On Friday 1st July 2022, Archbishop John Wilson welcomed Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop Bernard Longley, Bishop Richard Moth and other senior clergy to St George's Cathedral for the re-interment of Bishop John Butt, Fourth Bishop of Southwark (1885 to 1897), and the heart of Cardinal Francis Bourne. Bishop Butt was the founder of St John's Seminary, and as a relatively young priest, Fr Bourne was its first Rector. Their remains had previously been buried at St John's Seminary but following its closure, they were transferred and laid to rest in the Mother-church of Southwark; the Diocese which they had lovingly and faithfully served.
Homilies are intended to be heard rather than read, but the Archdiocese of Southwark would like to express its gratitude to Fr Sean Finnegan, Parish Priest at Caterham and former lecturer in Church History at St John's Seminary, who has given his permission to reproduce this text.
Homily for Solemn Evening Prayer
& Rites of Re-interment
for the body of Bishop John Butt and the heart of Cardinal Francis Bourne
1st July 2022 in St George's Cathedral
As you walk west along the ambulacrum at St John’s, up the steps at the end and past the clock your eyes maybe look upwards — mine usually do— to those words painted in gold over the archway leading into the chapel: magister adest et vocat te. The master, teacher, is here and is calling you. The words are from the Gospel of St John, Chapter 11, and quite simply record Martha of Bethany calling her sister Mary. But for us at St John’s there were always two deeper senses, as being words addressed to us personally. Firstly that the Lord, our master, our teacher, was here in the chapel in the Blessed Sacrament, calling us personally to listen to him, to stay a while at his feet. And secondly that he was calling us to, as Newman put it, do him some service :
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
That same chapel was the place where this would come to fruition when, after five or six years of frustration, of tears and of laughter, the book of the Gospel would be put into our hands with those words which would change our lives forever “receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach”. When I was a student at St John’s, that very day of our ordination to the diaconate was the day we left the seminary forever. It was time to turn from seedbed (which is what seminary means) to begin the harvest.
Perhaps more obvious to our eyes is the great inscription at the business end of the chapel; high up near the ceiling: non vos me eligistis, sed ego elegi vos. You did not choose me, but I chose you. Yes, you. Even you. To which all of us must sometimes have said ‘Not I Lord, surely?’ The quotation is not complete, of course, You did not choose me, but I chose you, to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last. St John again, chapter 15. Harvest again. And again it’s in the Seminary’s motto; spes messis in semine. The hope of the harvest is in the seed. Not St John this time, but an ancient proverb. It means, of course, get the foundation right, and you can relax about the results. Begin well, and you will succeed. What is all this obsession with harvest about? For that we need to talk about our founder, Bishop John Butt, whose resting place we have just walked over, right in the middle of the choir benches.
I think that we can confidently say that Butt’s happiest days were when he was a priest at Arundel, first as assistant, and then as successor to the forbidding Jansenist and historian Canon Mark Tierney, chaplain to the Norfolks in the castle. For Butt, far more importantly, was the work he took up as missionary rector to the town and district of Arundel. No doubt the noble chaplaincy was supposed to be his main job, but saying Mass for the Duke can’t have taken that much time or energy. Tierney had filled his time with scholarship. Butt however turned his energies on the little market town which, apart from the fact of the castle, is, even today, not a big place, but it has a large swathe of countryside. His ministry at Arundel was remarkably energetic and successful; the congregation grew exponentially, and he was deeply loved by the people. They had formerly attended Mass in the castle, in what is now the dining room; by the time Butt left to become bishop, the community was worshipping in the great church of St Philip Neri, which has now become Arundel Cathedral. Those were great and fruitful years, and so it is not surprising that in later years, when ill health forced his retirement as bishop—not a common thing in those days at all—, it was to his beloved Arundel that he returned to die.
