I have had, as we all have, many good moments in my life as a Catholic (greatly outweighing the inevitable bad ones); but yesterday was one of the very best. Have I ever, I try to recall, had such a vivid sense of how glorious it is to be a Catholic, of the transcendent splendor of the Catholic life? Probably, but I wonder if any liturgy ever passed off with such an exultant sense of joyful celebration? I am referring, as some of you who read my last post may have surmised, to the reception of 11 sisters led by their mother Superior (all the active ones) now formerly of the Community of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage, into the Catholic Church, and their formal erection (joined by another former Anglican sister who had already been received) as a new community by the Ordinary of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, Mgr Keith Newton.
They were received wearing their habits; but the habits looked different; it turned out that that was because the sisters, having now adopted the rule of St Benedict, had adopted the traditional wimple of the Benedictine order, and their habits were now black, not blue (two of the remaining CSMV sisters had come in their blue habits to support them, and were seated in the pew behind). There was something unexpectedly moving about the formal document erecting the brand new community, who will be known as the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary (SBVM), despite its being couched in the unlovely bureaucratic language apparently beloved of canon lawyers; it was solemnly proclaimed by the Ordinary (who was wearing the most splendid baroque mitre I have ever seen, very tall indeed, and suitably impressive he looked in it): but the formal document brought home what had happened. Here was a pristine, freshly minted Catholic community, fizzing with new life and (unlike, I fear, most Catholic sisters these days) wearing full habits, based on their old ones but adapted to their new Benedictine lives. I had feared they might be received in lay clothes, only being clothed in their habits once the new community had been formally established, but there was no nonsense of that kind. An intrinsic part of their habit is still the rosary, which hangs at their sides, and each rosary was blessed and individually copiously sprinkled with holy water by Mgr Newton.
I have never been wholeheartedly one for the sign of peace: but during it, I looked over at the newly erected community, joyfully exchanging it among themselves, and a deeply moving sight it was. Others were looking too: it reduced one lady to tears. I remembered my own reception into the Church over 20 years ago: afterwards, an old lady came up to me and said, very simply, “welcome home”: that was a moment I have never forgotten, and I have always greeted converts in these words ever since: I said it to several of the sisters afterwards.
It turned out that Fr Daniel Seward of my own parish, St Aloysius, Oxford (he is provost of the Oxford Oratory), had been preparing the sisters for their reception for the last year (the ordinariate couldn’t have chosen better, the Oratory is a great conversion center), and he made the same point, welcoming them home while at the same time taking seriously what the community had already achieved, against the Anglican grain, within the Church of England.
This is how he began his rather splendid sermon (you can read it all here):
“My dear Mother, my dear Sisters,
“I say this even though you do not have at present a physical home, because for all of us our holy Mother the Church is our home. In this life we have no abiding city, but already we know something of the heavenly Jerusalem, because we are united with the Church triumphant through the communion of saints. When in 1845, Blessed John Henry Newman was received into the One Fold of the Redeemer, he said, “what an outcast I seemed to myself, when I took down from the shelves of my library the volumes of St Athanasius or St Basil, and set myself to study them; and how, on the contrary, when at length I was brought into Catholic communion, I kissed them with delight, with a feeling that in them I had more than all that I had lost, and, as though I were directly addressing the glorious saints, who bequeathed them to the Church, I said to the inanimate pages, ‘You are now mine, and I am yours, beyond any mistake.’
“Today sisters, you can say the same, for you become one with St Gregory the Great, St Augustine of Canterbury, St Benedict, St Edward the Confessor and all those holy men and women who have been signs through the ages of God’s providence.” He pointed out how deeply the CSMV was rooted in the history of the attempted Catholic revival in the Church of England, and how closely the Oxford Movement, linked with that, was later enriched and deepened within the Catholic Church by one man, John Henry Newman. “On February 2 1848,” pointed out Fr Daniel, “two significant events which stem from this reawakening took place: John Henry Newman founded the English Oratory at Maryvale and William John Butler, the Vicar of Wantage, founded the Community of St Mary the Virgin”: an act which sprang from a movement of which Newman had been the uncontested intellectual leader, and remained so, even after his “defection” to Rome.
The lives of the SBVM will now be uncertain. They have nothing: but they are full of confidence that all will be well, in God’s way, not theirs. They will be spending the next six weeks with a Benedictine community, to acclimatise themselves to Benedictine ways. Then, they will be homeless and penniless: in the words of their splendid superior, Mother Winsome: “We’ve got an uncertain future. But we are doing this because we truly believe this is God’s call. The Bible is full of people called to step out in faith not knowing where they were going or how they will be provided for and that truly is the situation we are following.”
The ordinariate, I am told, is looking for a new home for them, with some realistic hopes of actually finding one. Meanwhile, the ordinariate monsignori are in no doubt as to the historic significance for the ordinariate itself of the establishment of this new community. As a spokesman said: “We are delighted to have a community of sisters at the heart of our work. As we continue to welcome Anglicans into the full communion of the Catholic Church, and establish a distinctive life of witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the prayerful support of these sisters will be invaluable. We look forward, also, to receiving a great deal from their rich liturgical and musical heritage, which is rightly respected far and wide as a positive contribution to the wider renewal of the Sacred Liturgy which we are currently seeing in the Catholic Church”. (We got a small taste of that after Mass: there was no recessional hymn; instead, the sisters processed to the lady chapel, where they alone sang the Salve Regina, in Latin, clear and confident, a most beautiful sound). Then the Mass truly was over; it had all been an almost stunning and glorious experience, one I will never forget.
Now, it is for all of us to pray for the new community, that it may flourish and grow. I hope for new vocations to it (I would bet on several in the next 12 months: any takers?), and will certainly pray for that. This historic event (I don’t think it’s too much to call it that) is a sign of great hope for the future of the Catholic Church in England. Other signs are to be found in certain dioceses, both North and South, two in particular: and above all in today’s news from the Diocese of Westminster. This is a time of hope for the Church in this country.
This column first appeared Wednesday, 2 January 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission.