The St Barnabas Society hosted its annual Mass and reception at St Patrick’s, Soho Square on Wednesday 5th November. His Excellency the Apostolic Nuncio celebrated the Mass which was concelebrated by Mgr Keith Newton of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and Fr Richard Biggerstaff, the new director of the Society. Twenty priests, some of whom had been beneficiaries of the Society, also concelebrated. Fr Alexander Sherbrooke preached on the tradition of Barnabas in Milan and the call to the new evangelisation. He reflected on how it was a noble thing to pray for our dead. The Mass this year was a November Mass of Requiem for departed benefactors, beneficiaries and loved ones. The organ was played by the Cambridge organist, Nigel Kerry, who had himself become a Catholic whilst studying for the Anglican ministry in Oxford. Sally Nichols, a trustee of the Society, sang the traditional Requiem introit. Amongst the team of excellent servers was Caleb Steel, the younger son of Fr Jeffrey and Rae Steel. Caleb is pictured with Archbishop Mennini. The Steel family were beneficiaries of the Society. At the reception Fr Richard spoke of the changing face of the diocesan clergy in many of our dioceses. He reflected that in his own diocese of Arundel & Brighton almost a fifth of the active priests were former Anglican clergymen.
Homily of Fr Alexander Sherbrooke
Barnabas was a good man. He could see that God had given grace and as a consequence of his preaching a large number had been won over to the Lord. In truth, he was a man of a new evangelisation and patron of your Society.
There are three elements that come together at this time and make a rather strange mix. We are in the month of November in which we pray for the dead, a noble and holy task. In the last few days, we had November the 5th when Catesby, Fawkes, Percy and their fellow conspirators tried to blow up Parliament. Third, there is Barnabas the Apostle who was a companion of St Paul and was used by God to bring many to know the love of Jesus Christ manifest in the sacraments of the Church.
This is not a history lesson but November the 5th is rather like what we used to do at this time of the year in preparation for Christmas. Often in kitchens, raisins, cherries, dried fruit and sugar would be all mixed together by members of the household to produce the Christmas pudding. It was a real mixture of fruits! Likewise November the 5th was a mixture of different elements. There was hot headedness, political naivety, a shared belonging and in the main practice of the Catholic religion; there was lack of political clear sightedness and acknowledgement as to the significance of the Sacramental seal of Confession. At the same time, there was a hidden acknowledgement by the Protestant interrogators, ministers and torturers of the truth of the Sacraments. This then was followed, as we well know, by an outpouring of anti-Catholic prejudice, persecution and hatred. This prejudice lasted for many years and indeed November the 5th was a red letter day in the Anglican calendar.
So how to make sense of these three different themes? I want to take you to the historical centre of Milan and the church of St Eustorgio. This church which is well known throughout the world and especially in the context of the new evangelisation. It stands on a Christian burial site where graves date from the end of the first Century. Indeed there are funerary monuments which prove that there were practicing Christians in Milan as early as 80 to 90 AD. It is an uncertain tradition whether St Barnabas traveled to Milan. However, in that City he is known as the first bishop. What we can say for certain however, is that Milan can claim to be almost as old as Rome in terms of a Christian community. The preaching of the Gospel, the importance of praying for the dead in the heart of the community and the centrality of Sacramental grace assured by apostolic succession, speaks of all the essential elements of an early Christian community. If you recall in Acts 2 verses 42 to 7 we hear of the essential elements that were in the Christian community which God blessed and through which many were converted.
Travel, if you will, through the 19 centuries to today to the parish of St Eustorgio in Milan. In the last 25 years it has been one of the great centres of the New Evangelisation under the leadership of Don Pigi. It is in that Parish that ‘Cell Groups’ have been particularly blessed and many hundreds of people meet every week in the city who belong to the Parish’s work of evangelisation. In that work, as we will hear, the members are empowered, strengthened and supported to share in the great work of bringing others to know Jesus Christ and to receive the Sacraments.
The Acts of the Apostles tell us how Barnabas was rooted in the Faith and had a true openness to the Holy Spirit. He could see, as we read, how God had given grace which is necessary for salvation. That method or pattern of evangelisation was as true 1900 years ago in Milan as it is today, in the same city. It is a Parish which is alive because it evangelises, loves the teaching of the Apostles, has perpetual Eucharistic Adoration and is dependent on the Holy Spirit.
Going back to November the 5th. The strange thing is that the persecutors who wanted to scapegoat and destroy Catholicism and set to work on the conspirators of the gunpowder plot still acknowledged and believed in the power of the Sacraments and the seal of the confessional. They did not want to live by it but even in their darkness could acknowledge the truth of sacramental grace.
So how are we going to continue to journey with these three different moments?
First, the importance, nobility and holiness of praying for the dead and joining their names to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is something that we learn from the graveyard in St Eustorgio; this is a practice that was rooted in the Christian community from the very beginning. In the name of the Reformation the practice of praying for the dead was persecuted and denied. This question for us: how important and how should we pray for those who have died?
Second, St Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles tells us about the reality of the grace of God. We can suppose and believe that there was a clear acknowledgement that in the breaking of the bread and the confessing of sins, that God’s grace was truly at work. Today the relativism of our world can easily seduce us by the “feel good factor” of a God who benignly blesses our moral flabbiness. The Sacraments stand as a counter-sign and contradiction to the world and our journey to Heaven. What is the relationship between the celebration of the Sacraments and our work of evangelisation?
Third, we are called by the Church clearly in the teachings of Paul VI, St John Paul the II and Pope Francis to commit ourselves to the New Evangelisation. In the Gospel of Matthew we hear of how Jesus instructed his disciples to go out and to take no haversack, gold or silver. He instructed them to believe in the providence of God and thereby to cure the sick and cast out devils. Our evangelisation is not about processes, departments of evangelisation or programmes. It is about a radical belonging to Jesus. St Barnabas and the other apostles in the heart of their being belonged to the Lord. How can we belong more radically to the Lord and so join in this beautiful and important work?
St Barnabas Society Annual Requiem, November 2014