Here is the text of the sermon given by Fra Lawrence Lew OP at last night's Mass at Blackfen for our patronal feast of Our Lady of the Rosary:
Last month I had the opportunity to visit the cell of Saint Pius V in Santa Sabina, the oldest Dominican priory in Rome. And there in his cell, which is now a chapel, we were surprised to see that he had a wide-screen television!Many thanks indeed to Fra Lawrence. This was his first sermon in a non-Dominican Church and, given the quality not only of the content which you can read above, but also of the manner in which he delivered it, I am sure he will be much sought-after in the role for which his Order is named.
Well, actually… to be precise, what we saw was a fresco on the ceiling of the cell, showing the pope praying the Rosary… and as he does, an angel pulls back a curtain, and he appears to be watching the outcome of the battle of Lepanto on a wide-screen television… I think this is entirely appropriate because today’s feast widens our vision. And it is also appropriate that we celebrate this feast using the form of the Mass essentially codified by Pope St Pius V. This beautiful liturgy is itself a widening of our Catholic vision, of our hearts and minds. As Our Holy Father said: “Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows”.
So, how does this feast widen our vision? I just want to concentrate on just three ways. Firstly, today’s feast widens our historical vision, and so we are reminded of who we are. For the fresco in Santa Sabina actually depicts the miracle by which Pope Pius V, while praying the Rosary in Rome, learnt of the victory of the Christian fleet over the Ottoman Turks in Lepanto, which is off the western coast of Greece. So, today’s feast, as you’ll probably already know, commemorates a great act of a unified Christian Europe. As Pope Leo XIII put it so stirringly: “Christ's faithful warriors, prepared to sacrifice their life and blood for the salvation of their faith and their country, proceeded undauntedly to meet their foe near the Gulf of Corinth, while those who were unable to take part formed a pious band of supplicants, who called on Mary, and unitedly saluted her again and again in the words of the Rosary, imploring her to grant the victory to their companions engaged in battle”.
And it is by the Blessed Virgin Mary’s intercession that this decisive victory was won, and a significant threat to Christian Europe was routed. But how many historians, let alone other people, actually remember the Battle of Lepanto?
But memories are important. Think of someone suffering from Alzheimer's disease, who can no longer remember his own history. Such a person has lost his identity. Memories root us, and give us a sense of identity… of who we are today. And yet, is it not the case that Europe seems to be suffering from Alzheimer’s? Or perhaps it is a willful forgetting based on the embarrassment some people mistakenly feel over the very notion of Christendom? But as the then Cardinal Ratzinger has said, this “peculiar Western self-hatred is nothing short of pathological. It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure”. Well, take it from someone who was an outsider - I’m both a convert to Catholicism, and born in a Muslim country outside of Europe. There is much that is great and pure in the history of Christian Europe, and the victory at Lepanto is something we can be proud of. It is something we should remember, because it reminds us of our Christian roots, it grounds us in our common heritage, and we need to recall that so much that we value today is due to our Christian background. And all that could have been lost in 1571 at Lepanto.
So, today’s feast - as well as this Mass in the usus antiquior - widens our vision of who we are as Catholics, and indeed challenges Europe to remember her roots, and to see what threatens our civilization today. Pope Benedict XVI said recently that “Religion [is] a vital contributor to the national conversation”. But as we know, it’s rather difficult to hold a conversation with someone suffering from Alzheimer’s! So, we have to remember our heritage, and have some self-acceptance of who we are if there is to be any dialogue worthy of the name, “for the good of our civilization”.
In today’s epistle we read: “He that shall find me [Wisdom], shall find life, and shall have salvation from the Lord”. And so, today’s feast of the Holy Rosary widens our vision in a second way as we begin to see beyond history, or civilization, and contemplate the fullness of life itself, and what it means to be human. And the one who teaches us to be fully human is Christ, who is true God and true Man.
It is central to St Thomas‘ teaching - following the Tradition of the Fathers - that Christ assumed our human nature for a reason: in order to redeem it. We often hear it said that we’re made in God’s image and likeness, but it’s often forgotten that this divine image and likeness was (and is) deformed by sin. So Christ became Man in order to restore the image of God in us. And Jesus not only healed our deformities but, moreover, by grace, gave us his beauty as the Son of God. And so, when we meditate on the Rosary, we consider what Our Lord has done “for us men and for our salvation” by his coming as Man. As Pope John Paul II said, in the Rosary we are led by Mary to “contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love”.
Essentially, we contemplate the one mystery of the Incarnation - albeit made digestible in 15 (or even 20) mysteries! We contemplate the mystery of Christ’s humanity that encompasses the joys and sorrows of our life on earth, and the glory that is to be ours by the grace of baptism. And we don’t just contemplate, but we also preach… We preach by becoming imitators of Christ, so that we have the radiant beauty of holiness. How might we do this? Through remembering our identity as Christians: sons of God in the Son of God. John Paul II said that “in the recitation of the Rosary, the Christian community enters into contact with the memories and the contemplative gaze of Mary”. And so, with these memories we become more closely united to the incarnate Lord, and we are transformed by these graced memories so that, as it were, we take on our true identity as Christians - little Christs!
Finally, this union with Christ that is deepened by the Rosary points to the third widening of vision that today’s feast celebrates. For the end, the goal of the Rosary, is that we “obtain what they [the mysteries] promise”, and this, of course, is eternal salvation. By imitating what they contain, that is, by imitating Christ himself, we come at last, through grace, to obtain the widest - and indeed, the most HD - vision of all, namely, the Beatific Vision. We will have an eternal vision of the eternal God… and this is what our faith hopes for, this is what the mysteries of the Rosary promise, this is what the perfection of grace in our lives consists in.
And this is the beautiful vision we Christians have to recall… to our neighbours, to our country, to Europe, and to the world. It is a vision worth defending as our ancestors did at Lepanto, and it is a vision worth living, and paying the price for.
It is a vision that is certainly a lot wider, and with infinitely higher definition than the black-and-white, fuzzy vision, with very loud volume, offered by others in our contemporary Western society.
May Our Lady give us the victory through her powerful intercession in the most holy Rosary!