Bishop Davies gave this address at Invocation last evening:
I want to begin on a September evening almost two years ago in a central London park. Some of you will remember; some of you were there! Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, in those silent moments of Eucharistic adoration invited us to “ask Our Lord what he has in mind for you.” “Even now,” he said, “his heart is speaking to your heart …Ask for the generosity to say “yes!” Do not be afraid to give yourself totally to Jesus. He will give you the grace you need to fulfil your vocation,” (18th September 2010). The Holy Father summarised in those words the whole programme, we might say, of Invocation, of these days together at Oscott: to ask not what is my plan but what does the Lord ask of me and not to be afraid to say “yes” to that call.
Children often speak to me in schools of their dreams. These are invariably to be something like a Premier League footballer or an internationally famous singer. Rarely is it anything less than that! I suppose dreams are fairly safe because they most often remain like that, dreams and imaginings. But for the Christian every life, my life and yours, are seen as a vocation. “Vocation” well-defines the relationship which God has with every one of us. He calls every human being. Listen to Pope Benedict speaking at the beginning of his ministry as Successor of Peter: “only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. … We are not the casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is loved, each of us is willed, each of us is necessary” (24th April 2004).
At Euro 2012 England’s manager was accused, like many a football manager before him, of choosing the wrong team. Yesterday’s hero on a football field quickly becomes the invisible man! But Pope Benedict assures us that in God’s team-selection there are no mistakes. Each of us is loved, willed, needed. As he reminded us in his message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations 2012 in those striking words of St. Paul: “he chose us, before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4). This is an extraordinary thought: that our vocation, our calling was there before we were born, before we even came into existence! We might not always see our lives as so valued but that is how God always sees us!
Blessed John Paul II as a young man during the Nazi occupation of Poland was alone in the world, having lost both his parents and his only brother. He was no longer a student but a slave labourer in a chemical factory, but at the end of his long shifts he prayed every day before the Blessed Sacrament for more than a year and half. He prayed to see what he was called to do with his life, what was his vocation. He would later say, if I may summarise, that we are only given our lives so that we can give them away, give them to something noble, give them to something great. “Love is the DNA of the children of God,” he said. One of the candidates for Confirmation the other day kept looking at his hand. I couldn’t understand why but afterwards he told me he had written on the back of his hand all the responses. Our calling is not written by us. Rather, our vocation is the call of love written into our being. As the Second Vatican Council put it, “we cannot fully find (ourselves) except through the sincere gift of (ourselves)” (Gaudium et Spes n. 24). Meanwhile, another young man on the other side of Europe had been swept up into the home defences of the Third Reich. Yet at seventeen years of age he found the courage in the face of intimidation to say to an SS officer who called him to give his life to Hitler, that he intended to give his life in the Catholic priesthood. That young man is now Pope Benedict XVI. I share these stories because they allow us to see that a vocation begins in the heart. It is written we might say into our hearts. As St Augustine recounts in his Confessions there is often a struggle in our hearts to see and hear this calling. As he wrote fifteen hundred years ago vividly of his own calling: “you called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone and you dispelled my blindness” (X 27.8).
Blessed John Paul directs us, just as Pope Benedict did in Hyde Park, to where our spiritual deafness will be broken, where His light shines most brightly to dispel shadow and darkness. “I know your doubts and your efforts, I see you lost at times, I understand the fear that assails you about the future,” he wrote in his letter for Vocations Sunday in the year 2000. “Dear young people, go to meet Jesus the Saviour! Love Him and adore Him in the Eucharist!” This is what we have also set out to do in Invocation: to draw close to Him. Recently at Euston, one of London’s most crowded stations, I heard someone call out my name. The only way I could respond to that call from the crowd was to turn round, trying to find and come close to the voice that was calling. It is here before the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist that we are most like those first disciples on the road to Emmaus. “In the breaking of the bread,” done by the stranger,” Blessed John Paul reflected on this Gospel passage (Lk 24: 13-35), “the eyes of the disciples are opened, they realise that their hearts are burning within them as they were listening to Him explaining the Scriptures. In those hearts that burn we can see the history and the discovery of every vocation …”(Letter for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations 2000). What a wonderful description of a vocation: ‘hearts which are set on fire and burn within us! I think of a young person here last year who told me that he had finally found the confidence to take the first steps in trying his vocation in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament at 4 o’clock in the morning!
Our calling is rarely heard and rarely recognised through any extraordinary event or happening but in quietness and most often through human mediation, through people, perhaps through priests and religious, who have in some way inspired and encouraged us. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of “so many witnesses” the saints who are “in a great cloud on every side of us” and who encourage us in every generation to “keep running steadily in the race we have started” (Heb. 12:1).
Relics are a tangible, visible, human connection with the saints and they were brought by the first missionaries to the English people to awaken the hope of holiness. From Westminster Abbey to Durham Cathedral across the length and breath of this land the relics of the saints offered this same encouragement, invited prayer, were an invitation to continued conversion. Tonight, we are preparing to welcome at Oscott the relic of a saint, of a priest, of a parish priest, who belongs to us all in the Church in what we call “the communion of saints”: St. John Mary Vianney. It is the saints who generation after generation continue to inspire us, their testimony never growing tired, never growing old.
