“Holiness on the Head”: a sermon for the first meeting of the Sodality

Sermon for the proposed Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests

Father John-Francis Friendship

WEDNESDAY, MAY 27th, 2015            S. SAVIOUR’S PIMLICO


Holiness on the head,

Light and perfections on the breast,

Harmonious bells below, raising the dead

To lead them unto life and rest:

Thus are true Aarons drest.’


It was the summer of ‘65. The Rolling Stones were top of the pops and the ‘Sound of Music’ had just been released to a rapturous audience: I was 19, newly confirmed, discovering the glories of Anglo-Catholicism and parties in Pimlico. I had joined the Society of Mary, Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament and Guild of All Souls. I would even go on to join the League of Anglican Loyalists…. Ah, those were the waking days When Faith was taught and fanned to a golden blaze.

Somehow I was led to read Henry Morton Robinson’s, ‘The Cardinal’ and to say that I was inspired would be an understatement, for the story of Stephen Fermoyle’s vocation awoke the seed of my own. Many years later I discovered that St. Ignatius Loyola had had a similar experience when first reading the lives of Francis and Dominic: “If they can do such things”, he thought’ “so can I!” Thus began his conversion and so began my sense of calling to the priesthood. You’ll have your own story and I ask your indulgence as I share some of my reflections on this matter of priestly spirituality.

Like Fr. Richard many of us have probably been inspired by the heroic lives of priests we have known or read about and I wonder if there is one in particular who has spoken to you? If so my guess is that it is not just what they have done – few are inspired by overworking priests! – but the way they did it; something about the quality of his or her holiness that has touched you. Something about the way God was revealed in their very humanity. George Herbert’s great poem, Aaron, the opening of which I quoted, is a reminder that it is from the totality of our humanity – our perfections and imperfections – that we embark on the way which leads to holiness. Herbert makes use of the external vesting of a priest to point out that it’s our inner life which needs to be clothed in Christ. His poem reminds me of the importance of the Vesting Prayers; but is mostly a reminder that whilst I may wear the biretta, it is Christ who is my true head.

But back, for a moment, to this matter of who inspires us.


In his talk to the Southwark Chapter of SCP, which led to today’s meeting, Fr. Richard said: “I am an Anglo-Catholic. That is to say I am an Anglican who looks to the great heroes of our faith in the Oxford movement and the ritualist pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th century.”

It was those ‘great heroes of our faith’ who, themselves, were inspired by the example of earlier priests not least S. Vincent de Paul, the great Apostle of Charity. The founders of the Society of the Holy Cross looked to the life of Vincent and it is about one of their first members, Fr. Stanton, that I want to draw your attention.



Arthur Henry Stanton was born in 1839 and died in 1913. Priested at the age of 25 he spent his entire ministry – almost fifty years – as a curate at S. Alban’s, Holborn and thousands lined the route of his funeral procession from Holborn to the Necropolis Station at Waterloo. I first heard his name mentioned when Richard Holloway quoted some words of Fr. Stanton during his Address to the Catholic Renewal Conference in 1978: “When you’re priests,” Stanton said to a group of ordinands, “tell your people to love the Lord Jesus. Don’t tell them how to be Church of England: tell them to love the Lord Jesus”.

It has been said that Jesus and Mary were the two loves of his life and he saw Catholic faith and practice as the ‘home’ in which they dwelt. And in that home his focus was on the Mass and Penance. In a letter to his mother he wrote:

“I am a Catholic in heart, longings and hopes. Catholics believe, as they believe in their God, that Jesus Christ is present on His Altar in the Holy Sacrament.

A Catholic priest believes that he holds between his hands the Bread of Life; as St. John says he handled the Word of Life with his hands. I hold the doctrine of the Real Presence dearer than life. As I hope for salvation I would rather be hacked to pieces than omit adoring my God in the Sacrament.”

Strong words! Yet Stanton is overshadowed by the likes of Mackonochie and Tooth, and SSC chose Fr. Lowder as one of its Patron Saints. But, for me, Arthur Stanton is a model for the faithful catholic priest whose eye is set on Jesus and whose heart is given to His Divine Compassion.


Of course, not all of us are involved in parish ministry but every priest is called to seek to be formed in the likeness of Christ. To be given to His love for us and for all people. That is our primary calling. Yet too often I listen to priests who have become over-identified with their role and forgotten to remember that, before all else, we are commanded to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all ()our soul, and with all ()our strength, and with all ()our mind” (Lk.10:27). And then to love our neighbour as our-self.

