Homily for the Solemnity of the Dedication of Pluscarden Abbey Church

5 November 2018. Haggai 1:15-2:9; 1 Pt 2:4-9; John 2:13-22

According to the mind of the Catholic Church, a building that has been solemnly dedicated, consecrated, blessed, hallowed, set apart for divine worship, is of itself a cause for celebration, for gratitude, for an annual expression of rejoicing. A Dedication Festival is an occasion for us to thank God for his gift to us of our Church, and also to commit ourselves once again to receive this gift as worthily as we can: in resolute fidelity; in holiness of life; in authentic worship, offered here in the power of the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

For nearly 400 years the Pluscarden Abbey Church stood as an empty ruin: romantic, certainly, and strangely peaceful, and evocative: but a corpse, a skeleton, a fossil. It stood as a melancholy monument to former times, when long ago men had dedicated their lives to the service of God; when Mass had been daily offered, and the Divine Office sung, by day and by night; and when sometimes throngs had gathered here in Pilgrimage, united around both their Bishop and their Catholic King. But the faith which these walls had symbolised and protected came to be abandoned, reviled, proscribed. What had previously been held holy was now desecrated. Animals wandered in and out of both sanctuary and cloister; birds nested in the empty roof spaces; and people came with wheel barrows and carts, up what was then the main entrance route from the West, to take away dressed stones for their local own building operations. In former times silence had reigned here, which was the full and sacred silence of prayer and adoration. Now there was only the silence of emptiness and absence. 

But then, apparently by miracle, Pluscarden was re-inhabited, and re-built, and life sprang again out of death. Now, as we celebrate today her re-Dedication, it may be worth reminding ourselves that ruin and desolation can come at any time upon any Church, and also upon any individual believer. We too, whether by slow neglect or by sudden revolution, can compromise or renounce our faith, and our vital union with Christ, and our status as living stones in the Temple of his Church, and our ability to offer acceptable worship to God. It’s a horrible thought. Today then is an occasion for us to beg once again for the grace to remain faithful until we die. Not just that. We want to grow constantly in grace. We want never to cease being built up ever more towards the stature of Jesus Christ himself. We want to be able to face him on the last day not only as sinners, but also as those who freely and efficaciously cooperated with the grace of God, adorned with virtues and with good works, truly conformed to Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Recently our community enjoyed a pilgrimage outing to some of the sites associated with the slow re-emergence into the light of the Catholic faith in this area. We were reminded that after 1560, Mass could only be celebrated secretly, in barns, in private houses, in woods or fields or on open hill sides. Elgin Cathedral remains of course ever a national reproach, and a monument to those long centuries of infidelity and neglect. But gradually during the 17th and 18th centuries, Catholics in the North East began to build new Churches. The one at Clochan was almost immediately pulled down again; the one at Tynet didn’t look anything like a Church; the one at Preshome was sited well away from public view. Still those stubbornly tenacious Catholics kept going, until at last they came to enjoy complete freedom of worship. And so now we have our Church, without any restriction or penalty whatever, thank God.

Nowadays we have the phenomenon of vast Papal or National Masses celebrated in Parks or Stadiums, or even on beaches. These venues are necessary to accommodate congregations numbered in hundreds of thousands or even millions. But still: parks are for public recreation and amusement; stadiums are for sports; beaches for sunbathing or swimming; but in Churches, as St. Benedict insists, nothing else is done or stored there (HR 52:1). And that reminds us that God is “other”. He is greater than anything we can imagine or experience. He is all holy: not only immanently present to us at every moment, but also infinitely above us and beyond us. And so instinctively we like to come before him in special sacred spaces; in buildings that are themselves holy places, and set aside for prayer. Here we come into God’s presence not as if to relax or exercise or work or shop or chat, but exclusively for the purpose of worship.

Our gratitude for our own Church is naturally sharpened these days as we remember those Christians, maybe the majority in the world, who do not enjoy our current freedoms. In China, if the Church building had not already been demolished by Government bulldozers, there would be a ban on under-18's even entering. Secret Police would monitor the preaching at Mass and the membership of the Congregation, and most likely the Abbot would currently be away, serving a sentence of 10 years or so in a re-education camp. In Northern Nigeria the Church would likely be a smouldering ruin, filled with the corpses of massacred worshippers. In Egypt, if the Church had not been destroyed in an arson attack, Government permission would be required to fix a leaking roof, or repair a broken window; and often that permission would be with-held. In Syria, if any part of a Church were still left standing, it would be daubed with anti-Christian graffiti, and its images would have been smashed or defaced. In the Central African Republic, local Christians would not be able to worship in their Church, because it would be filled with terrified and starving refugees. In North Korea, there would be no Church, and no meeting of worshippers, and all known Christians would be in slave labour camps. In Pakistan just now, most Christians would avoid going anywhere near their own Church, for fear of being lynched by the mob. Even in Catholic Italy, most likely the Church would be owned not by the monastic community, but by the State, with all the restrictions and disadvantages that implies. So yes, we are fortunate here, and blessed, and filled with gratitude, and we pray today very explicitly in solidarity with our less fortunate brothers and sisters in Christ.

Today’s Gospel is quite remarkably violent, negative, disturbing! Visiting God’s holy Temple, Jesus is moved to anger. So he seizes a whip, and drives them all out. Where, then, is the vision of peace, the celestial Jerusalem, the image of heaven? Rotten, corrupt, defiled, unfaithful, predatory. Yet: Jesus promises to raise this Temple again on the third day. So we trust that, according to his typical way, he will renew his Church in holiness. So also he will renew us sinners who are her members. And when each of us is at last destroyed by death, he will raise us with himself to heaven. There, in that place, finally and definitively, he will give peace.