Images from a Pilgrimage 4


The theme of the pilgrimage was 'Faith, Hope and Love'.
Below you can read the text of three homilies delivered by Fr Neil Kelley at services in the course of the three days spent in Conques.


If you had to try and describe the word faith to an alien from outer space what would you say? And if you had to sum up 'faith' in two minutes what words would you use?

Without the Christian faith none of us would be here. Some of us would not have met. This Abbey would not exist; nor would S. Faith’s Church in Crosby and there would be no need for priests.

Faith is crucial. It is central to our common life, central to the life we share together. However it is something we often find difficult to explain or even embarrassing to speak about.

We are here today in Conques because of a young girl called Faith – Ste. Foy. In the bravery of her life and her commitment to her Lord she is an example to us of a person of faith. Part of our coming here on pilgrimage is to give thanks for her life of faith and the message we can learn 1700 years on from her martyrdom.

Pilgrimages to places such as this are important because they bring home in a very real way the lives of some the saints who are celebrated in the course of the church’s year. Of course you don’t need to go abroad to be touched by the lives of the saints: you can stay in England and visit holy sites in Canterbury (S. Thomas Becket), St. Albans (S. Alban), Durham (S. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede), Lincoln (S. Hugh), Whitby (Hilda, Abbess of Whitby), Iona and Walsingham – places where there are perhaps saints buried, or they have ministered there in their life, or places where there is a simply a particular holiness to be found.

How can you put into words the feeling of holiness and prayerfulness found in this Abbey? Imagine the prayers said on the cobbles of these streets where millions of pilgrims have trod over centuries as they have moved in different ways to become people of greater faith. People on the move. People of pilgrimage.
On November 1st the Church celebrates the marvellous feast of All Saints, giving thanks for that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ which surrounds us, encourages us, and prays for us, as we walk our journey of faith. Saints show us what is possible if we put our mind to it. It is possible to put God first. It is possible to resist temptation. It is possible to journey through this life with a heart set on the next.

One of my favourite phrases is that of the late Cardinal Hume: ‘Saints have a past; sinners have a future’. This favourite phrase is one of great encouragement. It is a phrase which should be taken seriously, especially if you are preparing to make your confession whilst here on pilgrimage. It is so easy for us to see saints as people completely divorced from our own experience of life. Saint Faith and other saints began their earthly lives as ordinary human beings, like you and me, tempted into sin and tempted to turn away from God. They will have struggled and at times, like you and me, will have clung on by a thin thread in their journey of faith. They are no different to you and me at all.

One of the greatest difficulties of trying to be a person of faith is that the closer we try to come to God, the closer we are faced with making sense of the reality of suffering and death. We can often feel powerless when faced with so much suffering around us in the world, or closer to home; perhaps suffering (physical, spiritual or emotional) in our own lives. That suffering can indeed lead some people away from God. But it can also draw people closer to Him. Whether we are looking at the lives of the saints or our own lives, we can’t dodge the issue of pain and suffering. We can’t come to God and ignore the Cross. As Herbert McCabe puts (it in his book God, Christ and Us) ‘Faith is not a pair of rose-coloured spectacles for looking at the cross’. The saints encourage us because they are witnesses to the fact that faith can overcome doubt and life can overcome death.

I guess that if we had a competition to see who had made the biggest mistakes in their life I might well win it! Part of coming on pilgrimage must be to think again about our lives. We must think about the things which please God in our lives and the things that ultimately, we know, displease him. You and I know that deep-down truth. Maybe there are things in our lives which have to change?
Re-read the Ten Commandments. Not fashionable these days I know. Where are we falling short? What areas of our lives fail to show the glory of God?

Offer those areas of your life to God whilst here on pilgrimage. Offer them in faith and trust. You see the difficulty is not so much whether God can forgive us or not – He can forgive any sin repented of in penitence and faith – the difficulty is, can we love and forgive ourselves? Do we believe in forgiveness? Do we live as people who have been forgiven?

There has to be faith for forgiveness to work!

The saints weren’t people who had an academic relationship with God: they had a living relationship with Him. There is a difference between knowing about Jesus, and knowing Jesus. We can come very close to the story; we can know it off by heart; we can have all the pictures in our minds; we can even say our prayers. But unless we know Him, then we are not connecting to Him.

