Homily for SS. Peter and Paul, 30 June 2019

Exeter Cathedral School was founded some time in the 12th century, and boasts an almost unbroken existence from that day to this. I went there as a boarder in 1966, aged 7, with a scholarship linked to my place in the Choir. We sang Psalms at Evensong every day, which in retrospect was a jolly good preparation for Benedictine monastic life. The School, like the Cathedral, was dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul. So our coat of arms and badge showed the Crossed Keys of St. Peter, and in the middle a sword for St. Paul. Our motto, which always went with the badge, was Ut voce, ita vita: As with the voice, so in the life.

That is: we were publicly dedicated to the praise of God. So this should be reflected in our lives. Exeter Cathedral Choristers should therefore be truthful, honest, diligent. As Christians, we should cultivate all the virtues. Our motto warned us not to be like the Pharisees, who did not practise what they preached (cf. e.g. Mt 23:3). Far be it from us to land up like Judas, a trusted disciple of Jesus, who became a traitor. We should be among those who hear the words of the Lord, and act on them. According to the parable, this is to be like the wise man who built his house on rock. When the storm came, his house did not fall (Mt 7:25; cf. HR Prol 33).

In our day many wounds have been inflicted on the Catholic Church through the hypocrisy of her official representatives. Certainly there have been accusations against clerics and others which were simply malicious and false. But unfortunately many of them have been true. They have revealed not just the odd regrettable lapse due to human weakness, but really wicked crimes that destroy other people’s lives; premeditated, planned acts of gross immorality; even networks of collusion in evil, involving men who regularly celebrate the Eucharist, who preach homilies each Sunday, who hear confessions, and prepare children and adults for baptism and confirmation. The result of course has been prison sentences, compensation payments, loss of credibility, loss of trust. Worse: people have been repelled, and led to reject Catholicism, Christianity, Jesus Christ himself; so souls that should be saved are lost. Ut voce, ita vita - as with the voice, so in the life. It’s a good motto, very relevant for us all, and well worth reflecting on. 

Today we celebrate two pillars of the Church whose fidelity to the end was proved by the shedding of their blood. Their witness remains our model, our guide and our inspiration, 2,000 years on. The New Testament has plenty of texts from both Peter and Paul which strongly insist on the necessity of good example, of consistent living, of practical fidelity to Christ. In his first Letter St. Peter writes to Church elders: Do not lord it over the group which is in your charge, but be an example for the flock (1 Pt 5:3). St. Paul often cites his own example. Be united, he tells the Philippians, in imitating me (Phil 3:17). He writes to Timothy: Be an example to all believers in the way you speak and behave, in your love, your faith and your purity. Or to Titus: Set an example of good works, by sincerity and earnestness ... so that no accusation can be made against you (Tit 2:7). As he faces his imminent death Paul boldly cries: I have run the race to the finish. I have kept the faith (2 Tm 4:7).

You want me now to hold up SS. Peter and Paul as shining examples for us all of perfect conformity to the Exeter motto. But I can’t do that, because both of them were accused of contradicting in their life what they proclaimed in their words. Not to mention St. Peter’s triple denial on the night of the Passion, we read in Galatians of how he capitulated to pressure from Judaisers, and withdrew from eating with gentile Christians. And not to mention St. Paul’s active persecution of the Church, several times in his letters we find him responding to charges of inconsistency and insincerity (cf. e.g. 2 Cor 10:10). Two conclusions anyway can be drawn from this. First, that by God’ grace, but only by God’s grace, it is possible for any Christian to live in total fidelity to the end. Second: if there has been failure, or imperfection, then while life lasts we can repent, and amend, and henceforth be truly faithful, as we desire. 

One reason for the existence of a Benedictine monastery is that it helps those who come to it to live their Christian lives with consistency and integrity. St. Benedict dwells on the necessity of this especially in his Chapter 2, on the qualities of the Abbot. Let him teach, he says, more by example than by words (v. 12). He must not do himself what he forbids to his disciples, lest after preaching to others, he himself be found reprobate (v. 13; cf. 1 Cor 9:27). Let him remember that more will be expected of one to whom more has been entrusted (v. 30; cf. Lk 12:48). And several times: Let him remember the judgement and the account he will have to give to the Lord on the last day (passim). 

If standards of Christian behaviour in general have slipped, all the more are we called to counter that trend by our manner of living. This is the pathway of authentic renewal, and the reform to which the Church is always called. Many voices are raised these days, calling for Church authority to make the Christian life easier, by conforming it more to the standards of this world. The first thing to go, by this way of thinking, must be the discipline of clerical celibacy. Many other things we could name would rapidly follow of course. But on the contrary, all the more strongly should we cherish and honour the priceless gift that is our celibate clergy. Their dedication is a living sign of the Kingdom which is not of this world; a testimony of their total commitment; a witness to their own belief in the truth they are commissioned to proclaims.

Today we pray for all our Bishops and Priests, that they may be men of integrity, fidelity and courage. If they have not been such, may they become so! And may the Lord raise up new leaders for the Church who will succeed in drawing people to Christ by the sheer attractive power of their lives, as well as by their words. May they announce to coming generations the full Gospel without compromise, in imitation of SS. Peter and Paul, if necessary at cost of martyrdom.