As priests we are primarily called to be God’s lovers. That must be the focus of our lives. Not parishes, schools or cathedrals or whatever. They are the context. But to love God. In a meditation on the Trinity, the Franciscan Richard Rohr has said:

‘The Mystery of (the) Trinity invites us into full participation with God, a flow, a relationship, a waterwheel of always outpouring love. Trinity basically says that God is a verb much more than a noun.

Some Christian mystics taught that all of creation is being taken back into this flow of eternal life, almost as if we are a “Fourth Person” of the Eternal Flow of God or, as Jesus put it, “so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:3).

So our primary calling is into this dynamic relationship with God, and it is from that encounter we discover our true vocation. I think Fr. Stanton found his in being, in a real sense, ‘in Jesus’ and just as many religious take a dedication name that describes their personal vocation, ‘of Jesus and Mary’ might describe Arthur Stanton just as ‘of the Cross’ describes a certain St. John.   My next thought, then, is what might your ‘personal vocation’ be and how might you nurture that and live it out?


Now whilst I haven’t been able to find anything that Fr. Stanton wrote about devotion to Mary it is clear that awareness of her place in the life of the Church was developing in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1848 the Community of St. Mary the Virgin had been founded by Fr. Butler and when SSC was instituted seven years later they made devotion to her part of their Rule.

In a reflection on our Lady and the priesthood in 2009 Pope Benedict spoke of Jesus’ commendation of His Mother to S. John and pointed out that the English translation of the text ‘And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home’ has a far deeper and richer meaning in Greek. It can be translated as he ‘took Mary into his inner life, his inner being’. The Holy Father went on to say: “To take Mary with one means to introduce her into the dynamism of one’s own entire existence – it is not something external – and into all that constitutes the horizon of one’s own apostolate.”

So if Mary is to inspire us then it cannot be simply to offer her more devotion, as right as that may be, but to discover a way of allowing her charism to infuse ours. To trust, to listen and to wait as we, like her, seek to do God’s will for, as Pope Francis has said: ‘Mary is God’s welcomer’.


One thing that’s clear about the early pioneers of the Catholic revival is their commitment to the development of the spiritual life. In preparing this address I found myself referring time and time again to the founding of SSC in 1855 not least because their first stated object is the sanctification of their members. And to that end, amongst other things, SSC was responsible for the development of the Retreat movement in the Church of England.

But I have a sense that many of us find ourselves, whether by circumstance, inclination or a toxic mix of the two, more Martha’s than Mary’s.

Whilst we might long for an end to interminable meetings and for a bit more ‘peace and quiet’ I wonder if our personal Rule of Life includes times of meditation or retreat and the devotional study of the scriptures. Here the dynamic of Mary’s silence and centring on the Word needs to inform us for the nature of our spiritual life will direct everything we do. As Br. Bernard SSF used to say, “Get it right with God, first, brother. The rest will fall in place.”

Now by ‘spiritual life’ I don’t mean increasing the number of devotions we offer. S. John Cassian points out that: ‘Fasting, vigils, the study of scripture, renouncing possessions and the world – these are means not the end. Perfection is not found in them, but through them. It is pointless to boast about such practices when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow humans.’ I’m also minded of the Principles of the Society of S. Francis which still resonate for me when they say that ‘corporate worship is not a substitute for the quiet communion of the individual soul with God’ (Day 17)

Having said that I wonder what spiritual exercises help you love God more fully and freely? I recall at the SCP Conference in Exeter being reminded that, as Catholics, we had a treasury of devotion which we could use, and we needed to make use of it for ourselves and not just for the benefit of our ministries. And that reflection led me to introduce a lot of ‘Fresh Expressions’ – contemplative expressions – into my parish: a Rosary group, Saturday Evening Vigil Mass and Holy Hour. Few, if any, came but they were important times for me. They helped me in my relationship with God.

So if we really believe in the value of Catholic practices, then we will be doing just that – practising them!

