Forgive me mentioning a curious detail In 1895, it was a Bishop Hugh MacDonald – a religious – who welcomed the Religious of the Sacred Heart to Aberdeen, and now, 122 years later, it is a Bishop Hugh – also a religious – who bids them farewell.
We could just do this is a pub, or with a party – but instead we do it at the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a pattern for so many things. ‘Our thinking, said St Irenaeus, is in harmony with the Eucharist and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking’. We want to do today in relation to the Sisters what we do every day in relation to Christ in the Eucharist. We’re here to remember and give thanks, and to look forward prayerfully in hope.
‘Events are the sacraments of God’s will’, someone said.
If I remember rightly, the first Scottish approach from the Society of the Sacred Heart was to the parish of Nairn. The matter came to the Bishop’s attention. He wrote to the nuns: ‘There’s no point preaching to fish: come to Aberdeen.’ Bishop Hugh was bishop for eight years and once remarked that inviting these Sisters to Aberdeen was the best thing he did.
So, eucharistically, we first remember and give thanks for all that the Religious of the Sacred Heart have contributed to the diocese (and beyond). It has been much. This was their first foundation in Scotland and surely opened the way to others. They greatly aided and abetted – perhaps a lesser-known affair – the reviving devotion to our Lady of Aberdeen here. It’d to them we owe the first reproduction of our Lady of Good Success in Brussels, and to Mother Forbes the well-known hymn. There is, as Sr Barbara Duffy mentioned, the now flourishing St Joseph’s School, and until 1971 the memorable Secondary School for Girls, the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Then in the following years, came a diversity of apostolates: spiritual direction, prayerful reading of Scripture, retreats in daily life, ecumenical connections, work with students especially through the University, English teaching, the support of the Former Pupils Association – many forms of discreet, intelligent and gracious presence. And many things that go beyond human notice.
I was blessed with an unusual Novice Master. At some stage of my formation, he recommended me to read Maud Monahan’s biography of Janet Erskine Stuart. This kindled in me a lasting admiration for this great figure, born in 1857, dying in 1914. Janet Stuart was a convert to Catholicism at 21 (very bravely given her background), became a Religious of the Sacred Heart and eventually a Superior General of the Society. Above all, she was a spiritual teacher of distinction and a far-seeing and progressive educator, both in theory and practice. At the time of the Queen’s Cross foundation in 1895, she was what was called ‘Superior Vicar’ of the Society in Britain and as such closely involved. I was very happy to read that. I’ve quoted her already: ‘Events are the sacraments of God’s will’. But let me quote her again: ‘We must remember that each of our children is destined for a mission in life. Neither we nor they can know what it is, but we must know and make them believe that each of them has a mission in life and that she is bound to find out what it is, that there is some special work for God which will remain undone unless she does it, some place in life which no one else can fill.’ Echoes of Cardinal Newman’s famous reflection there. This is surely the heart – the sacred heart, dare one say – of what we are thanking God for today. Thanks to the presence, dedication, prayer and work of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, how many here in the north east have been helped to find and live their unique God-given mission in life! How much their ‘former pupils’ have given to family, society and in the Church! One symbol is above us: the six reliefs in the nave of this church by the fine sculptor Anne Davidson, nee Ross. Praise to the Heart of Jesus Christ for that!
It is, of course, sad that this long association is ending. I wish I were the other Bishop Hugh! But there is this other aspect of the Eucharist; we look to the future in prayer. As Tennyson said: ‘God fulfils himself in many ways / lest one good custom should corrupt the world.’ We pray, of course, for the future well-being of Sr Alda – the precise historian; Sr Margaret – always so gracious, so engaged; Sr Catherine – so quiet and shrewd. We pray for the Society of the Sacred Heart and the Scottish-Irish Province in the midst of many adjustments. And we pray for ourselves too. May there always be fresh people and new energy to help each of us, young and old, find and re-find our mission in life. Bishop Hugh MacDonald found joy in the coming of the Religious of the Sacred Heart. I have found joy in the coming of the Conventual Franciscans to the Chaplaincy, of the Dominican Sisters to Elgin, of the Daughters of Divine Love and the Sisters of the Needy, of two members of the Congregation of the Emmanuel to the Highlands. I have found it in the development of the Community of St Andrew, as well as in the recognition of the Sons of the Holy Redeemer in Orkney and the continuing presence here of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. Another thought: 2018 marks the centenary of the Education Act, Scotland, which made possible Local Authority Catholic Schools. May it not be a moment to further the idea of a new Catholic Secondary School here that can take up the baton of Queen’s Cross?
‘Epochs of transition, wrote Janet Stuart, must keep us on the alert. They ask us to keep our eyes open to the distant horizons, our minds listening to seize every indication that can enlighten us; reading, reflection, searching must never stop; the mind must keep flexible in order to lose nothing, to acquire any knowledge that can aid our mission…So let us not rest on our beautiful past.’
So, in this Eucharist, yes, we give thanks for all that the Society of the Sacred Heart has brought to this corner of Scotland. Farewells are sad affairs, but we trust too that the Lord will continue to set his heart on us and give us life. Amen.