The well at Holywell
'A Pilgrim Church' - then and still
Read below the homily preached by Fr Michael O'Halloran SJ at the Holywell Pilgrimage on 20 May 2006.
In the Eucharistic Prayer which we shall be offering shortly we shall speak of ourselves to the Father as 'your pilgrim Church on earth'. That phrase from the prayer describes us all as we gather this afternoon in this ancient place of pilgrimage. Coming here, Jesuits and, friends, on pilgrimage is our way of marking the anniversary of something that happened here just 401 years ago when a group of Jesuits and friends, over 30 of them all told, priests, Brothers, laymen and laywomen, came together as we have come together. They were, and we are, the pilgrim Church on earth.
Within a year of that day in the late summer four of the Jesuits among them, two priests and two Brothers, were put to death for our faith: two outside the city of Worcester, one in the churchyard of St Paul's Cathedral in London, and one while being tortured in the Tower of London. The Church knows them now as St Nicholas Owen, Jesuit Brother; Blessed Edward Oldcorne, Jesuit priest; Blessed Ralph Ashley, Jesuit Brother; and Father Henry Garnet, Jesuit priest.
Perhaps you are wondering why they chose to come to Holywell with their friends. For one of them, Edward Oldcorne, there was a significant personal reason. Some 14 years before, he had come here to seek and find and give thanks for a cure from cancer of the throat and its accompanying anaemia. For the others - and for him as well - there was a brave determination to continue to praise God in the full traditions of the Church by remembering the wonders He does through the intercession of the saints and reverencing the instruments he chooses for that, You know of the antiquity of Holywell as a place of pilgrimage and how, all during the years of persecution, Catholics kept on coming here to what was then a very remote area to show a faith and a devotion forbidden by law. As you will see, some of them even carved names and initials and dates into the stonework so that for once we can speak of graffiti as glorious. So just as you and I today reverence St Nicholas, Blessed Edward, Blessed Ralph and Father Henry as great members of the Church, then and now, in the same way, they reverenced Saint Winefride as one with them in the one Body of Christ. Like us, they and the band of friends they brought with them were glad to acknowledge the ways in which God shows his love and his goodness through those who have been faithful servants of his here on earth.
I have said that we are here to remember a pilgrimage that took place 401 years ago. That we certainly do, but we also have in mind some other anniversaries in this year of Jesuit jubilees. In doing that there is no doubt that we join in the joy of the Jesuits in Heaven and of their friends too. 450 years ago St Ignatius died; 500 years ago St Francis Xavier was born, as also was Blessed Peter Favre, the first of the original companions of St Ignatius to be ordained priest. Those men knew all about pilgrimage and what it meant in the Church of their day. St Ignatius certainly did. You may recall how after his conversion St Ignatius first began to have some clarification about his personal calling from God in the course of a pilgrimage he made to the shrine of Our Lady at Montserrat in Catalonia; you may know that when he was prevailed upon to dictate some reminiscences of his life he never once in those eventual pages used the pronoun 'I' but always referred to himself as 'the pilgrim'; in the Spiritual Exercises he commends pilgrimages and devotion to the saints to us and lists them among the practices through which we may make our own the mind of the Church; and one of the experiments he laid down to test a man's possible vocation to the Society of Jesus was - and is - precisely to spend a month or so on pilgrimage with a companion 'without money and begging from door to door'. The four pilgrims we are particularly honouring in our pilgrimage today were followers of St Ignatius only 50 years after his death. As Jesuits they had been formed in the Ignatian spirit and here in this place gave and received strengthening in their faith. Francis Xavier and Peter Favre showed their love of God and neighbour in the same Ignatian way: Francis through his long, long missionary journeys in India and the Far East and Peter by being constantly on the road, largely in Germany, where many were beginning to turn their backs on their Catholic faith, but also in Spain, Portugal and Italy.
We have surely to ask what was at the heart of pilgrimage for these seven men. Was it coming successfully to a distant destination? Was it to relish something undertaken for the greater glory of God? Was it relief after times of difficulty and labour? Or was it perhaps something less obvious, even to their friends, but of the deepest significance to each one personally? I think that it was that last something of deepest significance to each one personally and so I shall try to explain what I mean by that.
When St Ignatius and his companions decided that their little group needed to be known by a name we know what they eventually decided. In English we translate it as the Society of Jesus, but it could just as well - or even better - be called the Company of Jesus, meaning by that what we, Jesuits and friends, might say of ourselves this afternoon. We can say that we are in one another's company. But that Ignatian group knew not only that they were in one another's company but that, as a group and as individuals, they were in Jesus' company. They were not the first people in the Church to have such an insight, but have it they did and treasure it they did. They were not simply at the side of Jesus, going out to Him, but He was at their side, coming to each one as a companion in joy and sorrow, in success and failure, in good times and bad. Our four Jesuit pilgrims knew that and none knew it better or needed it more than Henry Garnet. Those were bad times for Catholics, as you know. Queen Elizabeth I had died two years before, but the assurances given by her successor, James I, that he would alleviate the lot of his Catholic subjects had so far come to nothing. The men and women served by the Jesuits and other priests in the country were patient and loyal, but there were always hotheads and they brought the possibility of plots and desperate measures to bring about change. Henry Garnet had heard about what we now call the Gunpowder Plot in confession, though not from one of the plotters, and after his arrest refused to reveal what he had been told. Imagine carrying that knowledge around with you along with all the other dangers for priests and Jesuits at that time and you will see readily enough why he needed to sense his companionship with Jesus and claim his help through the intercession of his saints.
It was that companionship with Jesus and that intercession of the saints that brought our pilgrims to Holywell and saw some of them safely home afterwards. But for Nicholas, Edward, Ralph and Henry, their next home was to be Heaven after months of prison, questioning and torture. They had at their side in all those circumstances their most constant and loving companion, the one who said to them and says to us today that there is no greater love than when life is surrendered for love of one's friends. That is what God's grace enabled them to do for their friends 400 years ago. Today we give Him glory and praise and thanks for that. May He teach us how best we may learn from their example. May He teach us all, Jesuits and friends, how to recognise Jesus as the friend we have at our side in all circumstances.