Here is the homily I preached today, on the feast of Saint Charles Borromeo, to members of the British Confraternity of Catholic Clergy at Aylesford Priory in England.
I believe, dear brothers, in the liturgical providence of God. The liturgical providence of God is something, I think, that all of you have experienced, perhaps, even, at certain critical moments in your lives. “The Spirit helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings” (Romans 8:26). What is the sacred liturgy if not the articulation in the Church of the unspeakable groanings of the Spirit? “The Spirit helpeth our infirmity”, and this in the phrase of an antiphon that seems to leap off the page and lodge itself in the heart, in the verse of a psalm, in the word of the Gospel that appears, all of a sudden, to be mysteriously illumined from within, or underscored by an invisible hand, the dextrae Dei digitus.
“The Spirit helpeth our infirmity.” It is a great grace to discover one’s infirmity in prayer, to finally come to terms with one’s inability to pray, and so, to be obliged to utter the words and perform the gestures of the sacred liturgy in a kind of abandonment to the liturgical providence of God, trusting that by saying what the Missal or the Breviary make me say, and by doing what the rubrics tell me to do, I am cooperating with the Holy Spirit. “And God, who can read our hearts, knows well what the Spirit’s intent is”, in providing the Church with this antiphon, with this Collect, with this Gospel on any given day, “for indeed it is according to the mind of God”, says the Apostle, “that the Holy Spirit makes intercession for the saints” (Romans 8:27). Open the Missal or the Breviary with the absolute certainty of finding there the very prayer that God is waiting to hear, and waiting to answer, because it is the prayer that He Himself, knowing our infirmity, has given, through the Holy Spirit, to the Church.
Has the liturgical providence of God never surprised you? Has it never come to meet you while you were yet on the way? Has it never flashed before you at the altar? Has it never asked the question that you were afraid to ask, or answered the question that you were incapable of framing? Has the liturgical providence of God never pierced your heart with the grace of compunction? I have, many a time, left my choir stall or descended from the altar a changed man, not because I did anything special, and certainly not because I “was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2), but simply because, I read what the Church gave me to read, and I did what she told me to do.
Today’s Collect is a perfect illustration of the liturgical providence of God. Unlike Collects of the more classical stamp, that begin by addressing God: “O God, who . . .», or “Almighty and ever–living God, who», today’s Collect begins straightaway with a petition, giving one the impression of something very urgent. «Preserve in the midst of your people, we ask, O Lord, the spirit with which you filled the Bishop Saint Charles Borromeo». If we are made to ask God to preserve among us the spirit with which He filled Saint Charles Borromeo, it is, I think because that spirit is constantly in danger of being compromised, or weakened, or even lost. Here the word spirit refers not to the Holy Ghost, but to the particular infusion of grace by which Saint Charles was uniquely equipped for his mission in the Church.
The spirit with which God filled Saint Charles was, simply put, the spirit of the great Catholic Reform or, if you prefer, the spirit of the glorious Counter–Reformation. What were its fruits? An epiphany of the beauty of holiness; the restoration of order and splendour to the sacred liturgy; a luminous presentation of Catholic doctrine in all its purity; the re–direction of the diocesan clergy into paths of discipline, virtue, learning, and apostolic zeal; the reform of monastic life; the alleviation of poverty, ignorance, and disease in an unprecedented flowering of works of mercy; the expansion of missionary enterprises to the ends of the earth.
All of this was as daunting a programme in Saint Charles’ day as it is in our own. If we ask God to preserve among us the spirit with which He filled the Bishop Saint Charles Borromeo, it is because “God does not repent of the gifts he makes, or of the calls he issues” (Romans 11:29). “Every best gift, and every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration.” (James 1:17).
Today’s Collect obliges us to recognise, in Saint Charles, God’s plan for a Church constantly renewed, and conformed to the image of Christ, Christi se imágini confórmans. The Collect discretely alludes to Saint Charles’ devotion to the mysterious Shroud of Turin. Saint Charles venerated the Holy Shroud in Turin on October 10th, 1578; he was profoundly affected by the experience. It would seem that the spirit with which God filled the great reforming bishop was, in some way, bound up with his contemplation of the mysterious Face of the Shroud. Little wonder, then, that the Collect ends with this petition—ipsíus vultum mundo váleat osténdere— that the Church may show the Face of Christ to the world.
It is, I think, no small sign of the liturgical providence of God for us priests that today’s Collect should end in this: the showing of the Face of Christ to the world. There are, of course, myriad and manifold ways of showing the Face of Christ to the world. Saint Paul speaks of these in today’s Epistle. All of these, however, mirror the one essential showing of the Face of Christ that, by God’s design, rests in the hands of the priest. The heartfelt cry at the elevation of the Mass, so expressive of the old English piety, “Heave it higher, Sir Priest!” is the voice of the multitude rising from every corner of the world: a yearning to behold the Face that every man was created to see. The sacramental showing of the Face of Christ is, dear brothers, our essential work. It is the Opus Dei to which, as Saint Benedict says, nothing is to be preferred. Never doubt this. Do it as Saint Charles did it, and all the rest will be given you besides, “good measure and pressed down and shaken together and running over” (Luke 6:38). “Heave it higher, Sir Priest!”