In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel we are told that originally everyone spoke the same language. But then, because of their arrogance and rebelliousness, God made it so that they all began to speak different languages and couldn’t understand one another. The result was confusion and they were all scattered to the four corners of the earth.
Now consider the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost. Luke tells us that Jerusalem was full of people for the festival, people from different lands. They spoke many different languages and in many cases, presumably, could not understand one another. But when the Apostles came and proclaimed the Gospel of the Lord’s Resurrection, they all understood, each in his or her own language. In other words, they didn’t all start to speak the same language, but each heard the one Gospel in their own language. The language they then had in common was the language of the Gospel.
We’ve noted a myth from the remote past, the story of Babel; we’ve considered the beginnings of the faith, the day of Pentecost. Let’s now move on another eighteen hundred years. In the years after the 16th century Reformation, during penal times, the number of Catholics in Boston grew fewer and fewer until in 1781 the records show that there were no Catholics at all in Boston.
But then, in the early nineteenth century, the Irish famine drove many people over here. They were refugees and immigrants. Some of them came to Boston and settled next door in North Street. Some of you will know this, but many of you won’t. They were, of course, Catholics. They brought their faith and a considerable ability for hard work. After not that many years, they had built the church and the presbytery. Later, as the Catholic community expanded, they built also the school and the convent, the headmaster’s house and the row of cottages next to the church. A substantial settlement indeed.
Of course, they were not universally welcomed with open arms. There was suspicion and hostility. Well into the 20th century, when the setting up of the now defunct St Bede’s secondary school was proposed, there was considerable opposition and, indeed, some bigotry. But the fact is that Irish immigration, not just in Boston but across the land, brought new life and vigour to what was until then a small and rather embattled English Church. Surely, we should be thankful.
Today, nearly two centuries on from the time when this church was built, we have here in Boston a thriving, multi-ethnic Catholic community in which each can hear, in many cases in their own language, and for all in the lingua-franca of English, each can hear the wonderful works of God, the Gospel of the Resurrection. Once again, the Holy Spirit is among us, pushing and cajoling us to see what God is doing in Boston and how we can, if we will, become ready fellow-workers with him in the work of the Gospel.
Such times of change are never easy. They are challenging and they ask of us discernment, patience and generosity. But the great rallying point for all of us, as always, that which is the source and summit of the Christian life, is this, the Eucharist. Blessed are we, all of us, who are called to the supper of the Lamb. It is here that we find the true source of our unity and it will be the task of my successor, Fr Dominic, to discern how that process of growth can be wisely fostered and taken forward. And not, of course, Fr Dominic alone, but Fr Dominic working with you in this common task and with the leaders of all the communities which make up this church.
Looking beyond our own boundaries, we live in darkening times and if ever the light of the Gospel was urgently needed, it is now. And, while fostering your common life, you must also look out to your place of witness in the wider world. What, as missionary disciples, is God calling you to now and in the time to come? That is the question I take with me for myself, of course. But it is also the question I leave with you.
And now, a word of thanks. Eight years ago I was warmly received here at St Mary’s. I have seen the unstinting loyalty of many who work selflessly in their different ministries for the glory of God, the good of his people and the furtherance of his Kingdom. Within that variety of ministries and all who come here to worship, I have been sustained throughout by the love and prayers of so many. In particular, to have Deacons David and Martyn as faithful colleagues, always supportive, encouraging and patient, as no doubt they will have needed to be sometimes, has been a privilege for me and they have made a huge difference to my ability to manage in the parish and its chaplaincies.
Over the year of Covid we have lived through a time of famine, sustained by the loyalty of all who have been able to come to church and have chosen to come, and by the prayers of those who couldn’t.
I remember Sundays, say five years ago, when church and gallery were full, up to a dozen servers, the organ and choir. Well, as I leave you, you will have a big task of rebuilding. I am reassured to know that in Fr Dominic you will have a faithful priest who will work with you on that task. You will of course, remain in my heart and my prayers and there will be meetings, I am sure, in the flow of time and always in the time of God.