Homily for the 250th Anniversary of the Episcopal Ordination of George Hay

What do you understand by the Trinity? I understand that there is but one living and true God, and that in God there are three distinct persons, called the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

“But how can we conceive or comprehend this? It is impossible for us to comprehend it. In the simplicity of our heart we believe it is so; because God himself has revealed it.”

The man who wrote that was ordained as Coadjutor Bishop of the Lowland District here – upstairs – on this very feast day 250 years ago, in the year 1769. That’s what we are commemorating today, and beyond the event the man himself, George Hay.

Human beings tell stories, whether it’s Homer’s Odyssey or what happened at the supermarket this morning. The Bible does too. It’s replete with narrative, epic and miniature. Jesus told us to remember him and sent the Holy Spirit to help us do it. Remembering and story-telling are hard-wired into us and our faith. So, it’s good to imagine the three men in disguise who, 250 years ago, would have converged here with friends, far from the madding crowd, arriving on foot and horseback from different points, and laid their hands on a 39 year old Scottish Catholic priest: George Hay. They were all, quietly, breaking the law.

And remembering this, we are remembering the low-lying, slow-burning Catholicism of those times, with no more than some 25,000 adherents in the whole of Scotland, served by around 30 priests, practically church-less, and forced to live under a heavy pall of penal laws and widespread disdain. This is the brave, marginal world Scalan and today’s anniversary conjure up. Welcome, we might say, to the world of George Hay.

And who was the George Hay who knelt in that upstairs chapel? A remarkable man with a memorable life. He was from Edinburgh, brought up in an Episcopalian, Jacobite family. He had studied medicine as a young man, then was caught up in the sad adventure of the Bonnie Prince and suffered 15 months of imprisonment in Edinburgh and London for his pains. He was already a thoughtful young man and through encounters and reading found himself won to the Catholic faith. It was the first great decision of his life and it meant an end to any medical career. He decided to seek a future elsewhere. En route to the Continent, he passed through London and met the recusant English bishop, Richard Challoner, who discerned a potential priest. At 22 he entered the Scots College in Rome and seven years later was ordained a priest. He was appointed first to the Enzie and then to Edinburgh. His character rang true. He impressed his bishop and, at the latter’s request, was appointed by Rome coadjutor bishop of the Lowland District. The summer of 1769 was chosen as the time and Scalan, rather than the more visible Edinburgh or Preshome, as the venue. And so – here we are – on 21 May 1769, Trinity Sunday, the Gospel Book would have been held over his bowed head, the hands of the three consecrating bishops laid on him, prayers said, chrism poured and by the grace of the Holy Spirit a bishop born. He would live another 42 years, nine of them as Coadjutor, 27 as Vicar Apostolic of the Lowland District, and six of them in retirement. Those years saw the anti-Catholic riots sparked by the Catholic Relief Bills, the gradual acceptance by Catholics of the Hanoverian dynasty, the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the beginning of the long Napoleonic Wars. Interesting times, and through them George Hay made his way with and for his people. He kept the even tenor of a disciplined, prayerful life. He was sustained by steady friendships. He must have walked and ridden miles. He spent three days once, in mid-winter, walking from Aberdeen and back to baptise a baby somewhere between the Deveron and the Dee; there was no other priest there. The horse couldn’t make it, but he did. His nickname was ‘hardboots’. First of all, he taught. He had the first Catholic English Bible published for Scotland. He wrote three major works to educate the faith, guide the lifestyle and nourish the prayer of the people; they would be translated into other languages and be in vogue a long time. They are lucid and strikingly biblical. “The Sacred Scriptures are an inexhaustible fountain of heavenly knowledge, but are commonly less used than they might be”, he said. When he thought back on his conversion to Catholicism, he used St Peter’s words; he had been called out of darkness into [God’s] own wonderful light. A constant refrain in his life was a line of Judas Maccabeus from the 1st book of the Maccabees: “Whatever be the will of heaven, let it be” (1 Mac 3:60). He was an obedient man. One of the prayers at his consecration would have run: “May his words and preaching, not be in the persuasive words of merely human wisdom, but a manifestation of the Spirit and power.” He fed his people with God’s word, spoken, written, lived. Finding, forming, appointing and accompanying priests was a second consuming endeavour. It meant more travel, including to France and Rome. It meant endless letters and no few conflicts. He was also for a time Master of the seminary here, where he wrote a book on agriculture as well as a 200,000 word treatise on metaphysics. As Scalan Library shows, he was – like his friend John Geddes – a man of the Scottish Enlightenment, following the latest developments in philosophy, science and technology, teaching his young charges geography and astronomy. He had a reputation for strictness and for being dour, but he was relaxed and playful with the young, and more sympathetic on the inside than outwardly appeared. He was sometimes plagued with loss of memory and headaches; his clergy did not always appreciate his efforts. Once he was so dispirited that he wrote a letter to Rome tendering his resignation. He forgot to sign it and it was returned unanswered. He took this as a sign to carry on. He wrote thousands of letters – too many and too long, someone commented. His passion for detail was not always welcome, but the letters can be full of humanity and interest. Famously, he banned singing in church and earned the ire of the budding choirs. It seems a shame. Still, the prayers said over him here that spring day in 1759 didn’t go unanswered: “May constancy of faith abound in him, chaste love and sincere peace…May he be a wise and faithful servant, whom you, Lord set over your household, to give them their food in due season”. Along with care of the faithful and the provision of priests, there ran a third strand too: negotiation with government. Despite occasional outbursts of anti-Popery, attitudes were shifting. Bishop Hay quietly exploited them. He was never extreme or polemical. His integrity and reasonableness impressed his interlocutors. Following papal recognition of the Hanoverian dynasty, he quietly disentangled Catholicism from the Jacobite cause. The Scottish Catholic Relief Act came in 1793. There was now full freedom of worship, an end to sanctions, and Catholics could finally inherit property. Gradually, more chapels were built, schools started and Catholics began to enter professions long denied them, even enjoy financial support from Government. More than they knew perhaps, Hay and Geddes and their fellows laid the fuses for a freer and wider future. “There will be a new people”, George Hay’s English counterpart, Richard Challoner, said to him once in a visionary moment. The move from Scalan to Aquhorties was another sign of how Bishop Hay could respond to changing patterns.

