Saints of Wales

Homily at St Brigid’s for the November 2014 Day of Renewal on the feast of All Saints of Wales.Welsh bards in robes

The Seven Word Sermon: Choose to be humble, Wales needs saints!

I saw a vast crowd, too numerous to count, clothed in white robes – and in blue, and in green.

I said to the man standing near me, “Who are these wearing robes, and where did they come from?”

“Well,” said the man, in a West Wales accent, “they are the bards here at the Eisteddfod, look you, and they have come to Llanelli from Dolgellau and Aberystwyth, Caldey Island and Blaenau Ffestiniog, and all the way from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch!”

Why do we celebrate a special Feast of the Saints of Wales? Like any nation, we have our own culture – the Eisteddfod is our cultural festival. A culture is simply a common way of doing things – and the saints of our own nation teach us something relevant about being holy in the midst of our own people.

Jesus taught us the way of holiness in the Beatitudes we have just heard proclaimed. It strikes me that those Jesus calls “blessed” fall into two categories – the humble, and the victims.

The humble beatitudes are pronounced for those who are poor in spirit, gentle, merciful and pure in heart. We see these values reflected by the great Celtic saints of Wales, David and Dyfrig, Illtyd and Winifred, saints who embraced the simple and austere life of the monastery or the convent. They served others in need of hospitality and healthcare, and embraced a life of celibacy and manual labour for the good of others. We can imitate their spirit of service in the way we serve our family members, our friends, and those who live in the same community as ourselves.

The victims are those who have experienced loss, hunger and thirst, persecution and calumny. They call to mind the martyrs of Wales – not only the famous six sainted Welsh martyrs of the Reformation, but also those beatified – Bd William Davies, who ran a hidden printing-press in Llandudno; Bd Philip Powell from Brecon, arrested in Cornwall; and Bd Charles Mahoney, a secret missionary to Ireland who was shipwrecked on the North Wales coast. Together with the two martyrs of Roman times, Saints Julius and Aaron, they stand as reminders that faithful Catholics were willing to stand up for their faith in Wales despite the efforts of those who wielded power and tried to shape the culture. In fairness, it must be said that many of the ordinary folk of Wales refused to take part in the persecution. When Bd William Davies was sentenced to be executed, not one man in Anglesey would have anything to do with it! Executioners had to be called in from Chester.

Times have changed. Many of the people of Wales are now suspicious of the “old fashioned” values which our faith cherishes. The modern way is the way of total freedom. Our faith teaches us the great value of self-control. We need a new kind of saint for Wales, one who can build bridges between the values of our faith and the world around us.

Three years ago, I was in Dare Valley Country Park, celebrating Mass with a group of newly-confirmed young people. The sight of a robed priest celebrating Mass on a rock caused not a few passers-by to stop and pay attention to my sermon. I wonder what they made of it? But we are all called to be ambassadors for Christ, no less than the missionary-monks who sailed from Wales to Ireland and Normandy, or the martyrs who returned to Wales from the continent. We are not yet a vast multitude, too numerous to count. but if anyone asks who we are, St John Paul II offers an answer: “These are the saints of the new millennium. These are the people who pursue holiness, who believe prayer is important. These are the people who believe Mass is the most important thing to do on Sunday, who humbly go to confession when conscious of sin. These are the people who study God’s Word, are attentive to God’s gift of grace, and seek to share these gifts with others.”

One beatitude embraces both humility and victimhood – “Blessed are the Peacemakers”. There is a special blessing for those who have known oppression yet reach out to their enemies. The saints of 21st century Wales will be those who master the art of proclaiming what we believe, not in a way which condemns listeners who do not share our values, but in a way which is strangely appealing. Yes, the peacemakers, rooted in Christ, loving those who do not share our values, will be the saints of Wales for the 21st century. The question is, will you choose to be among them?