25 September, 2016

Homily for the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme - Prophets

This morning’s gospel says that we should listen to the words of the prophets in order to attain eternal life (Cf. Luke 16:19-31). I wander, then, if you have ever thought about what kind of person a prophet might be? Would you think that prophet is someone capable of predicting future events? Or maybe someone dressed in shabby clothes shouting about incoming doom on the street corners? The Scripture definitely number examples of people such as these. But a prophet is primarily a person who is so in touch with God, who nurtures such an honest and deep relationship with God that he (or she) is able to interpret world events in the light of faith and to recall people to God’s purpose for his creation. As we gather to mark the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme, how do we think prophets responded to the horrible tragedy of the Great War one hundred years ago? Did they predict a victorious end for one specific of the warring factions? Did they take to the pulpit to encourage soldiers in the name of God? Maybe, actually quite possibly, they did such a thing, but these too would not have been prophets. No, true prophets of that time spoke and acted about war by putting God and his kingdom before any other human authority. I would like to give you two examples of such prophets. The first was Archbishop Randall Davidson, a man of the British establishment, dear confidant to Queen Victoria in his early ministry, and the longest serving Archbishop of Canterbury since the English Reformation. Despite these claims to fame and grandeur, Archbishop Davidson visited the front line only a few months before the Somme, in a relatively low-key affair, meeting many of the soldiers, witnessing to their sufferings first-hand, encouraging the chaplains in their difficult pastoral duties, and later reaffirming that human hopes and aspirations can only ever be centred on Jesus Christ, because he alone is able brighten our world and make it a better place (Cf. Sermon at the Service of Thanksgiving for WWI at St Paul’s). 

 second prophet of that time was a remarkably short man, who many would have easily dismissed simply as a scholar, but who on his election as Pope on the eve of WWI took up the name of Benedict XV, re-echoing the name of Saint Benedict, the patron saint of Europe. Benedict XV worked day and night to reconcile the warring factions, and sought to bring practical relief to war victims, even to the point of almost bankrupting the Vatican. Most importantly, however, Benedict described the Great War with words that eventually were recognised as a true reading of the Great War and went down in history; he said, “This is no war, this is a useless massacre”. This was not an insult to the courageous men who fell in the trenches, but rather a powerful wakeup call for the political elite whose deeply personal power struggles had brought a terrible catastrophe to Europe.

Between 1st July and 18th November 1916, 419,654 men from the British Commonwealth, 204,253 French, and about 600,000 Germans fell in the fields of the Somme. As the Battle raged only a few men stood up trying to recall nations to their senses and to God who is the Father of all – these were the true prophets of the age. So, as we gather to mark the Centenary of this Battle, we cannot avoid thinking that the world is still plagued by intense fighting and that the livelihood of so many people are still blighted by conflict. Let us ask God for the same faith and clarity of mind that these prophets had, so that we may be faithful prophets and workers of peace for our times. 

Benedict XV composed a prayer for peace and I would like to pray is with you because its words are still valid for us now.
Lord Jesus, 
as we are dismayed by the horrors of a war
which is bringing ruin to peoples and nations,
we turn to your most loving Heart as to our last hope.
O God of Mercy,
with tears we ask you to end this fearful scourge;
O King of Peace,
we humbly implore the peace for which we long.
From your Sacred Heart
you shed forth over the world divine Charity,
so that discord might cease
and love alone might reign among men;
and during your life on earth,
your Heart beat with tender compassion,
for the sorrows of humanity;
so in this hour, made terrible with burning hate,
with bloodshed and with slaughter,
once more may your Divine Heart
be moved to mercy and pity.
Have mercy on the countless mothers
in anguish for the fate of their sons;
pity for the numberless families
now bereaved of their fathers;
mercy on Europe,
over which broods such havoc and disaster.
Inspire rulers and peoples with counsels of meekness;
heal the discords that break the nations asunder.
You, who shed your Precious Blood
that men might live as brothers,
bring them together once more in loving harmony.
And as once before, as the Apostle Peter cried,
“Save us Lord, we perish”,
you answered with words of mercy,
and stilled the raging waves,
so now hear our trustful prayer,
and give back to the world peace and tranquillity.

And we pray also to you,
O most Holy Virgin Mary,
as in other times of sore distress, 
be now our help, our protection,
and our safeguard. Amen.

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