The voice of prayer is never silent, nor dies the strain of praise away....
From after the lunchtime Mass on Friday there will be no public Masses at St Wilfrid’s, St Joseph’s or the Shrine of St Margaret Clitherow for the foreseeable future. Even the Second World War did not bring this about although there was probably a short period after the bombing of 1942 when Mass was celebrated elsewhere. The situation is as distressing as it seems unprecedented.
But trials are not unprecedented to those who have faith and who can look to the Church, its saints and its history.
York - and the surrounding countryside - is full of monuments to our Catholic past: the Minster, the Shrine of St Margaret Clitherow, the great ruined abbeys like St Mary’s, Rievaulx, Fountains and Mount Grace. These holy places remind us that we have lived through troubled times before and passed through them with faith and hope renewed.Sometimes it turned out that people’s lives had been changed for ever. But the Faith - and the Hope and Love generated by faith – lived on.
Faith not only lives in adversity and trial. It flourishes. We should bear this in mind as we move into this unpredictable time for the way in which we are able to practise our religion.
St Wilfrid’s Oratory Church will remain open but there will be no public Mass. Ordinary social gatherings will stop. Even our schools may have to close. The Fathers and Brothers will try to be more present than usual in the church each day to give those who wish opportunities to talk or to make a confession.
We will broadcast Mass each day in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms from the Chapel of Our Lady of York. There will be a link to this on the York Oratory website. At the English Mass we will preach in the usual way. Our holy father St Philip set great store by what he called the daily familiar discourse on the Word of God.
At the end of each Mass we will sing the antiphon imploring our Blessed Mother’s help. Her statue, before which so many of us pray every time we come to church, will be there for all to see, with the votive candles burning, signs to us, that though we may not be able to be there in person, in the words of the hymn, the voice of prayer is never silent, nor dies the strain of praise away.
We will continue to do this, as our forefathers did, because we know, like them, that nothing is more important than the Mass and prayer.
Pope Francis has asked that we make our churches available to anyone who wants to have a place to come and pray. Of course those who do come are asked keep their distance from others as an act of prudence and charity. Should the Fathers or Brothers become ill themselves then we will have to close the church until the period of quarantine is over; but we aim to keep the Masses going whatever happens.
A great celebration of the Holy Mass - thronged with the faithful – is a wonderful thing as we know from recent experience when we celebrated the Mass of Thanksgiving for the York Oratory. But in fact such Masses are not the norm. Think of all the side altars and chantries in the Minster where each day for hundreds of years priests from St William’s College or the Bedern said Mass each day with no more than a server for the souls of the faithful departed; think of the hermit Carthusian monks of Mount Grace or the silent Cistercians of Rievaulx who offered the Mass in the depths of the night praying for pardon for the sins of the world; think of the chaplains who offered the Mass illegally and in secret in the house of St Margaret Clitherow and many other hidden places in York. No crowds of worshippers could be there but many thousands of people, persecuted and fearful, begged those priests for their Masses and their prayers.Think of the people who could not get to Mass: lepers and victims of plague who watched the Mass through squints in the walls of the churches; think of the anchorites – men and women who self-isolated (as we might say!) for the sake of prayer – who lived in hermitages attached to churches like All Saints in North Street.
Please do not think this is something confined to the distant past or far away places. Many priests in our own day have to say Mass alone or in secret. Perhaps they are persecuted or they may be retired or ill. It may be that the sins of their past life mean they can no longer exercise a public ministry and they celebrate in a corner of their room with little social contact. Even for priests like these, the Mass is worth offering, in silence and alone. They know what the Mass is and why it means so much to them even – perhaps especially – when they are on their own.
All these faithful priests and people knew that though the Mass is a communal act it is also something very much more. It is the sacrifice of Calvary. It is the offering back to the Father the gift of his Son who died to take away the sins of the world and to show us the depth of his love.
Though we cannot be there, those familiar readings, those prayers, and above all that sacrifice will continue to be offered in our church because we believe and need to be reminded - as much as our ancestors did in their times of trial - that our Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins and that he loved us to the end. Everything else may fail us but the Lord will never abandon us.God willing, when all this is over, there will be many great Masses of Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile may this time of trial remind us of our need for the Eucharist. May it make us desire to receive our Lord more humbly and more worthily. May it make us hunger for Him. May it make us repent of our sins and recognise more and more our dependence on almighty God. May we use the increased time we will have to increase the time we give to prayer. May we show what charity we can to our sick and anxious brothers and sisters and continue - by prayers and by our good works - to fulfil the two greatest commandments: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and strength and our neighbour as ourselves.
And may we be sustained, throughout this troubled time, with our knowledge of His love and draw comfort from the fact that, whatever the world may throw at us, the voice of prayer is never silent, nor dies the strain of praise away.