcorn) for our conference talks. It is always lovely the way God leads us. When I read David’s book on tears I knew nothing about him, but I knew that he would bring a powerful message to us. And he has.
I have already ordered the book you recommended David, Missing Out. We can miss out on life if we are always regretting what has passed or planning for the future. I brought Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God to read here this week. The Sacrament of the present moment. The hic et nunc, the here and now. We are called to minister to the church as it is, here, now. To be faithful to our bishops as they are (and praying for them as they meet this week) not as we would like them to be, just as they have to put up with us as we are, not as they would like us to be.
I have been developing and delivering a day programme for parishes which I’ve called Growing the Church. What strikes me is the difficulty of moving people on from the moans about our not being the way things used to be, there is a level of despair among many. David has powerfully reminded us that “Lament is the antidote of despair.” The “chaos monsters” are very active in the church, there are as he says, many losses, God is burning away christendom-religion, Victorian religion, and a new, deeper church is emerging “deep church rising” as Andrew Walker puts it.
David told us that
“Lament is missional. It confronts the world as it is with God.”
It is a subtle and careful path between declinism, moaning, woe are we! And healthy lament, but “What”, as David asks “if this is God’s way of calling us into life. Drawn to chance rather than abandoned to it.
So David, a profound thank you for your teaching; your powerful contemplative presence.
Thank you too to Fr Robert for your gentle and prayerful presence with us. Your years of faithful priestly ministry are evident in your ministry to us.
Thank you too to everyone who has helped organised this conference and our common life throughout the year. Members of the Sodality Council, Fr Diego for the liturgy, Fr Sam for all the financial elements and for the refreshments last night, Fr Justin as Clerk and for setting up and helping us adjust to Feedcamp. Fr Simon, new to the Council but bringing all your leadership and management skills honed in headship, to us. Finally thanks to Mother Imogen our assistant Superior. I hope you know how much affection I hold you in and how grateful I am for your support and ribbing!
All this work has enabled me to spend much more time talking and meeting with people, these one to ones are really important. Thank you.
So how are we doing as a Sodality? We continue to grow in numbers. That is good. But our task our aim is not numerical growth but growth in holiness “Because”, as I constantly say, “the world needs holy priests.”
Firstly, I want to say what a joy it has been to receive Mother Ruth as a member of our Sodality and I trust, soon, Fr Jeremy, who was here yesterday. I think the fact that Ruth has felt so welcomed, so able to be at home with us is a sign of our good health. We are not a club, a clique of those who went to certain theological colleges, or who know which should be the first reading at the Office of Readings on the Solemnity of St Simon Stock! The fact that those from the evangelical tradition can be at home with us and join us is a sign that we are coming to maturity as a group. I believe that will happen more and more. And I will talk more about that in a moment
Two years ago when we completed our annual review forms I was concerned about how many of us were ‘between’ spiritual directors that is now a lot better. But my challenge, my charge if you like, is to think about how often you see your spiritual director. Quite frankly given the pressures and stresses of public ministry I think little and often is best. An hour once a month more likely to provide challenge and support than a whole day twice a year. I would also challenge you to think about your practice of confession. I have tried many patterns but what works best for me is weekly confession. It might not work for you but how about trying it?We talk about the renewal of our Catholic tradition but that will only come when we are renewed ourselves. Is it Pope John XXIII who is said to have made his confession daily?
Serious, absolute fidelity to daily Mass, daily Office, regular sacramental confession, regular effective, change-inducing, converting, Spiritual Direction, should be the hallmark of a Sodality priest. And I want to add another element to that:
As I enjoy the variety of expressions of faith in our wonderful Church of England wherever I go, whoever I meet, evangelicals, charismatics – Catholic and Evangelical, progressive Christians, inclusive churches, I hear the same need, the same hunger expressed: the hunger for contemplation. Deep, intense experience of the God who is Deus hic et nunc: God here and now, in the present moment. Martin Laird writes brilliantly on this in his trilogy, do read them. He recommends fidelity to half an hour of silent prayer a day.
The busier we are the more we need that silence. The fuller our diaries are, the more important it is that we put that meditation time in them. That we tell people. “Sorry I can’t come to that meeting, that event because it is my prayer time.”
If we are to face the chaos, to stand, as David did and does at the edge of Bardesy island among the current, the tides, the storms, it is contemplative practice that will keep us faithful. That’s what David has been talking about, chaos and contemplation. And that is missional, it is what everyone needs in their lives, it is our gift to the church.
When we started this little community we talked a lot about Charles de Foucauld, the time he spent with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I am glad we have increased the amount of Adoration time on our conference programme. Could you spend half an hour with the Lord every day. Achieving nothing, doing nothing, just present, as present as Jesus is in the most holy Sacrament? If Sodality priests were known for that it would be a gift that all parts of the church are hungry for.
I hope David will allow me to read his poem that he shared with us yesterday:
Today off the corner of the island of saints
The sea is wild
God’s firstborn have surfaced there
Chaos monsters are at play
There are no rules of course
They simply hurl themselves at everything
Bellowing in primal joy
Laughter booms across the whirlwind
All is drenched in salt and light
The rocks, as they always do,
Sit this one out
Unprovoked by these
Mad wet assaults
They wait for close of play
And a drying wind
Tossed high across the frenzied world
The pilgrims cannot sleep in the storm
Are clinging to rope and mast upon
This wildly pitching Ark of Salvation
Gripping the tiller with white knuckle faith
Eyes straining for the horizon.
They are past wondering if Jesus
cares they are perishing
They are seeking the Farthest Shore
and have staked everything on this
– that the fiercest current of all
My dearest friends, my dear brothers, sisters, Mothers, Fathers,
It is perfect joy to be called to this ministry of priesthood in the church, this church here and now, just as it it is, this wildly pitching Ark of Salvation, where the chaos monsters are at play. I hope that our Sodality, our little community provides you with as much delight, as much joy as it does me. Thank you.
Father Richard Peers