So, it’s good to remember such a man and the people he served, good to remember how the grace of priesthood wasn’t wasted on him or on them, how the priestly anointing ran down from head and beard to the hem of the garment. “Have mercy, Lord, on our petitions and pouring the horn of priestly grace over your servant shed the power of your blessing on him” – all the way to the hungry Highlanders he helped in Edinburgh, the rough lads here, the two tormented people of the braes he successfully exorcised, the medical care he was always willing to provide. He was full of stories at the end of his life, and the students at Aquhorties loved to coax them from him. There was of course a drifting away from the faith, then as now, but there was much holding fast and there were new things burgeoning. These Catholic forbears of ours, like St Paul’s Roman Christians centuries before, could boast about looking forward to God’s glory, boast about their sufferings too. Their hope was not deceptive. They were carried by a love of God poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit. Things mattered to them: a sense of continuity and connection, with the saints before them and the Church throughout the world, including the Gentleman at Old Town – code for the Pope. The Mass mattered and Who it contained, and being “judged righteous and at peace with God.” May they matter for us as well.

Remembering like this reinforces identity: not an identity as something to preen ourselves over in front of a mirror, but a vocation. And I think our vocation now, for all the changed circumstances, is one shared with those 25,000 and their priests and Vicars Apostolic, shared with the Hays and Geddes’s, Macphersons and Grants. They had to bear the weight of their own times; so do we. They had to work out the consequences of past sins; so do we. They were marginalised; we carry our measure too. Some long to kick us into the long grass. They disobeyed unjust laws; we needn’t subscribe to laws that counter the truth of human life or sexuality. But that wasn’t and isn’t the whole story. In the course of Bishop Hay’s life, the sphere of Catholic action and interaction gradually widened. Opportunities were taken. With our wider freedoms and greater resources, surely this is our vocation too: to take the opportunities we have, to create them even. Aren’t we blessed with the new peoples from elsewhere, with so much valiant dedication, with the heart-breaking generosity and giftedness our parishes and communities abound with, with so many uplifting young people? Recalling Scalan, recalling George Hay, let’s say it’s our vocation too to take the opportunities of the time: following up the currents of grace the Holy Spirit releases, rediscovering adoration and prayer, recovering reasons for believing, renewing our sense of mission, responding to so much suffering, interacting with the cultures around us, and – begging your pardon, Bishop George – being a people with so much faith, so much hope, so much love we can’t help singing.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

(Scalan, Trinity Sunday, 2019)


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