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9 August 2015
posted by Canon Dakin on 16-08-2015

‘And the bread which I will give is my flesh for the life of the world’.

Until this point he has offered his teaching as the bread from heaven which would nourish their spiritual lives. He now moves into another key and he begins speaking about the Eucharist.  He will speak with clarity and insistence because the people understand what he is saying and they have a problem with it. Next Sunday is the feast of the Assumption and I am going to read from what would have been next Sunday’s gospel. ‘Then the Jews... will live for ever.’ Then they more or less say to each other ‘He’s crackers’ and begin to drift away. What does he do?  Does he shout after them: ‘Hi! Come back! I’ve been talking in riddles. Come back and I will explain”.  No. He simply turns to his disciples: ‘Do you want to go away, too?’ He will not withdraw a word of what he has said.  It is at the Last Supper that the disciples will hear his words fulfilled, when they will make sense of them in the context of his talk when he speaks of our being bonded with him to share his relationship with the Father, to share his life as God.

I went to Lancaster on Friday to visit the place where nearly four hundred years ago on that date three priests had been put to death by a Puritan government - it was the era of Cromwell - simply because of their priesthood. It was fitting that it was after Mass that a group walked up to the Moor from the Cathedral because it was for the Mass that the martyrs died.  It was in the same period, the 1640s, that a Franciscan, Thomas Bullaker, was celebrating Mass in London when an apostate, a pretend-Catholic, came up to the altar and arrested him. He began to take off his vestments but the man said ‘No, I want you as you are’. It would make a more dramatic and convincing presentation to the magistrate.  The magistrate remarked that the vestments were rather shabby. That’s not surprising. At Claughton there’s a tiny chalice used in penal times, called a riding chalice because it had to be carried inside a saddle- bag. You may imagine that a vestment which had to be stuffed into a saddle- bag would not be of best appearance. ‘Though the vestments are poor’, said the magistrate, ‘they do well enough for use in idolatry’. ‘What idolatry’?, Fr Bullaker asked. ‘Is it not idolatry’, said the magistrate, ‘to worship bread as God?’ ‘We do not worship the bread and wine as God. We worship Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine as the Church has always done since the days of the Apostles’.  To which the magistrate had no answer - perhaps implicitly acknowledging that the priest was right. The Protestants had a problem in squaring their ideas with the history of early Christianity.

The Catholic church was not peculiarin its belief in the real presence - theyhad been the common belief of Christians everywhere, East and West, Catholic and Orthodox, down the ages. Even Luther held to it. It was the more radical Calvin, withhis pessimistic view of human nature, for whom it was too good to be true. It was Calvinism from Strasbourg and Geneva which had entered into England. That is why our priests faced death.  The Calvinists had abolished priesthood. If they were handling only bread and wine, a priest was superfluous. The Catholics needed priests. There were men brave enough to volunteer. Three hundred came into England during Elizabeth’s reign, having been ordained abroad. Over a hundred of these were caught and executed - a one in three chance of survival. Households showed great devotion in receiving them; death was also the penalty for harbouring a priest. The last executions werein 1679. The death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment from 1700. If you take 1535, the martyrdom of the Carthusians, with Sts Thomas More and John Fisher, as the starting point, the Catholic community had endured 150 years of risking death as the price of being faithful, not to mention severe financial penalties and social exclusion. It is a remarkable tale of courage and fidelity. Are we, their successors, such wimps that, living in freedom we are unable to inspire young men to offer themselves to serve the community as priests?  The least we can do is get on our knees and show God that we care. Do we? 

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