Owen Higgs gives thanks for 150 years of St Augustine’s Kilburn
I’d like to begin by saying two ‘thank yous.’ Thankyou Fr Colin for inviting me, and thankyou to the people of St Augustine’s for your welcome.
I want to bring before you three things, three things which speak of this House of God and of St Augustine your patron.
First, is my hat, my biretta. It was bought for me by a man called Clifford Hammond. And Clifford was a bit of a hedgehog in that he knew three things about our faith. First, he had learnt that faith here. Indeed, for a time he was churchwarden. St Augustine’s was where he had practised the Catholic Faith and St Augustine’s was always dear to his heart. Then, second, Clifford knew that priests always wear birettas, so he bought me one to make sure I did. And third, what was most important of all, third he knew Jesus Christ was his Lord and Saviour. Every week Clifford came into blessed, holy communion with his Lord. In due course he departed this world fortified by the rites of Holy Mother Church. His last years were troubled by illness and bereavement. But he held fast to His Lord.
It was all about Jesus. Just as is everything I want to say to you, it is really all about Jesus. So, first – the biretta as a symbol of the Catholic Faith in Jesus Christ handed on here at St Augustine’s.
And the second thing which speaks of this House of God and St Augustine your patron is here in my hand. It’s so small I can barely see it myself. It’s a relic. Not of St Augustine, I’m afraid. But the next best thing. A relic of Pope St Gregory the Great, the man who sent Augustine to England. Gregory was an extraordinary man. One of the really great bishops. And he sent Augustine to this land to re-evangelise it. There had been Christians here in Roman times. There had been bishops of London, though the last one is said to have fled to Wales – which, I might say, is a jolly good place to flee to. But when Gregory sent Augustine here there was no Bishop of London and not much faith left round here. Indeed, before he’d got here, Augustine feared England was too a hard nut to crack. So, he tried to turn back, but St Gregory wouldn’t let him. Once God’s work has been begun, the saint reckoned, once God’s work has begun it doesn’t stop. And so, Augustine came to our country and in due course on Pentecost Sunday 597, Aethelbert, King in Kent was baptised. How come there was that miracle of grace?
Well, Augustine was practical about his mission. He didn’t trust to blind faith. He brought interpreters with him and he had the king’s wife on side. He also had some forty companions. St Augustine’s mission was strategically planned and well-resourced. That hasn’t changed over time. God’s mission needs to be planned and resourced. But there was more. Augustine had first brought with him two things. Later Gregory had sent across some of the necessaries for the Mass which were of a style and quality which would fit in with your worship here today. But first Augustine brought just a silver cross and a board painted with Jesus.
That cross, venerated and adored, and Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Saviour. That was the faith of St Augustine. And it is our faith. Jesus Christ and the cross. Through His cross and resurrection Jesus has brought life and joy into the world. And we are told that Augustine and his followers were successful because they prayed and in their prayer they placed Jesus at the centre of their lives. And also they cared for their neighbour. In this way they practised what they preached. And people loved them for it. The people loved them because St Augustine and his companions lived with the joy of Jesus.
And Jesus brings joy to us today. He is our God and our God is a God of love and joy. A God who wants to share that love and joy. A God who, as St Irenaeus says, a God who finds His greatest joy in you and me. And does something about it. For God couldn’t leave us wandering aimlessly in ignorance and sin. So, He sent Jesus to us. And through His death on the cross Jesus made it possible for us to come before the throne of grace. And that is truly heaven. For even the most splendid temples of the Lord on earth, even the places of deep and long prayer, even – dare I say it today – even this shrine of faith is but a shadow of the glory which we will share in heaven. And Jesus who gave Himself in love on the cross made it possible for us to hope for heaven. As our brother Clifford Hammond knew, we have a foretaste of that joy now, that food for the journey which you have always honoured here. That food is the bread of angels, the very communion with the God Most High. But what you enjoy now is, as St Augustine himself taught, what you enjoy now is but the beginning of the joys of heaven.
And so to my third thing. We have had the biretta as a sign of the people here faithful to God in the Catholic Church. We have had St Gregory to remind us of the mission of your patron, how Jesus was brought to this land, how people will love our Faith if they see we are faithful to Our Lord.
And the third thing – is a hymn. When the foundation stone was laid here, your architect John Loughborough Pearson and his team struck up the hymn, We march, we march to victory. The choir will sing it during communion. The words of the first verse go like this; We march, we march to victory, with the cross of the Lord before us, with his loving eye looking down from the sky, and his holy arm spread o’er us. We march to victory.
And we do. We march to victory with our Jesus. For we are the people of the Lord God. We have His word in holy scripture. We have His sacraments and the divine energies of His grace. Above all we have Jesus Himself, our Good Shepherd, our brother, our friend. The Lamb once slain now reigns in glory and we are His. We march to victory. And, yes, there will be hard times and difficult times. But there will be good times and holydays.
And in all those times remember I pray you remember that St Augustine is your marching companion. Think how he preached Jesus. Think how he prayed to Jesus, how people knew Augustine as a man whose actions matched his words, and how his life matched His Lord. Learn from St Augustine and ask for his prayers.
Pope St Gregory had a soft spot for the work of St Augustine. He liked to praise God again and again for the joy Jesus had brought to this land. As he put it, the pagans had learnt to sing ‘alleluia.’
So – God grant today that we may we join those two Apostles to the English, St Gregory and St Augustine, that we may join those men chosen by God, sing ‘alleluia’ and march with them to Christ’s victory.
Fr Owen Higgs SSC is a members of the Editorial Board of New Directions. This sermon was preached at St Augustine’s Kilburn on Saturday 29th May 2021