Harri Williams remembers the faithful example of Sister Mary Teresa SSM
There are many people gathered in this Church who will know far more about Sr Teresa than I will. Having met her but briefly on several pilgrimages during my younger days, she has of course been resident at the House in Chiswick since before I arrived here as Parish Priest. I am fortunate to know much of the story of her life, through what others have shared. Having had the privilege of saying Mass at the Priory on a daily basis since the lockdown began last March, I have come to understand and appreciate in a much deeper sense, the nature and the importance of the religious life. My additional qualification in respect of my knowledge of the religious life, and if you didn’t know this fact already then you must be the last person in Walsingham not to know, is that I am of course Sr Angela’s godson in law. As we give thanks to Almighty God this day for Sr Teresa, we are not simply giving thanks for a 90 year old woman who has lived a good life, or a lady who through her smile and character brought joy into the lives of others, although she did all of that, rather we are giving thanks in particular for the distinct vocation which Sr Teresa embraced 67 years ago. The vocation to the religious life. In our Gospel for today we hear the opening section of St John’s account of the resurrection. Here we meet the disciples, together with Mary Magdalene, who after Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday, were undoubtedly consumed with fear and anxiety for themselves and for their future. On that first day of the week when they came to the tomb, one after another, and glimpsed at the empty tomb, they came to realise that the words of prophecy spoken by Christ about his death and resurrection were true. He was indeed the Son of God, the saviour of the world. The risen Christ called the first apostles to alter their minds from fear to trust. To have a mind of trust rather than a mind of fear, is what the vocation to the religious life is about. When we have a mind of fear, we cling to who we are and what we have. We value our identity, our possessions, our status. Fear as the Fathers of the Church teach us is the ‘original sin’, the poison that was injected into the human race at the fall of creation, fear is debilitating, life denying, it upsets both the individual and society. And if we have a mind of fear, we can easily become defensive towards those whom we might consider our adversaries. Our speech and our actions become aggressive and we lash out at those whom we are called to love. To have a mind of trust however is not to live out one’s life at a surface level, but rather to ground one’s being through prayer, word and sacrament on our true identity. To centre one’s life on what is deep within us, the image and likeness of God. When we obtain a mind of trust we rest in the centre, in the knowledge that we are safe, in the knowledge that we are saved. It is through that transformation from fear to trust that our souls become great and expansive, enabling us to love and to pray and to witness in a more powerful way than we can imagine, or perhaps even recognise. Sr Teresa, like all religious when they embrace their vocation and take their vows, embraced that transformation from fear to trust. That transformation is enabled most chiefly through the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience which the Sisters of St Margaret make at their profession. Their names are changed, concern about material possessions removed, and the nature of human relationships forever altered. The willingness to embrace such a vocation is one which we should all as priests and people hold in great respect. Because by taking those vows Sr Teresa, like all religious enabled her mind to change from fear to trust, she enabled herself to be grounded in the images and likeness of the God who created her, who saved her, and who loved her. The God who said to her at her vocation: ‘Arise my love, my beautiful one, and come away.’ Sr Teresa’s faithfulness to that change of mind, is something which the whole Church should give thanks for, but perhaps particularly the Church in this place, and those who profess, uphold and teach the Catholic Faith in the Church of England. For when the vote to permit women to be ordained in 1992 happened, it would have been easy for Sr Teresa to follow the crowd, or like others to honourably depart for another shore. But Sr Teresa, was faithful to the Church of her baptism and to the Church of her vocation as a religious. And through her efforts, the house of the Society of St Margaret in this place became autonomous once again. Enabling through her leadership the traditional monastic way of living the religious life to be retained. It is that legacy of leadership that the people of this Benefice, the pilgrims who visit the Shrine, and so many others continue to enjoy through the presence and the prayers, and the witness of Srs Angela and Carol. But if we want to honour Sr Teresa’ life and work, then perhaps more than ever we must consider as priests, associates, parishioners and friends how we can continue to support the religious life in this place. What prayer do we offer for them, what practical support do we give to them, what words of positivity and hope do speak for them and to them? For we too easily forget that the Society of St Margaret established its house in this place in 1947 with only three sisters, and with the words of the Founder ringing in their ears: ‘the impossible must be done.’ Today we give thanks to Almighty God for the life of Sr Mary Teresa. We give thanks that by embracing her vocation she became, like those first disciples, a woman whose mind was one of trust and not fear. Who through the willingness to give up all for Christ, enabled her heart and soul to widen, to love first, love midst, love last. The motto of the society of St Margaret is per angusta ad augusta. Through trials to triumphs. Through her life Sr Teresa displayed that despite the trials which faced her, her heart and mind was fixed on the triumph that awaited her. May this Mass speedily hasten her soul on its way, may she who was not fearful but trusting be granted a share in the triumphs of heaven.
Fr Harri Williams SSC is the parish priest of Walsingham. This sermon was preached at a Requiem Mass celebrated at St Mary’s Walsingham on the 25th January 2021 for the repose of the soul of Sister Mary Teresa SSM