Wednesday, May 4, 2011
St. George's Day - Fr. Damian Feeney
Homily given by Fr Damian Feeney, vice principal of St Stephen's House, on St. George's Day, 2 May 2011. (Readings: Rev xii.7-12 2 Tim ii: 3-13: John xv.18-21.)
As a small and rather pious boy, I recall a conversation with my mother which she has doubtless forgotten, (and will therefore deny!) but which set a train of thought going that continues to this day. In a quest for rather premature careers advice, I asked her, after the manner of Doris Day, what I should become. Rather splendidly, she advised me that I should become a saint. She painted an attractive picture of sainthood, and heaven, which has never quite left me; nor has her parting shot, which betrayed the all-too human struggle beneath her lofty sentiments. ‘Be a saint, but don’t be a martyr’ she said. Martyrs had a hard time of it, because they had to die to win the crown, and that was perhaps not calculated to be an appealing job description for a six-year old child. I think with the passing of the years, both of us would see the flaws in that statement. But it was good enough for a precocious boy. Of course, the call of the Christian life for us all is a call to holiness, to virtue, to self-renunciation, and to the rule of love. Saints don’t theorise about sanctity, but rather live it, expound upon it, proclaim it. Often the sacrifices saints are called to make are as a result of doing these things well – of shaping virtuous lives and souls in a less than perfect world. Those who have undergone martyrdom have in some sense experienced the same consequence of God-centred living that Jesus did – words, thoughts and actions considered too dangerous, too subversive, for the places and times in which they occurred.
There are three words which haunt the preacher who turns to hagiography for inspiration. They are the words ‘little is known’. This opening to a sentence, or paragraph, about a saint may make us groan; it is certainly the case for St. George, venerated as a martyr and swathed in popular legend. Importantly, George’s tradition and cult has been remarkable, both in the history of the church and in his position as Patron of this land. Indeed, it may well be that his lack of local association led to an easing of his passage towards being our Patron Saint. Not merely in this country, but throughout Western Europe and indeed in the writings of Islam, George is revered as an heroic figure who was faithful, courageous, and who endured to death.
A Martyr, of course, is a supreme witness to the truth of the faith, even to death. He or she endures death through fortitude, offering their very being into God’s hands to dispose as He will. It is the ultimate recognition that our life is ‘not I, but Christ in me’ and that all we are and have is given to us through the Grace and generosity of God. It is an act of profound love and trust, intimately related to our crucified saviour, as the need to witness to the truth of the faith supercedes and transcends our earthly being.
We live in an age when martyrdom is misunderstood. A 12 year old walks in to a regimental barracks in Mardan, Pakistan, and detonates the bomb which brings to an end not only his own life, but that of 31 others; all on the promise of glorious martyrdom. That isn’t martyrdom – it’s murderous suicide. However we may feel about it, there will be those who will see Osama Bin Laden’s death earlier today as a martyrdom. This casts a pall over the very notion of martyrdom in the world, for there can be nothing that is holy about willing and bringing about the murder of thousands of people. None of this can be of a piece with seeking and witnessing to the truth; it is rather a gross perversion of it.
Alongside all this – and given that patron saints give us cause to examine our country – we are forced to examine the ‘witness to truth’ as it is represented in our own day. In many ways, this is not an easy time to be ordained: and being ordained places us, ontologically and visibly, as those who will be the focus for questioning, scrutiny and even attack within a wider society which is being taught to mistrust the church. Bearing witness to the truth of Christ in such a context is a challenge requiring of us great patience, charity and virtue. There may even be times when such witness, combined with our own human frailty, may break us – but God’s grace is sufficient, and we heal, and grow, and orient ourselves once again to the pursuit of grace-filled, truthful living which is God’s desire for us, and such moments of crisis can act as a catalyst for a more grounded and loving response in pastoral ministry. I delighted in Pope Benedict’s description yesterday of the final days of his predecessor, Blessed John Paul the Second. He said,
Then too, there was his witness in suffering: the Lord gradually stripped him of everything, yet he remained ever a "rock", as Christ desired. His profound humility, grounded in close union with Christ, enabled him to continue to lead the Church and to give to the world a message which became all the more eloquent as his physical strength declined. In this way he lived out in an extraordinary way the vocation of every priest and bishop to become completely one with Jesus, whom he daily receives and offers in the Church .**
Whether called to Martyrdom or not, the call to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ is the flame which burns at the very centre of His call in our lives. To love our country – to be patriotic - does not merely mean being an unconditional supporter of every aspect of our national life. Rather, it means being prepared to express that love in labour for that peace, justice, and right ordering of society’s affairs which are expressions of the Kingdom of God. May the prayers of St. George assist all our labours of love with his fervent prayers, and may we in our turn seek to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, wherever that truth may lead us.
Vice Principal, St. Stephen’s House