Shrewsbury ... shall be a name 'as stirring to the heart as the glories we have lost'

Blessed John Henry Newman, 1852

Letters and Homilies

Homily for the Centenary of the Apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima, Shrewsbury Cathedral 20th May 2017

 

On this day, we mark the the centenary of the Apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima. The New Testament recounts how Mary went with urgency to the aid of her cousin Elizabeth (Lk. 1: 39); how she prayed continuously with the infant Church (Acts 1:14); and in the last book of the Bible, how she was seen in vision by St. John as a great sign appearing in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head (Rev.12:1). This remains for us a most familiar image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Second Vatican Council would take up this image from the Scriptures to evoke Our Lady’s relationship with the Church as the Mother who follows our pilgrim journey through history until the day of the Lord dawns in splendour. In the words of the Council, all the faithful look to Mary in the glory of heaven who also “shines on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come, a sign of certain hope and comfort for the pilgrim people of God.” The Council also observed how from earliest times, the faithful have turned to the Mother of God and taken refuge with her in prayer amid every need and danger (cf. Lumen Gentium n.68 & 66).

In many different ways this same Blessed Mother has come to us in our need, manifesting her motherly care in the many crises faced by the Church and humanity. So it was when the people of Shrewsbury, together with communities across the world, were drawn into the horror of a vast, global conflict we should not be surprised to see again Mary’s motherly presence and intervention. In May of 1917, the then Pope, Benedict XV, had called all Christ’s faithful people to turn to the Mother of God in nine days of continuous prayer. He wrote on 5th May: “More than ever in this terrible hour, may her most afflicted children turn with lively confidence to the Mother of God.” We have kept the sombre anniversaries of the Great War in this Cathedral, and have often recalled how all the impassioned appeals for peace of Pope Benedict and those of his Saintly predecessor, Pius X, were disregarded or even condemned and banned from publication in combatant nations. The Pope’s agonised letter in that May-time now a century ago still makes disturbing reading as it describes a dark tide of hatred rising, and multiplying ruin and massacre; of a fratricidal war which threatened to become the suicide of civilised Europe, its very seas and plains drenched in blood. This was the context of the universal novena taken-up in this Cathedral and across the world. And it was on the 8th day of this  prayer that Our Lady appeared to three, shepherd children in the tiny hamlet of Fatima in Portugal. The saw her as “a woman clothed with the sun.” Theirs is what we call a ‘private revelation’ for only the children saw Our Lady, only they were given a message. This added nothing to the teaching of the Gospel and the Catholic faith but recalled us to truths we might be in danger of losing sight of.

It was in such a place as Fatima and to such poor children that Mary chose to speak of that peace which can only be restored in the world if it is first restored in the hearts of men and women. She opened to the children her own Immaculate Heart, free of all sin and on fire with Divine love. She helped them to open their own hearts to what Emeritus Pope Benedict called “a universal love, the love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit who loves us and desires all to be saved” (Homily May 2010). Pope Francis as a pilgrim to Fatima last Friday would describe this same message as “a revolution of love.”

Amid all the revolutionary ideologies which have engulfed the world in conflict; and in the so-called sexual revolution which threatens the very foundations of marriage and the family, we can say that it is this revolution of love which can alone save and raise-up humanity anew. For the children, it was a revolution which began with a deepening sense of the mystery and reality of the Eucharist; in their taking the Gospel to their hearts by the prayer of the Rosary, the prayer of Mary’s own heart; in glimpsing the reality of Hell and endless loss which is the consequence of mortal sin; and in discovering the power of intercessory prayer and penance for the conversion of sinners, the conversion of the human heart. They were led to recognise that it is sin and error that lead the world into increasing disaster, while Divine grace and mercy alone can save humanity.

In this light, we can understand why Saint John Paul II said something which at first sounds startling, declaring that: the message of Fatima is more relevant today than it was in May 1917. We, too, need to learn from the peace plan entrusted to three young children. Jacinta and Francisco would die in childhood, while Lucia would live into her 90s as a witness to these events. Last Saturday, Pope Francis canonised two of the children, not because they had seen Our Lady but because in their young lives they had reached the perfection of love, the fullness of Christian life which you and I still strive.

It is the relics of these two saints that we venerate in this Cathedral today. With Saint Jacinta and Saint Francisco, we ask Our Lady to guide us through the dangers and errors of our own time and allow us to witness the triumph of her Immaculate Heart. Like a generation before us in this Cathedral, we now implore Our Lady to come to our help as she hastened to aid of Elizabeth; to join with us now in constant prayer as she did with the Church at the beginning; and to be for us now “the great sign” of hope in the midst of the Church’s struggle and the promise of her victory.

 

(Photo by Simon Caldwell)