A Homily for the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres, Oxford
4th August 2010, 9 a.m.
Feast Day of Saint John Vianney, the Cure d’Ars
Imagine my delight after pondering how to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the birth of the late-lamented Queen Mother, as well as the 96th anniversary of the even-more-lamented outbreak of the Great War, to discover, on consulting my e-mails at 5.30 this morning that you were keeping the feast of the Cure d’Ars, patron saint of parish priests.
I’d heard of him, read quotations either by or about him, but never really paid any attention. I was a know-nothing. So, of course, to the Incomparable Betsy, the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christ Church, quite the best reference work in the world. And so, I had a thought.
Maybe you too have had the experience, at a time of spiritual fervour, of wishing you could become a saint? To convert multitudes by the brilliance of your preaching, the humility of your life, the wisdom of your spiritual advice, the gentleness with which you deal with the poor, the sick, and the dying? Fortunately, it wears off, and you spend the rest of your life wondering where it has gone. Reading Saint John Vianney’s story makes me realise why. He was said to have seen up to 20,000 people a year. That’s 55 a day. I get exhausted when someone comes to the front door with a questionnaire. He spent 16-18 hours a day listening to people in the confessional – and he must have been good, because the multitudes kept coming. I spent five hours taking dictation from horse dressage show judges on Sunday, and by the end was fit for the knacker’s yard myself. Maybe I don’t really want to be a saint after all – it’s too much like hard work.
Saint John was of course a Roman Catholic. You know he can’t have been an Anglican because if he was, he’d probably have been married, and an irate wife would have dragged him out of the confessional to go shopping. And I wonder if communities, friends, partners, families, children, are all given to us by God to save us from becoming saints? Of course, in all those relationships we can, and do, exercise our sainthood in different, more low-key ways.
And do parish clergy need a patron saint? Do they know “trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity”? All of us here know that they do. I think it might be the loneliest job in the world. You can’t talk to the laity for fear of gossip, you can’t talk to the archdeacon and the bishop for fear of kyboshing your next job. You have to love everyone, but also challenge and innovate, and everyone hates change apart from THEIR change. You must be “all things to all people”, and be seen as a hypocrite. So, the parish clergy need the prayers of Saint John Vianney, and if he could deal with 20,000 a year in this world, imagine what he is achieving in the next! But they also need our prayers, our ears, our help, our love.
Let us close with a prayer:
Gracious God, guard and guide the guardians of your flock; give them humble and noble hearts, fortitude, compassion, inspiration, and love; and inspire all of us to be good friends to them in times of joy and times of trouble, so that in the fullness of time, we may all be celebrated as saints in your eternal kingdom. Amen.