Archbishop Longley recalls papal visit at Mass on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin

Archbishop Bernard Longley gave the homily at a Mass on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin on December 8, writes Peter Jennings.

The archbishop said: “The four days of the papal visit brought the Catholic Church in England and Wales to a different and new place, emphasising and enhancing the opportunity we have to live and proclaim our faith in public.

“The Holy Father has given us fresh courage to witness to the truth of the Gospel and to speak out against all that demeans human beings within our society,” said the Archbishop of Birmingham in the Metropolitan Cathedral and Basilica of St Chad, Birmingham.

“Pope Benedict has also given us Blessed John Henry Newman as someone to whom we can relate as we look for the kindly light of faith to help us negotiate our way through the complexities of contemporary life. Cardinal Newman reflected on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of our Lady in the context of his own journey of faith in becoming a Catholic.”

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Emeritus Archbishop of Westminster, who celebrated the Mass, reminded the congregation that he was present a year ago at the installation of Archbishop Bernard Longley as the Ninth Archbishop of Birmingham, on December 8. The Cardinal said: “Now a year later I am back to see how he is getting on and he is doing very well.”

Fr Bernard Longley was ordained to the sacred priesthood by the then Bishop Murphy-O’Connor of Arundel and Brighton on December 16 1980, as a priest of that diocese. His episcopal ordination by Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor took place in Westminster Cathedral on January 24 2003, following the announcement that Pope John Paul II had appointed him an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Westminster.

It was a bitterly cold morning outside St Chad’s Cathedral. Inside, a crescendo of sound filled this great Pugin architectural jewel, situated near Birmingham city centre, as everyone joined in singing Blessed John Henry Newman’s famous hymn “Praise to the Holiest in the Height”, from his poem The Dream of Gerontius, set to music by Sir Edward Elgar. It brought back vivid memories of the papal Mass and Cardinal Newman’s beatification ceremony by Pope Benedict XVI at Cofton Park in Birmingham less then 12 weeks earlier on Sunday, September 19.

At the start of Mass Archbishop Longley installed Fr Gerry Breen, the Cathedral Dean, as a canon of the Metropolitan Chapter of St Chad’s Cathedral. Standing at the foot of the sanctuary steps Fr Breen stood between Canon Patrick Browne, the former Cathedral Dean, and Canon Tom Farrell, as he made the promise of obedience and the profession of faith.

He then knelt before Archbishop Longley who handed him a copy of the chapter statutes and formally admitted him. The archbishop, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor and the Provost of the Chapter, Bishop David McGough, gave Canon Gerry Breen the kiss of peace and the Provost led him to his stall. All the members and retired members of the Chapter, including Bishop Philip Pargeter, retired auxiliary, and Bishop William Kenney CP, then came forward one by one and exchanged the kiss of peace with Canon Breen.

At the start of his homily, on the theme “Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you”, Archbishop Longley said: “The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is year by year a day of thanksgiving when this local Church recalls and celebrates its identity in faith and the mission entrusted to it by our Lord. For a number of us it is also the date of a significant anniversary. Bishop David McGough celebrates the fifth anniversary of his episcopal ordination in this cathedral. 

“For Bishop William Kenney it is four years since he was welcomed as an auxiliary bishop of the diocese, and it is also the first anniversary of my installation. It is fitting that Canon Gerry Breen, as Dean of the cathedral, will no doubt recall this day in future years as the anniversary of his installation into the Cathedral Chapter.”

He continued: “Anniversaries are important to us because they root our present life in the realities that have shaped us as individuals or as communities. The Immaculate Conception recalls the creative moment when God’s plan of salvation entered into human history and began to take shape in the life of Mary. 

“This celebration makes us aware that the power of Christ is at work within us, as individuals and as communities, even – and perhaps with most effect, most fruitfully – when we are least aware of it.

“Anniversaries give us a moment to pause and gather up the scattered experiences of a year gone by. Among the wonderful things we have seen during this year is the visit of Pope Benedict to Birmingham to beatify Blessed John Henry Newman.”
Archbishop Bernard Longley concluded his homily: “As we reflect prayerfully with Mary may we be granted the same insight to know where we stand in God’s providence as individuals and as a community of faithful witnesses and so share her confidence in God’s plan for the future and her willingness to work with it.” Members of Canon Gerry Breen’s family, friends and parishioners from Holy Trinity, Sutton Coldfield, his former parish, were present for the simple, deeply prayerful and memorable occasion in the life of the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

After Mass, in the warmth of Cathedral House, Dr Pat Crosby, medical director of the Archdiocese of Birmingham Lourdes pilgrimage, paid tribute to Canon Breen.

She said: “Devoted to Our Lady, Canon Gerry confirmed his vocation to the priesthood in Lourdes and became a brancardier while studying at St Mary’s College, Oscott.

“As a priest he continued to come on pilgrimage, ultimately as spiritual director, and then as managing director; a role that he holds today despite his many other priestly commitments in the diocese.

“I have known Canon Gerry since his student days at Oscott. Our Lourdes pilgrims are proud of what he has achieved over the years and we are all delighted that he has been installed as a Chapter Canon of the Metropolitan Cathedral.”