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Sharing radical freedom

Published on 04 Dec 2017

Homily by Fr Provincial Damian Howard at the Final Vows Mass of Nicholas Austin SJ, 1st December 2017.

Nicholas Owen Austin’s adventure in the Society of Jesus began in September 1996 when he entered the novitiate in Birmingham under the druidic tutelage of the late Fr Patrick Purnell, a much-missed Welsh Jesuit. Two years later Nick pronounced his first vows during a Mass celebrated in Harborne, Birmingham. On that occasion, he promised that, at a later date, he would “enter the Society of Jesus”, an odd formula, you might think, when he seemed to be doing just that, then and there. That commitment is being fulfilled tonight, over nineteen years later.

The delay, it must be said, is in no way due to casualness on Nick’s part; he has hardly been idle in the interim. In 2005, this time in Boston, Massachusetts, during an even more splendid solemn Mass, he was ordained deacon. A few months later, in the summer of 2006, he was ordained priest in a beautiful service held in our parish in North London. Tonight’s Mass might seem just another in a long line of celebrations which bestrew the life of the Jesuit priest. If the subtle distinctions between the different types of vows and ordinations escape you (and who can blame you?), think of it as a story of four weddings.

Four weddings

Four weddings and... yes, I know what you’re thinking. There could be a slightly funereal mood hanging over us tonight. We are, after all, mindful of the death of Saints Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and Nicholas Owen. And don’t those vows of poverty, chastity and obedience themselves have a whiff of a deathly renunciation about them?

Let’s dispense right away with these morbid thoughts – because tonight’s celebration is about the one thing that is stronger than death: love, which is to say the out-pouring of divine love which the eyes of faith see in Jesus Christ.

The story of St Edmund Campion and his companions, takes us back through history to Tudor times. It is easy to remember the English Reformation as a period of pure religious hatred, persecution and brutality, especially if you are making a television series for prime-time viewing. But it was more importantly an age of poetry, discovery and the dawning of a high culture which still inspires today.

The young Edmund Campion fits brilliantly into that picture. He was a celebrated scholar and one of the most talented literary stylists of his generation. He was brought by Oxford University out to entertain Gloriana herself on her progress through the town.

There, but for the Grace of God, went Edmund Campion

But just because he cut a dash didn’t mean he was hooked on the glittering scene. He wasn’t. Evelyn Waugh makes the point waspishly by comparing Campion’s trajectory to that of his Oxford contemporary Tobie Matthew. A torrent of accolades descended upon him during a long prelatial career: ecclesial preferment, the fame which in those days attended the preacher, illustrious marriage and finally the See of York. “Tobie Matthew died,” notes Waugh, “full of honours in 1628. There, but for the Grace of God, went Edmund Campion.”

There but for the grace of God goes Nick Austin too, you might think; and you’d be right. Yet Campion set out on his chosen path with no more intention of embracing opprobrium than Nick did all those years ago. Entering first the Catholic Church and then the Society of Jesus was not in itself an act of heroic renunciation; there were, after all, distinguished intellectuals among the Jesuits and Campion would have been justified in guessing that his future glory lay in a continental Catholic academia rather than as a pastor on the perilous English mission.

An affair of the heart

So, what was it that led a man of his calibre to cast aside his life in what must have seemed a futile gesture?

For Campion, it was an affair of the heart. At the core of his being was a love that had taken hold of him and reshaped his whole being. This is what he told a group of Jesuits at Reims as journeyed back to his the land of his birth: “As for me, all is over … I have made a free oblation of myself to His Divine Majesty, both for life and death, and I hope He will give me grace and force to perform; and this is all I desire.”

I like that word “perform”. It’s very Elizabethan. Campion was always performing. God did indeed grant him the grace and force to perform. He went on from France to cross the Channel where he was to labour tirelessly in the service of the English Catholics, a ministry of sacrament and consolation, notable for its boldness, its courage and its swashbuckling panache.

But what are we to make of his claim to have made “a free oblation of himself to His Divine Majesty…”? It’s true that he had some presentiment of his capture, which was to take place at Lyford Grange near Oxford after just over a year, of being held in the Tower and racked, and then of being condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered at the Tyburn tree, not far from this place. It’s easy to take Campion’s great self-oblation as the sacrifice of his life on the gibbet.

But it was no turn towards death that made of Campion a superlative witness to the faith, but an option for life lived undetermined by the fear of death. Campion’s was a spiritual discipline that refused to be hemmed in either by danger or by peril, forgetful of any need to impress, let alone to leave behind a legacy. A life oblivious to death means requires that one be steeped in the love of God. Because only perfect love can cast out our dread of suffering and death.

Only such love can account for the kind of life we see in Campion. That is why he was ready to give his life for the celebration of the Mass – because the liturgy of the Church is the perfect representation of that perfect love. And it is that love that makes him significant for us in our very different Elizabethan age, we who yearn above all to be free. Campion is an icon of a radical freedom which only love can attain. Campion had found love, freedom and truth in Jesus Christ and in His Church. But it was in the Society of Jesus that he found a way to express that love with such rare intensity; from the very moment he set sail from England to enter the Austrian novitiate in Brno, Campion’s whole adult life was to be configured to Christ, the little things and the great patterned on the life of his Lord.

Sharing radical freedom

Do we want a share in that love, that radical freedom? Not to be swayed by the fears and partialities which hold us back. Not to hide behind our attachments and compulsions. Can we too look at Edmund Campion and sense in his Bragg and in his swagger a liberty which beckons us out of our own imprisonment?

That is the desire that Nick tasted years ago and which has changed the course of his life. The Elizabethan martyrs, one of whose names he bears, have provided him with not only a model for living but with a poise which gestures to some hidden source beyond the politicking and strategizing of this world, a reservoir of wholeheartedness and greatness of soul. Like Campion, he has prayed many times the great suscipe which ends the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, “give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me”, words which underpin Campion’s own self-offering. He knows that these are the things which truly satisfy the human soul. Divine love and grace. And in the offering he is about to make of himself, final and definitive, he is giving voice to a willingness to leave everything else behind to follow Christ in the Society which bears his name. And we, his family, his brothers and friends, as we gather round the table of the Eucharist, are not merely passive bystanders, wishing him well on his journey. We are invited too to be his companions on the same road, sharing in its joys and sorrows, always stepping further into the mystery of the God of love.

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