It was the year in which Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, and the Dalai Lama took refuge in India. It was the year in which Dewi Bebb from North Wales scored the winning try against England – the first try Wales had scored in Cardiff against England, yr Hen Elyn, for 10 years! Possibly it was the year in which Michael Jackson was born, and most certainly it was the year in which I was ordained to serve Christ and his people in the Catholic priesthood, July 5th, 1959.
I did not choose the readings we have just heard proclaimed, for these readings are those set by the Church for today. We have joined Catholics throughout the world, from the rising of the sun to its setting, in hearing this Word of God.
It sets a sombre scene – the Lord is rejected by his own people. ‘A prophet is only despised in his own country among his relations and in his own house.’ – ‘Nid yw proffwyd heb anrhydedd ond yn ei fro ei hun ac ymhlith ei geraint ac yn ei gartref’.
Far be it for me to take issue with the words of the Lord about the experience of prophets in their own country, but I must say that I am grateful to God for 35 very happy years as a priest in South Wales, in the Archdiocese of Cardiff – and similarly, 15 years here in the North, in the Diocese of Wrexham.
But then, my life and words do not always have the double-edged force of the Scriptures, the Word of God, which challenges us, and also confirms us.
I pray that our coming together this afternoon will both confirm and challenge us on our pilgrim way through life to our end, which will be our beginning. Confirm and challenge!
Many of you will know that the Welsh word for Welsh people is ‘Cymry’. It means ‘those who belong to the same land’, with its story of shared triumphs and trials. This belonging gives rise to expressions that try to articulate the Welsh way of life – y ffordd gymreig o fyw – such as, ‘To be born Welsh is to be born privileged, not with a silver spoon in your mouth, but with music in your blood, and poetry in your soul’.
Every country should be proud of its own culture - however, our belonging together here this afternoon is of a higher order, for we all belong, not only to our own countries with their noble traditions, but through our Baptism into Christ, to the Church, the Body of Christ.
Yet our being in Wales can teach us about this more profound belonging.
The poet cries out:
‘O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!’ (Francis Thompson)
That is the world to which we have all been called to belong.
As you may know, those lines come from ‘In no Strange Land’ by Francis Thompson.
And the adjective ‘strange’ is related to the noun ‘the Welsh’.
for ‘Welsh’ was the name given to the native inhabitants of Britain by the Saxon invaders as they pushed the Celtic tribes further to the West. What does Welsh mean? It means the ‘strangers’ – in their own land, but that’s the way it goes! In a way, we are all ‘Welsh’, for are we not all called to be strangers too in this life in which we have no lasting city?
So, when you hear or see ‘Welsh’, just remember that, as Christians, we are called to be strangers as we model our lives on Christ, and not on the prevailing fashions and values of this passing world.
You may have heard the story about the elderly couple who died, and were given a great welcome by St. Peter. They were delighted by everything they saw. Suddenly, Peter’s mobile rings – ‘Sorry’, he said, ‘they want me at head office. Carry on looking around, it is all yours.’ And it just got better and better. Finally, the husband turns to his wife. ‘I have got a bone to pick with you’, he said. ‘What!’ she said, ‘How can you say that, now that we are in heaven!’
That’s the point!’, he retorted. ‘If it were not for you, going on about healthy eating, and exercise, and no smoking or drinking, we could have been here twenty years ago!’
Whatever we do in this life – and taking care of our health is important, for we are stewards of our bodies, not their owners, we do everything in the light of eternity. We are strangers; here we have no lasting city.
Today’s readings indeed warn us we can choose to be deaf to the message of our Faith.
Can we accuse God of being deaf to us?
I have said, the Scriptures at Mass for today give God’s complaint against the People of God. ‘I am sending you to that bunch of rebels’.
But there is another side to the story, for, as you know, the Scriptures also give us the complaints of God’s People against God.
What about these poignant words from the Psalms? : ‘Wake up, O Lord, Why are you asleep?
Awake! Do not abandon us for good.
Why do you hide your face,
and forget we are wretched and exploited?’ (Psalm 44, 23-24
We can all echo the words of R. S. Thomas as he speaks of
‘prayers like gravel
Flung at the sky’s
Window, hoping to attract the loved one’s attention’.
In that same poem about a priest at prayer, he writes
Through my locked fingers
I thought that I detected
The movement of a curtain.’
Is there anyone behind the curtain?
If we are assailed by doubts, we are in good company. St. Therésè, whose relics are coming to Britain in the autumn, wrote these striking words:
‘I get tired of the darkness all around me, and try to refresh my jaded spirits with the thoughts of that bright country where my hopes lie. Yet what happens? It is a worse torment than ever: the darkness seems to borrow ….. the gift of speech.
I hear its mocking accents: ‘It’s all a dream, this talk of a heavenly country....and of a God who made it all. Death will make nonsense of your hopes; it will only mean a night darker than ever, the night of mere non-existence.’
There it is – the struggle between despair and hope, lived out in a woman who was plunged into the experience of Jesus on the cross.
And in him lies the victory – the struggle is resolved on Calvary, for the cry of a seemingly abandoned humanity and the disappointed frustration of spurned God were reconciled by Jesus when his cry of: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ was taken up into his moment of triumph – ‘Father, Into your hands I commit my spirit – it is completed!’
His Spirit is the Father’s gift to us -and at certain Tabor moments of our lives, the curtain, or veil, becomes very thin - we can rejoice and say, ‘Yes! God is!’ The curtain is torn open, giving us courage for when all seems empty and meaningless.
I pray that this celebration today will be one of those moments for us all.
I do not know what the weather is like in your life at the moment – are the skies sunny, or is it dark cloud and mist – or a mixture of sunshine and showers?
But I do pray that this Golden Jubilee of mine will pull back the curtain for you so that God’s golden love for you will come streaming through.
I can echo St. Paul at least to the extent that I am very happy that in spite of my weaknesses, God’s grace, Our Lady’s prayers, and your support, have kept me safe for 50 years as a Catholic priest and bishop, a witness in this land of Wales to the other land that beckons us all.
The priest is called to witness to those realities in season and out of season.
And so I conclude, in this Year of Priesthood, by turning to the Holy Father, Pope Benedict.
Last year, at the Mass of the Chrism, Pope Benedict emphasised the glory of the Catholic priesthood by referring to the 2nd Eucharistic prayer, which was formed by the end of the 2nd century. He focuses on the words, ‘We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you.’ – ‘Gan ddiolch i ti am weld yn dda ein galw ni a’n derbyn i sefyll yn weision ger dy fron.’
To stand in God’s presence, - this means more than standing at the altar in the sanctuary, it means standing vigilant for the things of God in the arena of the world.
The priest, to quote the Holy Father, ‘must keep the world awake for God. He must be the one who remains standing upright: upright before the trends of time. Upright in truth; upright in the commitment for good. Being before the Lord must always include, in its depths, responsibility for humanity to the Lord, who in his turn, takes on the burden of us all to the Father.’
This in turn demands that we should know the Lord in a deeply personal way.
Again, I trust that these celebrations will help us to do that, so that the Lord will not be amazed at our lack of faith, but will rejoice in us as a people fit to be offered by him to the Father.At this time, fifty years ago, we were flying back to Wales from Dublin. For me, it was the start of a great journey, still continuing – please God I will continue to serve God in you until the end. Please pray for me, as I will for you.