Homily for the Dedication of the church of St Joseph, Invergordon
29 November 2013
What are we doing this evening?
First of all, we’re crowning almost a century of Catholic endeavour in this place.
It all goes back to World War I and the Naval Base. In 1916 Mass began to be regularly celebrated here and in the following year, 1917, the predecessor of this church, also dedicated to St Joseph, was put up by, a wooden chapel with a tin roof. There are some people here this evening who can remember that first church. But by the 1950s, it was time for something new. Thanks to the efforts of Fr Davis, land was acquired from British Railways and the present church constructed. The first Mass was celebrated here on the 4th Sunday of Advent, 1958.
Under Canon Bernard MacDonald, improvements were made and the Blessed Sacrament was first reserved on 26 October 1975.
Canon Hugh Malaney had the new entrance vestibule built in 1998. Fr Michael Savage had the church re-roofed and re-floored.
And so, with a further leap, we come to now, 2013.
Looking back over this century, it’s as if every generation has done something. And our something is this dedication. It strikes me how the history of the Catholic community in this corner of Easter Ross has been a blend of dogged fidelity and creative initiative: people and priest coming to Mass, Sunday after Sunday, rain or shine, and then every so often someone saying, ‘Let’s do this!’ And others answering, ‘Yes, let’s do it!’ So it was in the Parish Council a few years ago that the idea for tonight was born.
Tonight is a coming of age. It gathers up all the goodness, all the prayer and work of the past, and sets a crown upon it. It’s a quasi-centenary. It’s a festive moment – slipped in between the end of the Year of Faith and the beginning of a new liturgical year next Sunday. This evening we can say to one another what Nehemiah and Ezra said to the Jews returned from exile 25 centuries ago, ‘on the square before the Water Gate’: ‘This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not be mournful, do not weep…For this day is sacred to our Lord. Do not be sad: the joy of the Lord is your stronghold.’
Yes, this day, St Andrew’s Eve, is actually henceforth sacred to this parish. It will be celebrated from now on as the anniversary of the dedication of this church, with the rank of a solemnity.
And how are we crowning this past? Of course, by the liturgy we are celebrating tonight. We know that the Church has received from the Lord through the apostles seven sacraments. But over the centuries the Church has added to these other rites, called sacramentals. They do not have that certified divine power and energy ex opere operato proper to the seven sacraments. But they are not therefore negligible. They’re not merely ornamental. They have a real second-order effectiveness ex opere operantis Ecclesiae. That is, they are concentrated expressions of the Church’s prayer-power. And among these sacramentals the Rite for the Dedication of a Church and an Altar stands out. What we’re doing tonight is something very ancient – churches have been dedicated for 1700 years. This is a liturgy over which normally only a bishop can preside. What we are doing tonight, however humbly, is something truly solemn. One of the liturgical books explains why:
‘For the place where the Christian community is gathered to hear the Word of God, to offer prayers of intercession and praise to God, and above all to celebrate the sacred mysteries and where the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist is reserved is a special image of the Church, which is God’s Temple built of living stones. And the altar, around which the holy people gather to participate in the Lord’s Sacrifice and to be refreshed by the heavenly meal, is a sign of Christ, who is the Priest, the Victim and the Altar of his own Sacrifice’ (Decree for The Order for the Dedication of a Church and an Altar).
Yes, tonight, through this liturgy, with its special prayers and its litany, with its sprinkling, anointings, incensation, with its covering and lighting of the altar, with its water and oil and celebration of Mass, something happens to this building. I can remember vividly taking part in the dedication of a church in the United States in the 1990s. One could feel the building change in the course of it. It became a church. It became a sign itself, a world of signs. St John Chrysostom, centuries ago, must have felt the same. He pointed to the altar of his cathedral, and said, ‘This altar is an object of wonder; by nature it is stone, but it is made holy after it receives the Body of Christ.’ Much in the liturgy of Dedication suggests that this building is, in a sense, being baptised and confirmed tonight, purified and anointed as we have been; and then perfected by the celebration of the Eucharist, as we can be. Of course, this building is in a way already dedicated, with much prayer, with celebration of the Mass and other sacraments over more than 50 years. But still something formal, definite, conclusive, definitive, mystical happens tonight. We also draw up a formal document to record it. It’s a weakness perhaps of the modern Western mind-set to think that the material world is somehow impermeable, inaccessible to grace, that if grace has a sphere then it’s only the human mind or soul, the interior, the spiritual. But the Lord’s is the earth and its fullness and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And Caithness stone and prefabricated concrete and wood and slate and brick and glass can all have the fire of God in their bones. Places can carry a presence. And presence draws. And just as we needn’t be ravishingly beautiful or strikingly handsome to become temples of God, so neither need a church be sumptuous or spectacular to be holy and to have a hold on our hearts. I’m sure this church is already dear to you, but I think from tonight it can become even more so. Tonight, it’s being christened. Tonight, it’s touched by the finger of God. All this at the end of a street, round the corner from a railway station, in the sight of a derrick. Tonight, this church becomes Jacob’s Ladder.
I’ve spoken of the past and the present. What of the future? Here I just want to make a suggestion. Think first of all of this church as a symbol of yourselves: the Catholic community in this place. This isn’t a large, dominating building. It’s simple, unpretentious. It’s one among many in this town. But it upholds something. It articulates, expresses, embodies something. It makes something literally concrete, something unique and precious. It’s an expression of a past and present faith. This church is a sign of your faith:
- the faith which Peter professed in Jesus, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’;
- the faith we profess in communion with the successor of Peter, Pope Francis, and with our fellow-believers throughout the world;
- faith in Jesus as ‘the Christ’, the real hope of humanity, and as ‘the Son of the living God’, the one in whom God himself comes close to us;
- the faith which builds us up as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
This church is a lampstand carrying the lamp of faith. This church is like the Joseph to whom it’s dedicated: it’s protecting in its arms something frail but precious – your faith. Faith is what makes sense of all we’re doing. It’s what keeps this place warm, and alive. It’s what we carry too, ‘the light of faith’ – the title of Pope Francis’ first Encyclical. A light that’s unique, ‘capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence’ (Lumen Fidei 4). A light that can’t just burn indoors. A light for everyone.
And here I come to my suggestion. Here is the church, this sign of your faith, now dedicated. Perhaps, as a parish with your priest, you could consider next a fresh initiative, another expression of faith, another embodiment of it. I am thinking here of an expression which complements that of this church, one that reaches out to those around you as this church gathers us to God. A particular expression of faith in action, of faith working through love, something, however humble, that will realise Pope Francis’ dream of a Church conscious of its mission to everyone and especially the poor, the disadvantaged. I am sure there are things already afoot. Perhaps they can be strengthened. Perhaps there is something quite new to do. I mentioned at the beginning the wonderful blend of dogged fidelity and creative initiative of which this church is a witness. Out of that, I know, still more will come!