By Father Mark A. Pasik
Pastor of St. Mark’s Parish, Utica
Recently, I was in London joining the pilgrimage of celebration in honor of the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman. It was in a British pub located next to Scotland Yard and across from 10 Downing Street that I paused for lunch together with other priests on our tour of that great city. It is a metropolis of living history, yet contemporary in its technology and academic quarters. Fish and chips were on the menu. There is no place better to relax and observe the English in their enjoyment of conversation and good British ale.
We continued to trace the biography of Cardinal Newman, celebrating Mass at different Oratorian Churches, including those of the martyrs who calmly and deliberately shed their blood for Christ and his church. Their Catholic gift of witness poured itself into England’s struggle with history. Hence, it became like an ancestor not quite settled in the family’s genealogy. Yet, undoubtedly putting this “uncooperative relative” in its place did not imply total apathy on the part of the British psyche. From the perspective of a Londoner’s thought, it was beyond reason to eliminate King St. Edward the Confessor or even St. Thomas More from the discourses of historical memory. Simply put: the roots are Catholic and the tree of English civilization will not be neglected in its attachment.
It was in Parliament, when Pope Benedict XVI invoked the name of the former chancellor of England, St. Thomas More, that he recalled the conscience factor. The Holy Father said: “In particular, I recall the figure of St. Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first.” Pope Benedict did not need to mention that More’s condemnation violated the Magna Carta as well as traditional Western legal protocols. By the way, there is a plaque on the floor of Westminster Hall indicating the spot where More declared his clarity of stand on the Vicar of Christ and his role as visible head of Christ’s church compared to the sovereign’s placement in the discourse and execution of civil matters.
As Parliament sat and listened, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, a recent convert to Catholicism, the silence and intensive concentration was quite obvious. Pope Benedict identified the pathology of secularism, materialism and finally atheism in many quarters of Western civilization. As the application of faith and reason are applied, as Blessed John Henry Newman professed, the Holy Father stated: “It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith — the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief — need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of civilization.”
One Parliamentarian who was no fan of the Holy Father’s visit, admitted that we (England) must take a second look at this presentation. Indeed, whether it was in Oxford at the Anglican Christ Church during Evensong in which prayers were invoked for the Holy Father; the joy expressed by personnel at the University at his visit or a taxi driver in London, we as priests were always greeted with respect and a smile. We were regularly approached by fellow diners at table and asked if we were related to the beatification of Newman or the papal state visit. England simply is aware that it should travel “back to the future” and revisit its Catholic roots. Indeed, England’s first diplomatic relation in its history was with the Holy See.
The visit to the Tower of London and the privileged entry to the cell of St. Thomas More that not all tourists enter was a spiritual and profound experience. I walked silently and peered outside one window overlooking the Thames River. More remained two years secluded in this temporary tabernacle with Christ and composed his greatest thoughts “In Season and Out of Season.” Directly above him was the incarcerated Cardinal John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, the only prelate to not sign the oath of allegiance to the king, thus granting him sole dominance over the church in England. I have had a great devotion to St. Thomas More all my priesthood. His soul and the souls of his contemporaries were undergoing a similar experience of challenge. The purification and strengthening of conscience as God gave him the light, was like a clam stimulated by sand. In time, it produced a pearl!
Blessed John Henry Newman left Italy after a serious illness. He recalled the compassion and faith shared with him by his caretakers. His reluctance to become Catholic disappeared as he wrote during the return voyage on the Mediterranean Sea, the great poem “Lead Kindly Light, Lead On…” Christ led on and the rest is not only Catholic, but British history. Pope Benedict left Italy also following this “kindly light.”
As we priests, British and American concelebrated Mass with the Holy Father in Birmingham, I witnessed the successor of St. Peter as well as one who succeeds a British pope in history, Nicholas Breakspear, Pope Adrian I (c. 1100) “back to the future.” At the end of the day, the Holy Father’s visit would leave Britain more pensive of its future if not refreshed with the Good News of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict chose the Thames for his “fishing expedition” as Christ would inspire, in order to spread the Good News.
By the way, the English serve their ale at room temperature. That pub next to Parliament Hill and Scotland Yard was a room filled with joy.