Last Friday I went to Southwark Cathedral to celebrate the Foundation Day Mass of the Missionary Society of St. Paul (MSP). It was a lively occasion, with many priests and people from the Society present, along with Bishop Paul Hendricks and Bishop Philip Moger. Here is the homily I preached in honour of St. Paul, inviting everyone to reflect upon the person of Ananias who was God’s instrument in his conversion.
I welcome all of you to this Mass today in which we thank God for the Missionary Society of St. Paul. It was on this day in 2000 that the first MSP priest arrived in this country to serve in the Diocese of Clifton; they now serve in other dioceses too, including my own. So I welcome brother priests, especially those of the Society, as well as Associate Missionaries and friends here today. I thank Fr. Mark Odion, the Regional Superior, for kindly inviting me to celebrate this Foundation Day Mass and for all that the Society brings to the life and mission of the Church in this land.
But let me say a word about he whom we venerate today. An educated man, a Roman citizen, a hard-line Pharisaic Jew, St. Paul was en route to Damascus, when suddenly he was knocked off his horse by a blinding light and a voice crying from heaven: Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? Who are you? he asked. I am Jesus. The conversion of St. Paul is one of the most important events in human history. Thanks to him and his three great missionary journeys, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and in later centuries across the whole world, not least to Africa and Nigeria. Paul’s writings, his 13 New Testament Epistles, have continuously shaped the thought, life and mission of the Church down through history to today. Rich in teaching and exhortation, it’s truly remarkable that when you listen to them attentively, it’s as if he’s speaking about issues in the Church now. Moreover, Paul’s life-story and dramatic conversion, his personal-passionate love for Jesus Christ, his commitment to mission, his holiness of life and his glorious martyrdom continue to be an inspiration to us all. He gives us an example of how to become a saint. No wonder the MSP Missionaries have taken St. Paul as their patron. It’s hard to think of anyone better!
In this country, a recent survey has shewn that nearly 50% of people say they are not religious. There may not be much material poverty here but there IS spiritual poverty, indeed, the greatest poverty of all: the absence of God, an emptiness within, the lack of a personal relationship with our Father and Creator. It’s this that makes Britain a fertile mission-land. True, there are forces of secularism that conspire against Catholicism, and many in public life or in the media reject the family values we promote. Yet scratch the surface of an individual and water often comes up. It’s rare to meet open hostility. It’s the Holy Spirit Who is already at work. This is why we need to reflect on that man in Damascus called Ananias, who played a key role in Paul’s conversion. We’re told he was a man of prayer, and how God in a vision told him to seek out Paul. Ananias found him; he spent time with him; he gave him back his sight. This ministry of accompaniment is surely what each one of us as missionary disciples today should be doing, i.e. being Ananiases, men and women of prayer, who pray for the mission, who spend time listening to individuals, accompanying them, offering counsel, and bringing them to Jesus in His Church, to be healed in the Eucharist. We rightly call on the prayers of St. Paul, but let’s remember too the person of Ananias, who by God’s grace, played a key supporting role that enabled the world’s conversion.
Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News. In this Mass, let’s thank God for the MSP Missionaries who have responded to Christ’s call by leaving their own country for ours. Let us pray for them and for the success of the mission. And let us pray too, through the prayers of St. Paul, for the grace ourselves to be an Ananias, a missionary ready to accompany others, one who brings them to Christ through His Church.