Homily of HG the Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon, on the occasion of the 175th anniversary celebrations of the Cathedral

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On Tuesday, the 11th of June, feast day of the Apostle S. Barnabas, celebrations were held at the Cathedral for the 175th anniversary of the dedication of the building, done at a time when it still functioned as a parish church rather than as a cathedral. Mass was offered in the presence of the Bishop by His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and Metropolitan, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, who was assisted by several of the Bishops of England and Wales, by several priests of the diocese and priests from beyond, and by lay representatives from parishes around the diocese. The cathedral was pleased to receive once more His Grace the Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon, her previous Bishop, and at present the Archbishop of the metropolitan See of Liverpool, who gave the homily at Mass. This homily is here presented.



"S. Barnabas cathedral started life as a parish church and was the second church to be built by Fr. Robert Willson in Nottingham. The first which is still standing in George Street was a modest building dedicated to S. John the evangelist. That building which now houses an architect’s office looked like many non-conformist chapels, to avoid attracting attention. Fr. Willson acquired a large site on Toll-house Hill to cater for the needs of the growing Catholic community. Some of the site was kept for the convent of mercy but the remainder was used for a church and large presbytery. The Earl of Shrewsbury financed the new church and Bishop Wiseman laid the foundation stone. The architect was Augustus Welby Pugin who was at the height of his powers and fame in 1841 when the building began.

"Fr. Willson was appointed bishop of Hobart Town in Tasmania in 1842, and one of his last acts, Canon Dolan relates in his work, ‘Good News for the East Midlands,’ was to the bless the cross on top of the 173 foot spire.

"Building a Catholic church with a spire was a daring thing to do in the 1840s. Catholics only received emancipation in 1829 and were still awaiting the establishment of the hierarchy. Spires were statements that the Catholics were back. Pugin described his gothic revival architecture as ‘pointed’. Pointed arches, pointed windows and a pointed spire. This style of architecture was intended to lift the mind and heart of the worshipper to God. But it was also pointed in the sense of making a point! The city’s mediaeval churches of S. Peter and S. Mary were no longer in Catholic hands – but S. Barnabas, while not able to match these wonderful churches in age, would certainly evoke the sensations and feelings of a mediaeval Christian. A mass-goer in 1844, and indeed for a long time afterwards, would not have much idea of what was taking place on the altar or in the choir and sanctuary. They were not expected to participate except silently in prayer. Their vision was limited by a rood screen, clouds of incense and many servers and minsters. Bells and music would alert the worshipper to the important parts of the mass, so the architecture of the building served the purpose of keeping the mind on heavenly things, always pointing upwards. You were almost meant to be distracted by the ornate stencil work, the beautiful floor tiles and the artistic wood and metal ornamentation. Distracted from your own thoughts to be lifted up by beauty and to be delighted by artistry. But the neo-gothic style served another purpose; it transported the worshipper back by decoration and design to a time before the reformation, with its whitewashed walls, to when the Church was united. In stone, wood, paint, metal and plaster a physical connection was made with the pre-reformation Church, or at least an idealised version of it. Buildings are important expressions of our feelings and intentions and provide a common space where we are at home and comfortable, and yet speak of our future. This is especially so with churches, which are extensions of our homes. The sacramental principle is at the heart of Catholicism, and no less so in its buildings. The solid pillars of S. Barnabas express a confidence in our faith, the ornamentation (Minton tiles and Hardman windows and metalwork), which is being slowly restored provide delight and comfort and even a glimpse of heaven, and the ‘pointed style’ leads us onwards and upwards.

"The church was dedicated to a biblical saint, the apostle Barnabas, so as not to offend non-Catholic sensibilities and not to attract too much attention, was soon to become a cathedral, when the hierarchy was restored in 1850. As you know a cathedral is the church where the bishop places his cathedra. The hint is in the name. But no bishop was appointed, and Bishop Ullathorne from Birmingham administered the diocese for a year or so. The Diocese of Nottingham was pieced together from the Midland District and the recently founded Eastern District; not having a bishop to fight its corner meant it started at a disadvantage. A year later, Bishop Hendren was moved from Clifton Diocese and, although he retired through ill-health two years later, he set his chair firmly in S. Barnabas Cathedral. The chair symbolises the unifying presence of the bishop within his diocese and his unity with the chair of Peter, the Holy See or seat or chair. This symbolic connection unites the particular church of Nottingham with the Church of Rome, and with worldwide Catholicism. The chair comes into its own in the bishop’s absence.

"But so far, I have only talked about the building and its distinguishing piece of furniture, that which makes it different from other churches. These material signs are of immense importance to us because they speak of the spiritual life of the Church. By far the most important elements of any Church are the living stones that come together to form the people of God:

'Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.'

"It is the spiritual sacrifices of the people that make this building live. Their praise and worship and good works follow on from Barnabas, our patron who found in Antioch, when he was sent from Jerusalem, a community of faith who arrived there after their persecution and flight from Jerusalem. Later he was commissioned directly by the Holy Spirit to set out with Paul on a great missionary journey to Cyprus, Barnabas’ home country, and then on to present day Turkey preaching the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus. His living witness we learn from the church’s tradition was followed by his martyrdom by stoning at Salamis. The people of Antioch did not have a cathedral and it was only later that Peter set his chair in Antioch; in fact, they probably met in a simple synagogue-like building as they discerned what it mean to be Christian, but the church they formed by their fidelity provides a base for Paul’s and Barnabas’s preaching which marked the expansion of the early church – it is true to say that the Word grew from Antioch via Rome until it reached Nottingham. Six centuries later we read in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of S. Paulinus baptising in the River Trent.

"The martyrs chapel now dedicated to S. Hugh of Lincoln here in the cathedral is a memorial to those many men and women who gave their lives nine hundred years later rather than deny the truth of their religion throughout the counties that now make the diocese of Nottingham. Amongst those who gave witness to the love of Christ in this diocese in the 19th century was the Venerable Mary Potter, whose body is buried in this cathedral. She, the founder of the Little Company of Mary brought healing and care to the people of Nottingham, and then to far flung parts of the world. Her Sisters continue this work to this day in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

"Countless Sisters, priests, lay faithful and bishops have been inspired by and found a home in this cathedral; and they have formed the living stones that made this cathedral, and today’s people are making the foundations for generations to follow. The stones that make this cathedral are not dead but alive. The cathedral has fulfilled Pugin’s ‘True Principles of Christian Architecture’ in providing stability through its structure, joy in its decoration and hope for the future in its pointed arches, lancet windows and its spire as they continue to point to the kingdom of God on earth and in heaven, beyond the confines of its walls and boundaries. In the words of the Gospel of Matthew which we have heard read today, Proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons."

"May Mary, who is depicted as a very English Lady in this cathedral, continue to cast a motherly eye on her children in the diocese of Nottingham with her intercession and prayer."

- MM