Churches Together in Rye and District

The Civic Requiem Mass for Pope John Paul II St. Anthony of Padua’s church, Rye Wednesday 13 April 2005

The Mass was concelebrated by Fr. Aidan Walsh (Parish Priest), Fr. Andrew Fraser (both friars of the Franciscan Order), and the Very Rev Canon Charles Walker (Parish Priest of Northiam). The servers were led by Geoff Brown, of Rye, supported by brothers Aaron and Mathew. The readings were by Aoife Coleman, Ann Hamilton, and schoolgirl Heather Thompson. In the absence of Professor Ling, the choir was led by organist David Andrews.

The church was honoured by the presence of His worship the Mayor of Rye, councillor Ian Potter, and his lady mayoress Jessica Neame, and Mr. Michael Foster MP seeking reelection. The Mass was partly instigated by the ecumenical group “Churches Together in Rye and District”, whose logo is printed above. Non-Catholic denominations were represented by the Rev. Dick Dengate (of Churches Together), the Rev. Derek Brice (Methodist Minister), and Rev. Lucy Murdoch (Anglican, Camber) and members of their congregations; other clergy unable to attend sent their apologies.

The address was given by Canon Charles Walker, whose autobiography “Earthen Vessel” was published to general commendation in 2002.

Historical note

The church’s bright yellow and white Papal flag that brightens up Watchbell Street flies continuously from Easter Sunday to either November 11 or Remembrance Sunday (whichever comes first) when it is replaced by the Union Flag until Remembrance Sunday or November 11 (whichever comes second). Then the flagstaff, which was installed in the late 1980’s by the then parish priest, Fr. David Young, remains bare for the winter. Pope John Paul II was already installed (from 1978) when the flagstaff was put up, so this was the first occasion when the flag had flown at half mast for the official nine days of mourning. Then it was taken in until news was received of the famous white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine chapel.

             Canon Walker’s address to the congregation

In former days in this country, the death of a Pope would have been a matter of intense concern in the Roman Catholic community but of passing interest to the nation in general.

Not so with the death of Pope John Paul. The length of his pontificate is one thing – 27 years. The significance of his times another – the last quarter of the 20th century and the opening of the 21st with all its momentous events. But no-one could have anticipated in October 1978 what such a great and luminous figure would be launched on the international stage.

When Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was making his inaugural address in St. Peter’s Square he came to the word “man” in his prepared text. As he read the word “man” he looked up from his text and said spontaneously “and with what reverence we should utter that word ‘man'”.

It was a brief aside and a fleeting moment but it was also a whisper of one of the most precious preoccupations of his whole pontificate. In a world where human beings suffered violence, hunger, and multiple deprivations “with what reverence we should utter that word ‘man'”.

Looking back on his tenure of the papacy, we can say that the value and dignity of the human person has been at the heart of his message for the world – as a young man he lived under Nazi occupation of his native Poland. As a young priest and as a bishop at Krakow he contended with the totalitarianism and irreligion of the Marxist regime. By simple and persistent pressure he succeeded in obtaining a new church for the steel town of Nowa Huta in his diocese where no such provision could be expected of the civic authority.

Later he was quick to endorse and encourage the solidarity movement led by Lech Walensa which led to the gradual crumbling of totalitarianism in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe. He not only opposed the violence done to the human spirit in the authoritarian regimes of Eastern Europe. He was also a fierce critic of the deforming influence of secularism in west Europe and North America. His vision of the value and dignity of the human person was from conception to the grave and beyond. He denigrated the corrupting effects of hedonism and moral relativism in Western society.

It was in his travels that we see the huge love and concern for the poor and neglected peoples of the Earth. The church’s option for the poor was the result of his visits to South America, Africa, and the Far East. His concern for human persons included their human and material welfare and their education. He celebrated Mass with huge crowds in places like Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, and the Philippines, but he also visited countries where the Catholics were in a minority.

On one visit to North America he wanted to visit the Inuit (Eskimo) people in the far north of Canada but weather conditions prevented his flying there. He returned to North America the following year and made sure he made his way to them.

During his 1982 visit to Britain I was looking after the Caribbean community in South London. Three coach loads of us went through the night to Coventry to take part in the Papal Mass of the Sunday of his visit. We also took our steel band with us and our boys and girls made a merry noise for the Holy Father. One of our girls – sixteen or seventeen year old- blurted out “I reckon he is not only the Pope for the Catholics, he’s the Pope for everyone”. This same idea has been expressed by many during these last weeks when so much has been said about John Paul’s pontificate. But it was a remarkable insight in 1982 by a young person.

With Pope John Paul, we were a world away from any assertion of legal jurisdiction but were seeing a marvellous example of what the papal Office is all about. It is to be understood as universal love for all human beings and a pastoral embrace of all sorts and conditions of men.

Was he a conservative? – Yes if that means did he stand up for the doctrinal teachings of the Church. But he also gave careful reasons for the Faith that was in him.

Pope John Paul was a great teacher. Perhaps his greatest writing was “Veritatis Splendor” – the splendour of the Truth. He was anything but negative and defensive about Christian Truth. “Veritatis Splendor” was a powerful plea to the human mind to accept the Christian Gospel which John Paul was convinced was eminently reasonable, not a rearguard action.

Much more could be said. He was a great ecumenist – indeed a great respecter of all faiths – witness his invitation to spiritual leaders throughout the world to come to pray for peace at Assisi.

He was a great recogniser of saints. John Paul’s pontificate recognised more saints than all his predecessors together. In them, perhaps, he saw the full beauty of the human person. So “with what reverence we must utter that word ‘man'”. Perhaps our abiding image of Pope John Paul can be of him embracing a child. A simple celebration of what it is to be a father, and father of all.

June 2005 Issue of “Rye’s Own”

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