SHREW,- TRY CENTENARY
t Tament in Stone
v. ;.,r. R. A. KNOX
Mgr. Knox p. on October 30th at the High Mass in
Shrewsbury Cache, s' to mark the centenary of its opening a hundred yearly ag, k'aking his text from Nehemias 5, "Not unremembered, . not unrewarded be these services done to thy people," Mg). Knox said: WHEN you find yourself in one of our great English towns, asking the way to the Catholic cathedral, the answer is not always easily forthcoming. " The Roman Catholic Ca th, Lira I ? " says the benevolent stranger, knit- ting his br.,, as if to imply that the cathedral of any other denomination would be less of a problem; less remote, less secluded. That does not happen in Shrewsbury. There are certain townscapes (if I may cay so call them) scattered up and down England—not many of them—that catch the eye with a.sense of beauty, and remain fixed in the memory, so that they recur to the mind whenever you hear the place mentioned. Such, for example, is the view of Durham across the valley, such is the hill on which Lincoln stands. In the same way, the word " Shrewsbury " recalls a definite picture to the mind of anyone who has lived here; that of the town walls rising from the river, and the roofs massed behind them. At one point, just where it was needed, just where an artist would demand it, the line of them is broken by an ecclesiastical building perched, after the Italian fashion, on the very edge of the .slope. " What is that ? " the visitor asks instinctively; and this time there is no hesitation. "That? Oh, that is the Roman Catholic cathedral."
Such pictures are, perhaps, morely firmly impressed on the memory if they are associated, for you, with some inti-mate spiritual' experience. It was when I was living just across the Severn that I first conceived those doubts which brought me into the Church. And always, on the further bank of the river, the cathedral church of our Lady of Help of Christians stood like an obstinate question-mark. How was Ito decide whether it was a beacon-light, or will-o'-the-wisp ?
When an architect views such a building, shored up on the slopes of an almost precipitous hill, his comment will probably be, " Most of the money must have gone under- ground." I dare say it did; if so, let it stand to us for a parable of the very thing we are here to commemorate this morning—the patient striving of men now forgotten, who were content that their work should go underground, so far as htiman memory was concerned; they built for the glory of God, not for the praise of men. When I say that, I am not thinking of the innumerable benefactors whose shillings arid pennies have gone to the building of this, as of all our English churches, though we should do ill to forget them to-day. I am thinking. rather of certain influential Catholics who lived and died a century ago or thereabouts, the leaders in that movement which is known to historians of art as the Gothic Revival, but to us, in Newman's phrase, as the Second Spring. Men well-known in their own day, but now — memories are so short, and times move so quickly almost forgotten.
I will mention only two, both laymen; AmbrOse de Lisle Phillips and John, Earl of Shrewsbury. It Was, for the most part, their faith and their munificence which drew a cordon of spacious neo-Gothic buildings right across the northern Midlands — Nottingham Cathedral, Mount St. Bernard Abbey, Oscott, St. Chad's, Birmingham, and the rest. I half expect you to interrupt me there, with the complaint that I have left out Shrewsbury cathedral. Was not that built by Pugin, with the Earl of Shrewsbury for its founder? No, Pugin died in 1852, and the cathedral was built by his son; the Earl died in the same year, and his heir, its chief bene-factor, died two months before it was opened. It is the last, late flowering of a thing so remote from us that it is begin-ning to have a kind of period value, Pugin's Gothic. And it is the abiding monument of thatvgreat generation of Catholics whose faith and liberality -put the Church back on the map a hundred years ago; men whose lives were a model and a challenge to posterity.
A hundred years ago—how long it seems ! The sermon at the cathedral opening was preached byiCardinal Wiseman, to us almost a legendary figure. A maniof my own age who was present on that occasion — Provost Weedall, for ex-ample, from Oscott—dated back behind the French Revolu-tion. The whole Catholic population of the ShrewsbUry diocese only amounted to twenty thousand souls, for the most part scattered in rural areas; the great development of Birkenhead was only just beginning, and it was hardly more than a dozen years since " Crewe " had been the name of a farmhouse. If you or I could be carried back, by a stroke of the magician's wand, a century back into the past, what should we be feeling about the ceremony itself, and our fellow-worshippers? We should feel as if we were looking round not merely at a different age, but at a different world.