And there is one other practice I would commend: praying for the departed. Maybe the fact that I’ve almost reached threescore years and ten gives me a particular interest in remembering those who have gone before us! But I was always taught that membership of any Catholic society does not end at death. Yet not all publish an Obit list so I am moved by the way the Rule of SSC states that members ‘shall understand prayer for the dead as an act of charity to assist those who have died on their pilgrim way into the peace of God’s Kingdom, so that the whole world might become a new creation.’ (8)

Don’t let’s forget departed members but pray for them on their anniversaries. After all, we shall all benefit in the end…


Today, of course, we meet on this Feast of S. Augustine of Canterbury and our gospel reading concerns the mission of the seventy. As Fr. Clive wrote: ‘In every generation the Spirit of God renews and revives the church, so that the ‘missio dei’ … might most effectively engage afresh for a new generation, in different circumstances and with new challenges.’ So, in contemplating a new movement for priests we cannot ignore evangelisation. To be lovers of God and of our neighbour, no matter how hard that may be.

Fr. Stanton was a keen supporter of the early Christian Socialist Movement, regarding it as the political expression of the Incarnation, and whilst we may have moved on from the social conditions of those19th and early 20th century slum parishes, which gave rise to those stirring words of Bp. Frank Weston to the Anglo-Catholic Congress of 1923, as Gaudiem et Spes states:

“the Church . . . travels the same journey as all humanity and shares the same earthly lot with the world: she is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God.”


But thoughts about Catholic practices and talk about Mission can blind us to the fact that we also need also to love and care for those around us – those to whom we are committed by natural ties of love and friendship – and our-selves. I realise that Fr. Stanton and many of those early Anglo-Catholic priests were single or celibate and recognise there’s been a tendency for priestly spirituality to be predicated towards such states but where might that leave the married or partnered priest? Where does this call to seek God leave our human loves?

If we are married or partnered then those who love us can sometimes feel they play second – or third – fiddle to God and the Church.   There’s a danger that some aspects of spirituality seem to bypass human love and move directly to God, and whilst there are some who have such a personal, solitary calling to make that into a general principal would seem to trivialise the Incarnation.   In that context I find it interesting that in the early days of SSC it was found necessary to form three distinct Rules: the White Rule for celibates; the Red for those who were single or married, and a Green Rule, although I haven’t been able to find out anything about that. Now, of course, there is a separate community for celibate priests, the Company of Mission Priests. But it, and the Oratory of the Good Shepherd founded in the year of Fr. Stanton’s death, is for men only.

I also recall that S. Francis developed three Orders for those who were attracted by his spirituality and if there is to be a new Sodality for Priests, then will it be a case that ‘one size fits all’, or might there need to be a variety of ways of belonging?

Finally yet, perhaps, most importantly any true Catholic spirituality will help us love ourselves. Too often in the past Rules of Life were overly active – they could sound like a list of New Year’s Resolutions rather than a means whereby we sought to nurture God’s love for us. There is a difference between pious religious practices and a healthy spirituality. To quote again from the Franciscan Principles: ‘The witness of life is more eloquent than that of words’ and any Rule needs to address the whole person.

Our Rule, then, needs to acknowledge our need for rest and refreshment and should positively encourage us to take time out and create space for our-selves to flourish. As the Rule for a New Brother states: ‘A spiritual rule wants to offer an open and free space within and among us where God can touch us with Gods loving presence. It wants to make it possible for us not so much to find God, as to be directed by God; not so much to love God but to be loved by God.’ (Foreword p.8)


Like Herbert and Ignatius Loyola we are called to let Jesus flow into who we are and to allow who we are to be clothed in Him.

Christ is my only head,

My alone onely heart and brest,

My only musick, striking me ev’n dead;

That to the old man I may rest

And in him new drest.

We need the heroes of our Faith to inspire us in our own calling but we also need to listen, deeply, to our personal vocation just as Mary listened to God and found hers. And this needs to be set in the context of God’s mission – a mission which is known as we encounter God and allow ourselves to be changed by God’s desire for at-one-ness with all things: ‘from glory to glory’.

However our priesthood is expressed, whether in parish or school, with the military or in a hospital, we are called to ‘live intensely’. To ‘believe that we are consecrated to give our wills to Jesus, and in giving our wills to lay ourselves body and soul in his hands that he may do what he will with us. … For’ as Bp. Weston said, ‘the Christ of Calvary calls us’.


I will feast the souls of my priests with abundance. [Alleluia.]

And my people shall be satisfied with my goodness. [Alleluia.]


in your love for us you chose Mary to be the Mother of your Son,

the first to welcome Him into her heart and bring Him forth for a waiting world.

Grant us such a measure of her grace as to be truly devoted to your Word.

By the loving intercession of Our Lady, reconsecrate us each day

and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit bring us, your pilgrim priests,

to be set forth upon the ocean of light which is the Trinity,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit.



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