29 August 2008, York
When you are listening to a conversation, does it ever happen to you that you hear an expression or a phrase as if for the first time? Perhaps the particular expression strikes you as amusing, bizarre or even shocking. Yet you have heard it over and over again and have used it so often in your own conversations. While thinking what to say today on this wonderful occasion of honouring St Margaret Clitherow, once a citizen of this great city of York, two such sayings came to mind. They are rather obvious, but I am not renowned for subtlety – “Oh, I could die for it” – meaning this is something I really want, I really desire with every ounce of my being, without it I could not live; and “I would stake my life on it”, meaning something which is fundamentally right, true necessary, something which cannot deceive or let you down. It is interesting that in an age which would find it hard to define anything as absolute, fundamental and common to all, we use such graphic and shocking language.
I had the privilege in July of this year of attending the World Youth Day celebrations in Sydney. I suspect that many of you will not know much about it, but it was an international gathering of young, mainly Catholic people from just about every country in the world, called together by Pope Benedict XVI. There was something in the region of 400,000 young people, together with bishops and priests accompanying them. It was an occasion of public witness of faith and also the opportunity for learning more about faith. If I may, I would like to quote from the Pope’s opening address to the young people at Barangaroo. (WYDSYD08 Thursday 17.07.08.) He said: ‘There is (also) something sinister which stems from the fact that freedom and tolerance are so often separated from truth. This is fuelled by the notion, widely held today, that there are no absolute truths to guide our lives. Relativism, by indiscriminately giving value to practically everything, has made “experience” all-important. Yet, experiences, detached from any consideration of what is good or true, can lead, not to genuine freedom, but to moral or intellectual confusion, to a lowering of standards, to a loss of self-respect, and even to despair’.
Margaret Clitherow lived in a very different age, with very distinct values and ideas. We tend to think of it as a very stable, if not a staid society. Things remained as they always had been, the status quo was all important. While, in the main, this was true, religion and faith, local and international politics were very turbulent at that time and there was much confusion in peoples’ minds and lives. Very much against the flow, Margaret Clitherow chose a path, a way of life which was going to bring her into collision with not only social mores, family and friends, but also with the highest authority in this land.
She felt with all her heart that what was happening around her was neither just, true nor good. On all these things she felt she had to stake her life, literally, for they were things she could die for! So deep was her conviction, her faith in this that nothing could turn her away from the course she had taken, neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing.
It perhaps seems strange to us today that someone should give their life for such theoretical, theological niceties. The arguments of our age turn around the fulcrum of whether or not anything can be of such value and certainty that we should give our lives for it. Yet, again, while this argument rages, many of our young men and women are giving their lives as a result of armed conflict throughout the world!
St Margaret Clitherow was willing to die for the truths which she held as absolute and sacrosanct. For her they were to die for! However, not without fear, not without recognising her human frailty. On receiving the notice of her sentence she said: I am according to the Queens Majesty’s laws judged to die, and while my spirit is willing, my flesh repines. My cause is God’s and it is a comfort to die in his quarrel; flesh is frail, but I trust in my Lord Jesus that he will give me the strength to bear all troubles and torments which will be laid upon me for his sake. I shall die on Friday next. I now feel the frailty of mine own flesh which trembleth at the news, although my spirit greatly rejoiceth.
And it wasn’t just her who would suffer as a result of the sentence. John, her husband, almost beside himself with grief cried out: Alas, they will kill my wife. Let them take all I have to save her fore she is the best wife in all England and the best Catholic also.
Why honour St Margaret Clitherow, wife and mother, kind neighbour and friend, sincere believer and authentic witness to her faith, even to the point of offering her life in a martyr’s death? In a sceptical and suspicious age, the only argument that speaks convincingly is the force of personal witness. We need to know that there are truly things on which we can stake our lives. We need to understand that there are things to die for, even today. And it is us who are called to be witnesses of this; not just for the good of our particular domination, our chosen creed, but so that all may see and understand that truth and freedom will lead us to genuine joy and hope.
Again, if I may, I would like to finish by quoting from Pope Benedict’s final homily at the World Youth Day celebrations. He said to the young people there and to all who would listen:
Empowered by the Spirit, and drawing upon faith’s rich vision, a new generation of Christians is being called to help build a world in which God’s gift of life is welcomed, respected and cherished – not rejected, feared as a threat and destroyed. A new age in which love is not greedy or self-seeking, but pure, faithful and genuinely free, open to others, respectful of their dignity, seeking their good, radiating joy and beauty. A new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deaden our souls and poison our relationships. (Dear young friends,) the Lord is asking you to be prophets of this new age, messengers of his love, drawing people to the Father and building a future of hope for all humanity. (Pope’s homily at the Mass at Randwick Racecourse – WYDSYD08 Sunday 20.07.08)
St Margaret Clitherow, pray for us.