175th Anniversary of St George’s Cathedral, Southwark - 4th July 2023
(1 Kings 8:22-23, 27-30; Ps 83(84): 3-5, 10-11; 1 Cor 3:9-11. 16-17; Jn 2:13-22)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
This Cathedral Church of St George is not just a South London landmark. This Cathedral is not merely a fine historic building designed by the great Augustus Welby Pugin. This Cathedral is not significant solely for its remarkable East and West stained glass windows. No. Above everything else, our beautiful Cathedral is a signpost to heaven. This is why it was built and its mission remains the same today. Our Cathedral bears witness to divine love as a beacon of divine mercy.
More than nine hundred years before the Lord Jesus was born, King Solomon built a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark contained the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses. At the temple’s dedication, Solomon’s prayer questioned whether God’s greatness could be confined in a building: ‘Will God really live with men and women on the earth’ he asked; ‘The heavens cannot contain you…how much less this house that I have built!’
Our Cathedral’s grandeur points beyond itself to Almighty God. It puts the spotlight on the Holy Trinity, calling us to the inner life and love of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our Cathedral evangelises by existing. It preaches by its permanence. Despite wartime bombing and fire, for 175 years our Cathedral has sounded a fanfare in stone to Christ’s resurrection, Christ who is the foundation on which these walls stands. This sacred place breathes because Christ is alive. Here, we draw life from the well-spring of salvation, each one of us a living stone, together making a spiritual house.
It goes without saying that no church, no matter how magnificent, can ever confine God’s presence. The astonishing truth, however, is that this Cathedral gives God’s presence a home. Its fabric declares that God matters, that God alone is to be worshipped and adored. Our Cathedral’s bricks and mortar invite us to encounter Christ personally in prayer and through the sacraments. We are summoned to the altar where Holy Mass makes present Christ’s sacrifice, offered once for all on the cross, from which we receive his living and life-giving Body and Blood.
Here, there is a house within a house, where our Lord and God dwells among us in the tabernacle. Really and truly the Lord Jesus abides with us in the Blessed Sacrament. Over the years, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have entered our Cathedral yearning for meaning and forgiveness, longing for holiness and hope. Whatever our state of heart or stage of life, whatever our level of faith or individual struggle, our Eucharistic Lord pitches his tent in our midst, and ‘One day within his courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.’
Looking back to 1848, we might forget the courage required to conceive and build this Cathedral. English Catholicism was still emerging from the long shadows of the Reformation. It would be another two years before Catholic dioceses were re-established. European revolutions raged across the Channel, generating fears for security and stability. Things were far from settled. When the hierarchy of English dioceses was restored by Pope Pius IX in 1850, an image of Cardinal Wiseman was carried through the streets of London and burned on Bethnal Green.
Faced with mid-nineteenth century uncertainty and hostility, it was faith, holy faith, real and intense Catholic faith, which revitalised the apostolic conviction of our forebears. Father John Henry Newman, the Catholic convert, priest, cardinal and now saint, spoke famously in 1852 of a ‘second spring,’ of the rebirth of Catholicism in England.
Today, we too look for renewal, for new signs of spring. Structures and programmes take us so far, but they are not the answer. Only joyful faith, rediscovered and rekindled, can remedy decline in the Church. Only the faith of disciples, of laity, clergy and religious, which overflows in love, can win souls for Christ. A new springtime in the Church begins with a new springtime in our hearts, refashioned by Christ’s love, ablaze with a passion for mission.
The English Catholic convert, G. K. Chesterton, once wrote: ‘Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.’ The Lord Jesus foretold that the temple would be destroyed and raised up again in three days. He wasn’t speaking about the edifice of the temple building, which dominated Jerusalem and had taken decades to build. He was speaking about himself, about his body, and about his resurrection. We believe in the power forever released when Christ conquered sin and death. This is the reason we never ever despair. We believe in Christ’s victory for ourselves, and we believe in Christ’s victory for our Church and for the world. Beautiful and necessary as our Cathedral is, these bricks are not the Body of Christ. We are. You are. ‘Do you not realise,’ writes St Paul, ‘that you are God’s temple and that the Spirit of God is living among you?’
As the saying goes, the Church only has one saviour. It’s not you and it’s not me. When the Lord Jesus cleared the traders from the temple, he declared it to be his Father’s house. Our Cathedral too is the Father’s house; but so must our hearts be, where the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, make their home within us. This is what happened to the first apostles. From hearts totally in love with God, and utterly captivated by Christ, the apostles announced the saving message of conversion and discipleship. With confidence, they shaped the early Church for worship, mission and service.
My brothers and sisters, through baptism we are all commissioned to fulfil our apostolic inheritance. When we preach the Gospel with our lives, when Christ’s love overflows from us to others, a new springtime blossoms in the Church. Let us, heart and soul, ring out our joy to the living God. Amen.