DURING THE REIGN OF KING CHARLES II, in year 1672, the English Parliament passed what became known as the Test Act (replicated shortly afterwards by the parliaments of Scotland and Ireland). It happened because the king’s brother, the Duke of York (subsequently King James II and VII) had converted to Catholicism. The act imposed on all office-holders under the Crown an oath which required the oath-taker to say that ‘there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper . . . at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever’. It was designed to smoke out Catholics from political power and it worked as the Duke of York had to resign as Lord High Admiral. One way or another this oath remained a way of excluding Catholics until 1829. I always think that when shallow politicians go on about ‘British values’, allegedly including tolerance and freedom of religion, they should be reminded of this blot on our history for a century and a half.
Those framing the oath knew perfectly well that beyond believing in the ministry of the pope or praying to the saints, beliefs about the Mass were the last line in the sand for Catholics – the one thing they wouldn’t give up without giving up everything about their faith. It goes to the heart of Christian faith and experience for us. The picture shows Cardinal Vincent Nichols giving Benediction (as the see of Southwark is now vacant until 25 July it’s OK to depict another archbishop), I think at the Adoremus Eucharistic Congress in Liverpool in September,which three of you attended. Catholics were asked to denounce the doctrine of transubstantiation – the way in which we understand that in terms of their basic essence the bread and wine on the altar at Mass are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus, because of what Our Lord said at the Last Supper. The Protestant Reformers in this country and elsewhere in Europe in varying ways rejected this understanding and abolished the Mass.
It is this belief on our part that we celebrate this weekend on the feast of Corpus Christi. The medieval theologian who did most to help the Church understand the Eucharist was St Thomas Aquinas, and the liturgical celebration of Corpus Christi dates from his time in the 13th century (and he wrote some of the key Eucharistic hymns, such as O Salutaris Hostia and Tantum Ergo Sacramentum which we sing at Benediction. It is because this belief is so important to us that (at any rate in this parish) we have our various First Holy Communions at this time of year, and it’s why at the 11am Mass this Sunday there will as usual be a Procession of the Host and Benediction. It is the reason why we have the Blessed Sacrament reserved in our churches, the focal point of prayer and it’s why we genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament – it’s at the centre of our Christian lives in a way that is distinctive and special for Catholics.
At the Eucharistic congress last September, as I understand it, representatives from parishes were encouraged to promote regular Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in our churches, to help people deepen their faith. We’re fortunate in this parish because we have Exposition every weekday for an hour after the morning Mass (and also once a week in each of our convents). This is a great blessing but we ought to remember that it happens largely thanks to the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart, who started this in church when the old convent was closed and the sisters moved to Village Way (and I was told once by the sisters that some people in the parish were not happy about it) – so without them it might not have been started. While for some parishes starting daily Exposition might be a challenge we don’t have to face we shouldn’t be complacent here. Numbers day by day are not brilliant; and perhaps we do need to think of other times for it as well which would suit people who have to go to work every day.
But Corpus Christi is also about commitment to our faith. It is easy at the present time to be depressed about political leader-ship in this country – but how far would Catholics in public and political life show the same faithfulness as Catholics who were forced out of office because they wouldn’t renounce tran-substantiation? James, Duke of York, had his faults; but he gave up running the Royal Navy because of his Catholic faith in the Mass; countless Catholics who would in succeeding centuries have made good politicians, lawyers or officers in the armed forces were denied the opportunity to serve their country because of bigotry and intolerance – all because of what we celebrate this weekend on the feast of Corpus Christi. How many of us would be so faithful?