I’ve found myself speaking quite a lot about hearts this week because it is the relic of the heart of Saint John Vianney which is being brought to us tonight and which has been brought to our country for the first time. In the English language and throughout the Scriptures, when we speak of “the heart” we think not of a physical organ, a body-part but rather of the very core and centre of our being. This past week, radio interviewers have said to me: Isn’t it a bit gruesome to have the relic of a human heart? Well, if we think of the heart as part of the anatomy, our thoughts would not go beyond cardiology. Yet here, we are thinking metaphorically of the heart as the decisive centre of our being. The heart is that which God alone knows and searches (Jer.17:10). It is where the love of God is poured (Rom 5:5), and where humanity is made new by being given a “new heart” (Ezk 18:31). Indeed, Pope Benedict has spoken of this relic of St John Vianney’s heart as symbolising a heart consumed by Divine Love.
At first it might seem strange that the heart of St John Vianney is separated from his body. Yet the heart of this saint continues to go out to the world in order to point to a heart completely given in love. I shared with the seminarians at Oscott a few weeks ago that even on my ordination day I had little idea what would be involved in my life as a priest. This didn’t matter because a vocation doesn’t consist in calculating what might be ahead, or what is going to happen. For where your heart is given, there you place your trust. I think of a young, consecrated woman at a diocesan meeting a few years ago where lots of problems were being discussed with much anxiety. She suddenly began to speak very simply of the joy of giving her heart to Jesus. If our hearts are given to Him it doesn’t mean we don’t have any problems but they can be seen in a very different light.
How St John Vianney gave his heart can be quickly and simply recounted. He grew up amid the turmoil of the French revolution. He received the Sacraments in secret while living close to a city in which more than 130 priests were executed. The only priests he knew in his youth and childhood were priests travelling in disguise. Later, he faced enormous obstacles in responding to his vocation, and once ordained, was sent to the smallest parish in his diocese, a parish noted for its indifference to religion. He spent the rest of his life there and, since his death, in 1859, has been known universally as the Curé of Ars. It should be added that not only did his tiny parish undergo a radical conversion but hundreds of thousands made the pilgrimage to it in order to start anew in their Christian lives. He began his day promptly at 1 am each morning and spent up to sixteen hours hearing Confessions. Historians suggest that the number of confessions he heard in his lifetime was equivalent to a fifth of the then French population of France. As Blessed John Paul II wrote, he was a “Gospel challenge” for his own time and “let us not doubt that he still presents to us today the great evangelical challenge” (Letter to Priests 1986). Every Pope for more than a century, including our Holy Father Pope Benedict, has raised up the figure of this simple man, this simple priest in the sight of the whole Church. He is someone worth getting to know along your vocational path.
I would like to mention two things connecting St John Vianney’s vocation with our own vocation. The first is how much depends on our calling. In the march of ordinary events John Mary Vianney was destined not even to be a footnote in history as a young man from rural France whose formal education ended at the age of nine. He did not pass a single formal exam and had an undistinguished military career being counted as a deserter after two days. He spoke always of his “poor self” and humanly speaking he didn’t want us to think he was exaggerating. Yet while revolutionaries declared a new world had begun and as Napoleon subdued a continent by military force and even imprisoned the Pope, in the life and faithfulness of this young man Heaven’s answer was heard. Healing and reconciliation was being offered in a tiny village in a remote corner of France. John Vianney did not see the full significance of his vocation. Like the servant in the Gospel he saw himself as simply doing his duty, only what had been asked of him. Perhaps we can only ever glimpse what Blessed John Henry Newman described so beautifully as the place each vocation has in being what he called, “a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons … I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place … if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling” (Meditations & Devotions, 301-2). What St John Vianney did see and never doubted was the greatness of the priesthood. “How great is the priest,” he would say. By this he meant not the man but the calling. “How great is the priest! The priest will only be understood in heaven,” he insisted, “if he were understood on earth, people would die, not out of fear but out of love!”
The second thing I want you to reflect on is John Vianney’s perseverance in following his vocation. I mentioned that he faced every imaginable obstacle in responding to his call. At times his vocation seemed to be virtually impossible: from his father’s objections that he was indispensable on the farm at the age of seventeen; to an education interrupted at primary level; to his life as a fugitive and deserter from the Napoleonic armies; to his dismissal from seminary unable to complete a single examination in Latin. A lesser heart would have given up. But he saw only a single priority, “how beautiful, how great, to know, to love, to serve God,” he would later say, “We have nothing but that to do in this world. Anything we do apart from that is a waste of time.” So if anyone tells you this is a bad time to respond to a vocation think of the Saint of Ars! If there are obstacles not of our making then St. John Vianney shows us it is by giving ourselves wholeheartedly that God’s purpose will be served.
Tonight we pray before the Heart of Jesus, truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, in the company of this relic. The relic speaks of John Mary Vianney’s own greatness of heart, his complete, whole-hearted human response to his calling. Let us picture him in his last days in Ars when sickness and frailty no longer allowed his voice to be heard but when he would simply stand before the congregation and point repeatedly to the Altar and Tabernacle, to Christ’s Real Presence amongst us. Everything he wished us to find was there. But this brings us back to where we started: to London’s Hyde Park. Let us allow the words of Pope Benedict to echo again as we enter that heart-searching prayer of adoration, “my dear friends, let us continue our vigil of prayer by preparing to encounter Christ, present among us in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Together, in the silence of our common adoration, let us open our minds and hearts to his presence, his love, and the convincing power of his truth.” Amen.