Posted June 18, 2020
Today we celebrate St Etheldreda, our Patron Saint, and some related saintly figures whose heritage merges with hers.
You have heard St Etheldreda’s praises sung many times, and we don’t need to rehearse them here. She was a strong woman with a powerful sense of vocation and a single-minded devotion to God. Though caught up in political marriages, she eventually achieved her aim of entering a convent; indeed she then went on to found her own convent of men and women in 673 at Ely in Cambridgeshire, over which she ruled with great pastoral wisdom. After her death her influence spread far and wide, no doubt because of her reputation as a healer and miracle worker, but also because of her renowned personal holiness.
While we are celebrating St Etheldreda, how could we not also celebrate the person who mediated her heritage to this parish? I mean: Fr William Lockhart, the founder of this parish and our first parish priest. You will know something of his story. He was a Theology graduate in the 1840s, who, after graduating, stayed up at Oxford intending to prepare for the Anglican priesthood. But he left the Church of England and shortly afterwards became a Catholic, joined Rosmini’s Institute of Charity, and was ordained priest. He was sent to work among the poor in East London. In 1854 he became the first parish priest of Our Lady and St Joseph’s parish in Kingsland in the Borough of Hackney. He was phenomenally active there for the best part of twenty years, until, in 1870, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Manning suggested that the Rosminians hand the parish to the diocese and start a new parish in the Holborn area, also an area of great poverty. As many of you know, Fr Lockhart managed to purchase at auction a thirteenth-century chapel in Ely Place, which had been taken from the Catholics in the sixteenth century courtesy of Henry VIII, and after centuries of neglect and tasteless modification finally ended up being leased to the Welsh Episcopalians. Fr Lockhart tells us that if he hadn’t purchased it, it would probably have been pulled down to make room for warehouses. He set about restoring the church not only to the Catholic faith but also to something like its thirteenth-century simplicity and glory, the results of which restoration you can see around you. As we celebrate St Etheldreda, we ought to remember that it was thanks to Fr Lockhart’s labours that our parish now forms part of her history. Fr Lockhart is the direct link, historically, between us and the spiritual heritage of St Etheldreda.
Now St Etheldreda is not the only saint that our first Parish Priest has linked us to. Rosmini himself, who became the dominant force in Lockhart’s life and thinking as a Catholic, and under whose obedience Lockhart became our first parish priest, was beatified in 2007. And there is a third saint to whom Fr Lockhart is a very personal link for us, and that is St John Henry Newman, canonized in 2019.
Newman was twenty years Lockhart’s senior and already a very influential religious and intellectual figure at Oxford when Lockhart first went up to Oxford. Lockhart fell under his spell from the moment he first saw him, even without speaking to him, after he had been pointed out to him in High Street Oxford. Lockhart was to become a disciple of Newman, hugely influenced by the power of his intellect and the depth and intensity of his religious devotion.
Now it so happened that at this time Lockhart was beginning to have his doubts about the Church of England; and by coincidence Newman too had now more or less decided that he must leave that Church. ‘I was already on my deathbed in regard to my relationship with the Church of England,’ Newman later wrote. But he never said that openly at the time, and he was very slow to take the decisive step. Instead, he virtually retired from University life to found a small monastic-like community at Littlemore on the outskirts of Oxford. Lockhart was one of the first to volunteer to join it, and to his great joy Newman welcomed him. A small group of ardent Christians lived an intense Christian life together, practising a quite rigorous asceticism, broken only by the delights of conversation with Newman at dinner every evening (and often by Beethoven’s sonatas played by Newman on the violin).
Newman never spoke of his difficulties to Lockhart and his companions at Littlemore; and whenever the issue arose, he tried to dissuade them from any thoughts of leaving the Church of England. When after less than a year Lockhart ‘could not bear the strain any longer’ (Lockhart’s own words), that is, the strain of reconciling his conscience with the claims of the Church of England, not the strain of listening to Newman’s violin, Lockhart left Newman and Littlemore and soon afterwards was received into the Catholic Church by the Rosminian Father Luigi Gentili and joined Rosmini’s institute. Lockhart’s defection caused Newman great pain, but when, two years later, Newman himself was received into the Catholic Church by the Passionist Father Dominic Barberi, one of the first things he did, Lockhart tells us, ‘was to pay me a most kind and loving visit at Ratcliffe College, where I was studying [for the priesthood]‘.
So in the person of our first parish priest we have a living link not only with St Etheldreda and with the Blessed Rosmini, but also with St John Henry Newman. How right and proper it would have been, I think to myself, if Newman and Lockhart had been beatified and canonized together – not because they left the Church of England together but because truth and holiness shone through their minds and personalities whether as Anglicans or as Catholics.
Through Father Lockhart we have a very special access to a network of saintly persons, and not only saintly persons but very remarkable figures in the history of the Church in Europe. This is an unusual privilege for us as a parish. We ought to be aware of the rich history of our beginnings and be very grateful for it. St Etheldreda became our patron saint thanks to the labours and extraordinary spiritual journeys of some remarkable people. Others have sown, and we have reaped the harvest.
Which brings us, seamlessly, to Father’s Day. Father’s Day is not just a matter of thanking dad for being such a good egg. It’s an occasion for celebrating a sacred vocation. This vocation has more in common with the vocation that Etheldreda and Lockhart and Newman and Rosmini understood to be theirs, than perhaps we appreciate. I confine myself to the most obvious thing that they have in common, namely: the fact that they are all vocations. That means: if you are a father, then being a father is your vocation. It is your path to holiness. You must see your vocation in the same eternal horizons as they saw theirs. It is your sacred calling to ensure that the values you share with your spouse and foster in your family are the values that last forever, not the false values of the world. It is your vocation to radiate the love of Christ in your family, to create a harvest of goodness for those whom God has entrusted to you. So your vocation is just like the vocation of the heroes we are celebrating today: no less glorious, no less difficult (and, let’s face it, no less hazardous).
So, Dad, when St Etheldreda and all the Saints go marching in, you gonna be in that number, with your family around you. Never lose sight of that!
Fr Tom Deidun