We say that; and yet we know, as we say it, that we are in a sense allowing imagination to cheat us. We pin-point a particular date In the past, and contrast it with our own, as if nothing had been happening in between. ' But history is not a series of discrete moments, it is a continuous stream; our past belongs to us, and we to it; patient years of human foresight and human endeavour have made us what we are. The Shre*Sbury diocese is a very different thing from what it was in the time of our grandfathers. I suppose there are four priests in it for every priest there Was then; four churches in it for every church there was then; and the Catholic body, instead of being One in fifty, is much nearer being one in ten of the population. All that is due to a multitude of causes, but we must not think of it as an automatic process, to be accounted for by natural and economic developments. It has meant, all through these hundred years, the patient work of human beings; of priests, secular and regular; of the nuns, nagging at us with their unobtrusive persistence; of schoolmasters and scoutmasters and Brothers of St. Vincent de Paul. The setting up of a new diocese is not the act of a moment, done and finished with once for all. It is the beginning of a new chapter in re-ligious history, a continuous process which has lasted to our time and will last beyond us. Of that process, you are a part, formed by, and to some extent forming in your turn, its traditions.
And the centre of all this activity is, Joust be, your cathe-dral church; the cathedral church is the hub and the hearth of the diocese. It is a sacrament in stone, symbolising for us and guaranteeing to us that unity of structure which every see of Christendom enjoys, and enjoys in its Own right. We are accustomed to think of the Unity Of the Church as depending on the Papacy, and so in a sense it must, because there has got to be somebody who can make policy decisions at top level. But the essential unity of the Church is that of a body, of which each cell is a diocese, and the nucleus around which that cell coheres is the bishop, or, if ybu will, his cathedral. Bishop and cathedral are complementary, belong to one another, just as a man's home beldngs to him and yet, in a sense, he belongs to his home. The Church loves to derive her symbolism from the common things of life; she seizes on the essentials of the picture and makes them her own. How well we know what it is to go round and see a friend, to recognise that he is at home because his hat and his stick are in the hall, and then go in to find him sitting in his favourite chair ! The hat, the stick, the chair — the mitre, the pastoral staff, the throne, the bishop is at home in his cathedral, he is in his element there. He and it form two sides, at it were, of one medal, which teaches us how we are to enjoy and to realise the indestructible unity of a Christian diocese; this is our Father, here is our home.
We men are only passengers through the world, and the work of our own hands outlives us. Bishop after bishop fulfils the task allotted to him, and goes to his reward; the cathedral lasts on. Of that, we have little need to be re-minded; because, for nearly all of us, the memory of one man haunts about this place, and will not be denied admission to our thoughts. During forty years out of those hundred years of which we have been speaking, the men-tion of this building registered itself in the mind as that of Canon Moriarty's church, or that of Bishop Moriarty's cathedral. This is not the occasion to recall, even if that were necessary, the gracious qualities of the man. But his still fragrant memory does help us bridge the gap, to over-leap the barrier of a hundred years. He knew and loved every stone of this edifice ; his lore was of this country-side, his memories were of this diocese. He could tell you how, as a young student, he had seen the great Lord Acton come as a guest to the speech-day at Oscott —his first appearance at any Catholic occasion since Infallibility was defined in 1870. And he was himself the nephew of Bishop Allen, who ruled this diocese at the turn of century; Bishop Allen, who may well have been here as an altar-boy when the cathedral was opened. We thank God today for the work of all your Lordship's predecessors, and for his not least who came last, so vivid a memory, and so endearing.
Meanwhile, we must not allow the celebration of a centenary to rivet our attention wholly on the past. Such is the agility of the human mind, that we can pin-point fdr ourselves another date in history, the year 2056. In that year, if all goes well, men still unborn will be gathering here, in the cathedral church of our Lady Help of Chris-tians, to give thanks for its two-hundredth bithday. We, and our way of life, will seem as strange to them as our grandfathers and their way of life seem to us now. But what will they be saying of our achievements ? The prophet Samuel, when he raised a monument in enduring stone to commemorate a great victory over the Philistines, made public acknowledgement of it in the words, " Hitherto the Lord has helped us." Hitherto — his prophetic heart knew that there were battles still to be fought, ground still to be gained, vantage-points still to be consolidated. And it must not be said of us, a hundred years hence, that we were content to rest on our laurels, and live on our capital. May God bless the work of this diocese, and this cathedral parish, and make priests and people in time to come worthy of the faith and patience that went before us.