This homily was given by Monsignor Andrew Burnham at Allen Hall, Chelsea, at the opening Mass of the period of formation for former Anglican clergy who are to form the first wave of clergy of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham:
After ‘five ordinations and a marriage’, as someone remarked about Jeffrey Steenson, formerly Bishop of the Rio Grande, and nowadays a Catholic priest, the five former Anglican bishops – and in due order, the sixty former Anglican priests and deacons – ought to be learning something about the nature of the call of a disciple, the subject of the opening verses of Luke 5, the Gospel reading. It is clearly not a matter of ‘onward and upward’, serving the Lord Jesus Christ. To serve is to share in his self-emptying and to discover a new readiness to respond to challenge. That is why we are all here. No one will ask you to disown what has happened in the past: to be honest, sometimes there is a real freshness and immediacy about celebrating as a Catholic priest, which speaks of discontinuity. Sometimes it feels much the same as it always did. Yet what we feel is entirely beside the point. Feelings govern neither ecclesiology nor theology.
Jesus saw the potential of those fishermen to do greater work but, if you recall, they slipped back into fishing again. John 21 tells us that Peter, with Thomas, Nathanael, James, John and two others – that’s seven of the eleven – went back fishing after the disorientating experience of the paschal events. It isn’t always about going forward, onwards and upwards. Sometimes it is about going backwards, downwards, sideways, because what we do is not about us but about those whom we seek to serve. Maybe only 1,000 so far but they are just the paid up membership. Fishing is about what is not yet caught, not about counting the catch.
One of the joys of studying St Luke – and I always promise to make the most of him for the Year of Luke and, inevitably, as this year, I find myself, back with Matthew, regretting I didn’t spend more time with Luke. One of the joys of studying Luke, I was saying, is the way he changes and embellishes, rearranges, and supplements what we find in the other gospels. This is obviously so with Luke chapter 5. He manages to incorporate into his account something of the post-resurrection story in John 21. The call of the fishermen in Luke 5, like John 21, has the disciples catching nothing. At the command of Jesus in Luke 5, like in John 21, they fish again to great effect. Luke has a ‘great shoal of fish’ just as John has 153 fish, one of every species of fish known to the ancient world.
Another of the little Lucan details is the parallel between Mary, Mother of God, and Peter. Both gently protest when they encounter God’s command: ‘how can this be, since I have no husband?’ says Our Lady to Gabriel; ‘Master we toiled all night and took nothing’, says Peter to Jesus. The one is followed up by Mary’s promise in Luke 1 to the Archangel, ‘let it be to me according to your word’; the other is followed by Peter’s acceptance in Luke 5 of Jesus’ command: ‘but at your word I will let down the nets’. Luke is establishing, with Peter, just as he did with Mary, that here is a flesh and blood character, someone who reflects, who questions, then courageously obeys.
As we honour St Patrick, to whom, let it be said, the English and the Welsh have some claim, and not just the Irish, I think we do well to reflect on small beginnings. 60 clergy and 1,000 laity, in itself, would be quite a small denomination. I think if the story of St Patrick and many of the great missionary saints were known in more detail we should discover just how tiny and vulnerable the movements they led sometimes were at their inception.
We have a particular opportunity this Lent and Easter to get close to the narrative in the New Testament, not least St Luke’s narrative. And we are talking small numbers. Four or five at the beginning. Four of them on the mount of Transfiguration. Twelve disciples called. Then the crowds build up and fall away. The desolation of the cross, as even the Eleven run away. Only eleven at the end of the Gospel, apart from ‘the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and…his brethren’ (Acts 1:14), whom we hear about as the apostles gather for Pentecost and draw lots for a twelfth man to replace the traitor Judas. But then we learn, from the Lucan narrative, that ‘the Lord added to their number day by day’ (Acts 2:47), and I was talking last night to Fr Keith about just how we manage that. Later we hear about the hundreds and the thousands but, for now, let us be content with the red hot narrative of the early beginnings.
So, as we gather to share in the desert experience of the Lord and later to commune with the Risen Lord, preparing for the enormous and joyful task before us, we are mindful of the complexity of our journey, not onwards and upwards at all but a path of faithfulness to the Lord who calls us. We are mindful of the call to be fishers of men, often, as with the early disciples in the lake of Gennesaret, with rather less than spectacular results. We must echo the response of Our Lady and of St Peter, ‘let it be to me according to your word’; ‘but at your word I will let down the nets’. And we must be patient with, and trustful about the small beginnings, as we expect much greater things to happen. To be honest, I am astonished that nearly 1,000 Anglicans have walked away from the place where they have habitually gathered for worship and been prepared to make do with somewhere new, often not their own, often rather less well-appointed. So let us praise God for that and get on with being fishers of men, the first call on us as disciples, just as it was the call made of the first disciples.