As bishop, I think he must have known that he wouldn’t have long, that his health wouldn’t hold up. He did his duties of course, but strongly believed that his main job would be to found a completely new and different form of seminary; one based on the sorts of practical pastoral work that made such a success of his mission at Arundel; a method that would leave scholarship and books to others, but would turn itself above all to pastoral ministry, simply because he knew what that could achieve and why it was so much more important than erudite scholarship, especially of the Mark Tierney type. Though he had built an amazing church in Arundel, when he became bishop he said that he would rather have churches built like engine sheds if only there would be enough of them to supply the needs of the mission of the Southwark Diocese.
It was in the oddball curate at West Grinstead that he found the man who would help him fulfil his vision. Bourne’s early years in the priesthood were unsettled; I don’t think he found it easy to get on with anyone except boys. It was probably what led to his trying his vocation with the Salesians in Turin—he knew St John Bosco—and once his wandering was done, it is probably why he was found a job where he might actually stand a chance of being a bit happier. For those who don’t know it, West Grinstead even today is not exactly a buzzing metropolis. In fact to call it a one-bicycle town would be to overstate its sophistication. Yet that is where Bourne was sent as curate, and, crucially, it had a little orphanage. There Bourne saw what could be achieved with even the most unpromising of boys; he began to teach them Latin and to encourage a vocation to priesthood. That instinct and ability was what Butt was looking for, and as we know, that is how St John’s was born.
Just next to the main altar at Wonersh is the beautiful chapel of St John with its delicate alabaster altar. The dedication of the seminary to St John is no accident. The disciple whom Jesus loved, who lay next to his Sacred Heart at the last supper—and yes, the chapel at St John’s is dedicated to that Sacred Heart—the apostle of love, the passionate evangelist and mystic, the one who founded a community to continue, as we have just heard, to bring the message of the eternal life which was made manifest to us; that which we have seen and heard we proclaim to you that you may have fellowship with us and that our joy be complete. St John’s Gospel is indeed profound, even scholarly, but its whole drive is the mission of the Word made Flesh that dwelt amongst us, the One who poured out the last drop of blood and water from his Sacred Heart, for you and me. And that mission is one in which we sons of St John’s are called to share.
As we go down the chapels to the side we encounter in the wall next to the altar of St Frances de Sales another heart. The heart of Francis Bourne. What an extraordinary and extreme gift to leave to the seminary! One’s literal heart! Crusaders used to do that sort of thing, but it wasn’t normal practice even back then, reserved for those whose bodies couldn’t be buried where they wanted. Imagine the consternation when his intention was known! Who had to do the horrible job? A pathologist, maybe? I’d love to think that the story of the biscuit tin and the breakfast table actually is true. Maybe Bourne stipulated it as one last reproach to Peter Amigo from beyond the grave—‘now look what you’ve made me do’—but whatever his motivations, (I suspect it was a combination of a token of love. and a sign of regret that, like the crusaders, he couldn’t be buried where he wanted to be) whatever his motivations, I don’t think that any of us students were unaware either of what lay behind that unassuming little slab in the wall of the chapel—a rather ghoulish sight to show visitors—nor could we be unaware of what it really meant. The sheer extremity of the gift when you step back and think about it, takes the breath away. We all know what the gift of a heart means, and whatever the psychology of the individuals involved, the message we receive is that, unlike Bourne himself, we truly had a father who loved us.
Children do understimate the love of their parents; they do take it for granted, and they do not understand the depth of a parent’s love. Bourne left his body to St Edmund’s, Ware, he wrote his book on priestly training for St Edmund’s; but to us he left his heart. Who can not be moved, or who could miss the message?
For Bourne, first at Henfield, then at Wonersh it was always that Salesian thing of attracting boys and young men to virtue by the exercise of affection. For those West Grinstead orphans, they finally had someone to sit and read Alice in Wonderland to them, to interrupt their studies and take them swimming; a father who could be a bit pompous, but his students knew exactly how to get behind his defences, and tease him, and they did so often—that can only have been because they were in no doubt whatever of his love for them. Once he had acquired the purple socks and left, I don’t think it was only the students who missed that affectionate relationship. His few years as Bishop of Southwark were turbulent, and I don’t think that his many years at Wesminster are remembered for his taking the venerable canons swimming and larking around in the Thames. Now there’s an image to take away!
