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By the Most Rev. William D. Byrne
Bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts
Homily from the Mass of Dedication for Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel
Thomas Aquinas College, New England
March 7, 2022
“Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo; facta est quasi vidua domina gentium”
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people; how like a widow she has become”
These are first four words of these two verses from the Vulgate translation of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, once sung at the beginning of Tenebrae.
In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, Cordelia quotes this ancient chant when she describes the closing of the family chapel at the family estate. The house itself is a metaphor for the Church and the novel a meditation on the work of God’s grace amidst the complexities of life and world events. Once full, it is now empty: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people; how like a widow she has become.”
Cordelia, the youngest daughter of the novel’s family, describes to Charles Ryder, the story’s protagonist with whom we travel, the journey of faith, the deconsecrating of the chapel at the family manor. She says:
They’ve closed the chapel at Brideshead, Bridey and the Bishop; mummy’s Requiem was the last Mass said there. After she was buried the priest came in — I was there alone. I don’t think he saw me — and took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy-water stoop and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary, and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday.
A perpetual Good Friday can be our experience as our world shuns faith, and Catholics walk away from their heritage. In this time when we are more accustomed to closing churches, to blowing out the sanctuary lamps, the Church in New England can feel like the manor Brideshead, once beautiful but now deserted. This sense of despair is not of God and is a lie of the enemy!
Listen to the words our God speaks to Jacob in our first reading, “Know that I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go, and bring you back to this land. I will never leave you until I have done what I promised you” (Gen. 28:11-18).
God’s ways are not our ways. We often judge success by the world’s standards. God is almighty and all powerful and all knowing. God is in charge, and Good Friday is not the end of the story.
The Dedication of Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel blooms like the first flower of spring. Winter makes way to summer. Days lengthens, and life prevails.
Today’s dedication celebrates an ever-current mystery: that God desires to build Himself a spiritual temple in the world, a community that adores Him in spirit and truth. Listen to Jesus in today’s Gospel (Jn. 4:19-24):
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and truth.
This stone edifice, in which we gather together to celebrate God’s praises, is a sacramental sign of the Body of Christ. Its dedication is a tangible experience and structure of who we are. It is a sign of our precious religious and historical patrimony. This chapel is a sign of hope and trust.
Pope Benedict XVI, reflecting on the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, writes:
The beauty and the harmony of churches, destined to render praise to God, invites us human beings too, though limited and sinful, to convert ourselves to form a “cosmos,” a well-ordered construction, in close communion with Jesus, who is the true Holy of Holies. This reaches its culmination in the Eucharistic liturgy, in which the “ecclesia,” that is, the community of baptized, finds itself again united to listen to the Word of God and nourish itself on the Body and Blood of Christ. Gathered around this twofold table, the Church of living stones builds herself up in truth and in love and is molded interiorly by the Holy Spirit, transforming herself into what she receives, conforming herself ever more to her Lord Jesus Christ. She herself, if she lives in sincere and fraternal unity, thus becomes a spiritual sacrifice pleasing to God.
To mold ourselves in sincere and fraternal unity to Christ by the Holy Spirit means that as individual disciples, as communities of believers, as families of blood and baptism, we must be like this chapel —sacramental signs and edifice of Faith, Hope, and Love. Like Our Lady to whom we entrust the Chapel, we are to be Christ bearers, living temples of his love.
You students who walk in the footsteps of St. Thomas Aquinas and who will worship here each day must allow yourselves to be built up in Christ. You are the visible sign of Jesus’ promise to be with us always. Allow yourselves to be formed so that you can reform our culture.
I close again with Brideshead Revisited. In the final pages we find our central character, now a Catholic, returning to the manor Brideshead. It is World War II, Charles is an army officer, and the grand home has been commandeered by the Army. As he wanders the great halls where he came of age through his dear friendship with the family, he finally visits the chapel. Because of the Army occupation, the chapel has been re-opened. We read:
Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame — a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.
The world may try to snuff the lights of the sanctuary, but it will never succeed. We must burn anew amidst these stones fed by Jesus in the Eucharist, Whose presence the light proclaims. We players in this great tale of grace are called in our world’s darkness to be the light. We must be emissaries of hope, living in the Way, the Truth, and Life of Him Who will never die.
Praised be Jesus Christ!
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