A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke (Luke 23:33; 39-43)
When the soldiers reached the place called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there and the two criminals also, one on the right, the other on the left. One of the criminals hanging there abused him, saying,
O. Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us as well.
N. But the other spoke up and rebuked him:
O. Have you no fear of God at all? You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it: we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus, he said, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
✠ Indeed, I promise you, he replied, today you will be with me in paradise.
Blessed are they that saw thee and were honoured with thy friendship (Ecclesiaticus 48: 11) a verse taken from the Ronald Knox translation much respected by Fr Bill.
Both the lyrical first reading and the unforgettable Gospel were texts Fr Bill had specifically requested to be proclaimed at his funeral. We read them again at this Requiem Mass in his diocesan cathedral.
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom: such was the petition from the repentant thief.
Today you will be with me in paradise. .. was the responding promise from Our Lord.
This promise was addressed not only to the one traditionally called The Good Thief or Dismas, but to all of us penitent sinners and converted thieves. This is no small thing. In fact, can there be a more consoling promise? As on that very day a crown of glory and a seat at the celestial banquet was promised Dismas, so now a very particular crown of glory and a personal seat at the feast awaits Bill, this good, kind, gentle, modest, humble, mirthful and merry man, priest and affectionate friend to so many, whom we laid to rest in Mount Vernon Cemetery in Edinburgh scarcely ten days ago. Fr Bill believed in this promise of eternal bliss in paradise. He believed Jesus and loved Him. He believed and he loved. He loved and was loved, universally.
Each of us will cherish memories of visits or encounters with our man. Rarely would even the most serious of conversations not include hoots of hilarity. He could be a tease. My mother in law, whom he received into the Church when she was 84, would often be quizzed about the ladies’ headgear sported at a wedding or at the Holyrood Garden Party. The more outré the plumage, the greater the glee. As to latest antics of his or your cat, there would be end to the entertainment or anguish. “An infectious delight in all things ridiculous and absurd was a characteristic that surfaced most days” said Fr Colin at his funeral.
Homilists at Requiem Masses are discouraged from eulogising or preaching what used to be called panegyrics. An even more grievous offence is the homilist’s instant canonisation of the deceased. I well remember discussing this with Bill after a funeral a few years ago. Neither of us much cared for such instant canonisation and agreed we wanted to be prayed for both at and after our funerals. He pointed out with emphatic and whole-hearted approval the passage in Pope Benedict’s Encyclical, Spe Salvi, on Christian Hope, just hot off the press then, in 2007:
“ … The fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself … Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms us and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves … Yet in the pain of this encounter … lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as though through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves … if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.” # 47. A tad long for a papal quote in a homily, Tony, I can hear him say. Keep them short.
Alongside Gerard Manley Hopkins, Keats, Shakespeare, George Mackay Brown, Emily Dickinson, Edwin Muir, and a long list of others, Bill was fond of George Herbert, that most modestly exquisite of our major poets and more than once used his short poem: Love (3) as the basis for a Lenten reflection. One can think of it as having four elements in common with the Eucharistic Liturgy: Penitence to begin with, a dialogue between the word of God and our hearts in the Liturgy of the Word including the homily, a memorial of Christ’s paschal victory, and an invitation to the banquet.
Like the Good thief, the poet begins by recognising his own unworthiness, as we do at the beginning or every Eucharistic Liturgy:
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
Gail, my wife, and I first got to know Bill when, after the closure of Blairs College in 1986, he was appointed Catholic Chaplain to the University of Aberdeen. More than once he described this period as his happiest. Many of you knew him long before that. As teacher, spiritual director, tutor in homiletics to future priests in Rome or to future deacons at Kinnoull, as parish priest at St Francis, Mannofield, at Blairs, as administrator here in St Mary’s Cathedral, as spiritual accompanist and guide, helping discern vocations to the priesthood, to the diaconate (as in my own case), to consecrated life or to marriage, and not least as colleague at the BBC. He had a genius for friendships that lasted a lifetime. An intimate lunch on his 80th birthday perfectly reflected this. Fr Bill was a compassionate, merciful and gentle confessor to bishops, fellow priests, deacons, the married and the single, young and old. He understood the frailty of the human condition and loved the sinner. To return to George Herbert’s dialogue:
… sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
What struck us most upon our first attendance at the Sunday Mass in the chaplaincy was the quality of the preaching. A pleasing voice, mellifluous with a gentle Edinburgh accent, that engaged his hearers instantly as the homilist stood there, always without a script or even a note. “When one is speaking from the heart, no notes are needed,” he once responded to someone who asked. The deft weaving together of words, always finding le mot juste, a clear trajectory towards a memorable conclusion. “As for the preacher himself,” he wrote in his book about the use of literature as a practical aid to preaching, “his task of proclaiming the Gospel should be seen not as a liturgical chore, but as an exciting pastoral opportunity. The more it is seen as working for the Lord within a missionary Church, the more fruitful and fulfilling the challenge.” So Fr Bill. “The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the centre of every homily.” So Pope Benedict. Christ in our minds, Christ in our hearts, Christ in our hands.
“The preacher should be the first to hear the word of God which he proclaims since, as St Augustine famously says: He is undoubtedly barren who preaches outwardly the word of God without hearing it inwardly.”
In 1996 Gail obtained from the Times an application form for the Preacher of the Year event at Southwark Cathedral and urged Fr Bill to submit it. It was unknown for Catholic clerics to participate. We were a little surprised that he agreed to apply and delighted of course when he won the Preacher of the Year contest that year, a double first for a Catholic priest. As he wrote in his book:
Clearly the Christian way is to make use of our talents to the greater honour and glory of God, and hence to employ them not towards our own vain glory, but to let them work for us in godly service for the benefit of our neighbour.
Bill did just this with all his gifts of nature and of grace.
Not long ago I came across these encouraging words by the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard: People have the idea that the preacher is an actor on a stage and they are the critics, blaming or praising him. What they don’t know is that it is in fact they who are the actors on the stage: he, the preacher, is merely the prompter standing in the wings, reminding them of their lost lines. A sentiment clearly shared by Fr Bill in several places in his book, though he was more explicit in attributing this co-working to the Holy Spirit.
I begin to feel a nudge at my right shoulder: Don’t you remember my telling you that interminable preachments have this in common with the Loch Ness monster, for each has a beginning, then a middle, and a middle, and a middle, and the tail-end is a long time a-coming! One recalls the anecdote about the great Thomas Chalmers (leader of the Church of Scotland Disruption in 1843) who is said to have told a long-winded student to cut out half his sermon, and it didn’t matter which half!
When preaching takes place within the context of the liturgy, it is part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace which Christ pours out during the celebration. The context demands that preaching should guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist. So Pope Francis. And, to give Herbert the last word:
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Deacon Tony Schmitz ( St Mary’s Cathedral, January 30th 2018)