Sitting down on the bench in the Lady Chapel, the one that used to be the sanctuary sedilia, and looking at the altar, that remarkable work of opus sectile so beloved by generations of students, also with that icon of our Lady of Perpetual Succour, given by Francis Pritchard, the witty parish priest of Putney in thanksgiving for not being made rector in the early 1920s; there we can reflect a little on our common home, on what it has meant to us, and indeed what the future might be. Because though I have spoken as if the chapel is as it was when maybe we last saw it, we know that that isn’t really how things are. In the middle of the choir is a hole where Bishop Butt lay. Another hole where Cardinal Bourne’s heart was placed. Altars have gone. It isn’t the place we knew any more.
So, is this the end? Is the door closing on St John’s, our alma mater, forever? Is this the end of Butt’s and Bourne’s dream? If those nearest would care to put their ears to the caskets, you will hear the sound of revolving and probably a faint cry of ‘Rubbish!’ St John’s Wonersh, the real St John’s, is not in truth a house built of weird orange brick but is built of living stones. As many of us here today have found in our own personal lives, family homes often do have to be sold, and maybe the family silver too. But the family itself is still here and its spirit will continue as long as we do, and as long as those whose lives are changed by our ministry continue. So while we’re in spirit in the Lady Chapel, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the spirit that has made us who we are. Not simply characterless products that could have come out of any seminary, but sons of St John’s, Wonersh.
We all know of the Sulpician background to St John’s, and that suggests—indeed it’s been said often—that we should look at St Sulpice in Paris to find the driving spirit of our alma mater. But I don’t think we should overplay this: it was a convenient peg, or possibly a framework on which to found St John’s; however it did provide some important principles. For a start, there should be in a son of St John’s, a member of the Johannine Community if you will, a reverence for the Word of God, daily meditating on it and basing one’s examination of conscience on it. From this flows taking seriousness the ministry of preaching; never delivering a homily without carefully preparing what one is going to say, (I have a suspicion that bad preaching is a major cause of lapsation, but that’s for another day). I remember our liturgy professor talking about those who preach off the cuff, without preparation, and how they proceed to circle to land for twenty minutes, then, to the distress of the people, take off again as a new thought strikes them. Never let that be our method; there are those who can do that convincingly; most of us can’t. I certainly can’t. St Sulpice also emphasises the importance of a simplicity of life; most of us don’t need big cars or surround-sound home cinemas.
From St John himself: brothers, let us love one another. Let us never be in any doubt that God himself truly took flesh and loved us to the greatest extreme of love; that he came into this world not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved. And, brothers, let us love one another, for love is of God. Let’s disagree, by all means, like families do, but brothers, let us love one another, because God is love. For more than a century, Wonersh has been the single most important fact in creating the character of the dioceses of Southwark and Arundel and Brighton. To some extent, Brentwood too. Most of us have known each other from seminary days; we have a shared fund of stories; to some extent a common outlook. To me personally, who have worked in three dioceses during my ministry, coming back to Arundel and Brighton was always a joy; I found myself among brothers; and to this day there is a real bond of affection among the presbyterium that is noticable to others who come to work in the diocese. I hope this is true of Southwark too. I think that St John’s has had an important part to play in this. Oh, and St John would also recommend that you don’t share your bath with gnostics, especially ones called Cerinthus.
