“Et radicavi in populo honorificato.”
“Wisdom took root among an honourable people.”
A year and a day. It is a fairy tale period of time. It is a season laden with meaning. There is something of folklore about it.
After one year and one day a runaway serf was free from his bond. In some jurisdictions, after a year and a day, actions ceased to be admissible as evidence for crime.
After a year and a day something significant has changed. The first anniversary of an event has passed. We understand that life will go on, though in a slightly different way. A year and a day is, perhaps, a marker on the road where the present passes into history, even into mythology, and when events, both good and bad, become examples, even archetypes, markers for our lives.
One year and one day ago, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II died. We pray for the repose of her soul.
On her twenty-first birthday, Princess Elizabeth made a promise to the Kingdom and the Commonwealth: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”
One year and one day ago, on the Feast of Our Lady’s Birthday, we knew for certain that Elizabeth II had, with the help of God, made good her vow.
This is something which should strike a chord with those devoted to our Holy Father St Philip. We have an expression in the Oratory that “the true son of St Philip is known at his burial”. It is perseverance to the end that counts.
We observed all this with the Queen as closely as if she had been the head of our own family. We saw the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows of her life; the weddings and funerals, Jubilees and times of national crisis; the Annus Horribilis; the malice of the press and the sometimes threatening murmurings of the crowd; a private life lived in public, and a public life that made privacy almost impossible; and we marvelled that throughout all this she never complained, never explained, but simply grasped that the most important thing is simply to turn up, whatever the weather, in spite of the public mood, however one may feel.
St Philip did not appoint his fifteenth Prime Minister in the days before he died, but he died exactly as he had lived fulfilling the duties of his own state in life. This is how Fr Bacci describes it in his biography of our Saint read each day at our meals:
Philip began very early in the morning hearing the confessions of his spiritual children, just as if he was in perfect health. The confessions being ended, he recited the Canonical Hours with extraordinary devotion, and then said Mass in his little chapel two hours earlier than his usual time. Having finished his Mass he gave Communion to several; and after he had made his thanksgiving, they brought him a little broth, at which the Saint said, “They think that I am quite recovered, but it is not so.” He then went again to the confessional, and received all who came with the greatest sweetness, caressing and embracing them more than usual. He said Vespers and Compline with more than ordinary devotion; the rest of the day he spent partly in receiving those who came to see him and partly in listening to the Lives of the Saints....Philip said the Matins of the following day, though the rest of that day’s Office he was to finish with the angels and saints in Paradise.
To die in such a way is a singular gift of God, almost a sign of divine favour. It is the demonstration of a vocation fulfilled; the sign of integrity of faith and work; the eloquent witness to a life lived in such as a way as to be always ready for death; and to a prayer that has been often made and finally answered: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.” It is a sign that wisdom has taken root among an honourable people.
In 1381, another English monarch made a vow whose consequences have echoed throughout history. Richard II (also very young at the time) went to pray at the shrine of St Edward the Confessor and to the Shrine of Our Lady of Pew. The young king was about to confront Wat Tyler, the leader of at the Peasants' Revolt, in the hope of subduing his rebellious subjects. He vowed that if the revolt were quelled, he would offer his realm as the Dowry of Our Lady. His courage bore fruit and England was given to the Our Blessed Lady, an offering to God through the Mother of God, the gift of a grateful king. Wisdom took root among an honourable people.
Walsingham, of course, had by this time already been a place of pilgrimage for three hundred years. In 1061, just in time for the upheaval of the Norman Conquest, Our Lady promised to the Lady Richeldis de Faverches that whoever might seek her help in the Holy House Richeldis was to build “will not go away empty-handed.”
And so we are here today, Fathers and Brothers, Parishioners and Friends of the English Oratories amid our own ups and downs, joys and sorrows, carrying the cross the Lord gives us to bear in our own particular place in history. We have many things for which to give thanks and many important intentions to pray for. We are threatened by dangers from within and dangers from without. We bring our petitions with confidence because we know that Our Lady of Walsingham has been here for a thousand years of our country’s history, wisdom among an honourable people. She has seen wars with our enemies and civil wars between those who ought to be friends; she has seen corrupt politicians and even a few good ones; she has seen religious error and has experienced destruction. But she is still here and we have come to her.We will not go away empty-handed.
Kings and Queens are called to make great promises in the sight of all their people. Religious from the great orders make their Solemn Vows. As the children of St Philip ours is a different calling. Our vocation is to follow St Philip in loving to be unknown, and knowing that obedience is the shortest path to virtue; to be one with St John Henry, our Cardinal, in grasping that “if we wish to be perfect we have nothing more to do than perform the ordinary duties of the day well’; to learn from Fr Faber that “perfection consists simply in docility to the Holy Spirit’s inspirations”.
We come to the Holy House of Walsingham knowing that the spirit of Nazareth that we find in this place is the same spirit as breathes through the life of St Philip. The Angel Gabriel found Our Lady at home, we might almost say in her nest, in the Holy House of Nazareth, faithful to the Law of her people, full of confidence and hope that God would come to the help of his servant Israel, quietly busy with the duties of her state in life. She needed no public promise or vow. “Thy will be done!”
The task was formidable.
“You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end."
The assaults of the Devil were to be unabating. The same is true in every age whenever a great work for God is to be done. “Do not be afraid,” the Angel says. “With God nothing will be impossible." And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." When we persevere in doing what is right, in bad times as well as in good, then wisdom will continue to take root among an honourable people because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.