From John Butt, the message, the legacy, has to be the supreme importance of devoted pastoral ministry. More important than even (gasp!) Safety Toolbox. The work of spreading the Gospel is of course the work of grace, but God has willed that it has to have its human agents too. The ‘great commission’ to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth is in the end the Church’s most serious commandment and charter. The pastoral ministry for the spread of the Gospel is the thing that everything else has to move out of the way for, the pastoral ministry is the thing towards which everything else is ordered. And for that there is no fits-all-situations formula; it is the impact of one soul on another, formed by grace, founded on grace, prayer and the sacraments.
And study; well, I think we have to admit that Butt and Bourne took their beliefs about the relative unimportance of study a bit too far. Yes, they were rather cavalier about it, and that has been corrected since—mostly by Arthur Doubleday, another rector much loved at Wonersh, but who had a troubled episcopate afterwards. But while we study, we don’t have to lose our understanding of the relatively great importance of the pastoral ministry.
Our inheritance from Bourne has to come back to Johannine affection again. St John founded a family— so did Bourne, and through the years, that Henfield parlour atmosphere, boys sitting rapt as they listened to Alice in Wonderland on winter evenings, swimming on hot summer afternoons: our foundation has never quite lost that family character.
But in the parish, today this has become so difficult. When I was ordained, and I’m sure this is true for many of my brothers here today, children used to run all over the presbytery; making themselves toast, playing games on my old Mac LC computer. We were trusted by parents to look after their beloved children. No more. How can this affectionate ministry of Bourne’s work today? I don’t have answers, but I don’t think that more senior management will make it better. It needs local answers, local resourcing.
On another occasion at St John’s, I used the motto of the London Oratory School as a useful tag; respice finem. Look to the end. We should always ask ourselves what is all this for? Ultimately it is because Christ came into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved. And we are some of the humble instruments of that salvation. That work must and will go on, even though St John’s has closed. Priestly training now will be done elsewhere, and we must hope and pray that whatever form it takes will, at least for the students of Southwark and Arundel and Brighton, have something of the spirit of St John’s.
So here we finally are, in the presence of the mortal remains of our founder John Butt and our first father, Francis Bourne. It is right and fitting that we, their sons, should accompany them to their final resting place. Together these two had a vision of which we are the lucky inheritors. And like David and Jonathan, in death John and Francis were not divided. Butt’s body and Bourne’s heart came first to our family home at Wonersh, to lie among those they loved; now we entrust them to the heart of the diocese which they both served. As long as we live, they will not be forgotten. The seed that they planted continues to bear fruit; the harvest is proceeding and we continue to gather: Spes messis in semine indeed.
Finally, walking back out of the chapel into the ambulacrum, topped and tailed with those statues of St John Fisher and St Richard of Chichester, we salute our Lady Queen of the Clergy, then turn and look at another inscription, the greatest in every sense of the word.
in principio erat verbum. In the beginning was the Word. Through those years we spent at St John’s, that word took up residence in our hearts and we have given our lives so far to it. As St James says ‘Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls’. Why did God make me a priest? Someone answered ‘because he couldn’t think of any other way of saving you!’ St Justin used to speak of the ‘logos spermatikos’; the word is like a seed that takes root in us and grows and spreads—and, of course, bears a harvest. Et verbum caro factum est; and the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. That word planted in us takes flesh in our ministry, and in our parishes, that we with the people entrusted to us also may one day see his glory, full of grace and truth.
And now, for the last time. we must open that heavy door with the loud click we all know so well, letting the door bang behind us, echoing down the ambulacrum as it always does, and for the last time we must descend the steps chipped by the improbable descent of Tony Churchill’s mini, those steps where we nervously entered on our first day, and where at last years later we stood together for our ordination photographs. Out we go into the world, where the fields stand, already white with the harvest.
They go out, they go out full of tears,
carrying seed for the sowing.
They come back, they come back full of song
carrying their sheaves.
Fr Sean Finnegan
Parish Priest in Caterham & former lecturer in
Church History at St John's Seminary, Wonersh
Archbishop John Wilson censes the remains of Bishop John Butt and Cardinal Francis Bourne in St George's Cathedral, Southwark.