God gives us the opportunity to connect with Him in the Sacraments. In the Sacrament of Baptism where we are given the promise of eternal life; in the Sacrament of Marriage, for some, where two people promise before God to live lives faithful to God and exclusively faithful to each other; God connects with us in the Sacrament of Anointing where the promise of healing is given; God connects with us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where forgiveness is found for sins confessed.

God connects with us, and will do very shortly, in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. And as we hold out our hands we receive His very life-force.

But what is it we receive? The Body of Christ, yes, in the form of consecrated bread. But think of that bread for a moment. Think of that broken bread, given to broken people, in a broken world. At every mass the bread is broken and that reminds us that when we share God’s life it is a life which has known suffering and pain.

The French for bread is ‘pain’: p-a-i-n.

The Body of Christ, given to us in this Eucharist, is a body which gives life, yes, but a body which was first broken: broken for broken people in a broken world, so that we might have life, and have it in all its fullness.

That is what we receive in faith. That’s why we say Amen. The Body of Christ. Yes please. Yes I want to believe. The Body of Christ. Give me the faith to believe it.

Bread. Pain. We break this bread to share in the suffering and resurrection as members of the Body of Christ. And in faith we receive Him. In faith we are sent out. In faith we gratefully receive the gift of forgiveness. We remember that ‘Faith is not a pair of rose coloured spectacles with which to look at the Cross’.

Let the saints - and especially our patron, S. Faith - let them inspire and encourage us on our earthly pilgrimage with God.

May our faith be strengthened on this pilgrimage so that we can live lives which are more dedicated to God and His people. Let our worship bring us closer to Him as we acknowledge in faith the Bread that gives us life. That pain undergone because God loves us so much.

Exactly 1700 years ago a young girl accepted death rather than compromise her faith in her Lord. Her faith was so strong; faithfulness to the teachings of her Lord came first. It is unlikely we will ever be called to make the same sacrifice. Where does God come on our list of priorities? That young girl, whom we now know as Saint Faith, was indeed worthy of that name, Faith. Faith was not just her name – it was her life. Could that be said of us? What impression will our Christian lives make on our generation? What, if anything at all, are we handing on to future generations by our witness? Saint Faith, and indeed all the saints, remind us of our ultimate destiny where one day, pray God, we will rejoice ‘with angels, and archangels and the whole company of heaven’ in the ceaseless praise and worship of almighty God.

For meditation as we thank God for the gift of 'faith'

Almighty and everlasting God,
Increase in us your gift of faith
That, forsaking what lies behind
And reaching out to that which is before,
We may run the way of your commandments
And, with Saint Faith, win the crown of everlasting joy;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is my body, broken for you,
bringing you wholeness, making you free
take it and eat it, and when you do,
do it in love for me.

This is my blood, poured out for you,
bringing forgiveness, making you free.
Take it and drink it, and when you do,
do it in love for me.

Back to my Father soon I shall go.
Do not forget me; then you will see
I am still with you, and you will know
you’re very close to me.

Filled with my Spirit, how you will grow!
You are my branches; I am the tree.
If you are faithful, others will know
you are alive in me.

Love one another: I have loved you,
and I have shown you how to be free;
serve one another, and when you do,
do it in love for me.


If you have ever had to undergo medical tests, perhaps because you or your doctor sensed you had a serious illness, or if someone close to you has had to endure great suffering and was uncertain of the outcome, then ‘hope’ and ‘hoping’ play a large part in life.

We say that ‘hopes run high’. We hope things will turn out OK. We had hoped the outcome would be different. It is not. Now what we hope for is strength to cope.

St Paul talks frequently of hope. ‘Hope is not deceptive’, he assures his converts in Rome (Rom 5:5). Hope is what we need today in a very special way. Many find life difficult, even unbearable, an ugly burden without content or meaning. Others are tempted to return the ticket of life to the very Giver of Life. The Resurrection, however, is the source of our hope, not a hope for something small, something only for this life, but of something for the life to come. If our hope is confined to this world only, we are the most unfortunate of all people and most to be pitied.

Imagine being not quite an adult even - in your early teenage years. Imagine having to face an awful choice, a dilemma. To keep one’s soul pure means facing death. That was the dilemma which faced the young Faith as she decided not to given into pagan rituals, worship and ceremonies to please the authorities at the time, but rather to remain firm in her witness to the living Christ and therefore, as a consequence, to suffer death.

What do you think she hoped would happen to her when she died? What do you hope will happen to you when you die? When those close to us have died, what have we hoped for them?

At the heart of our faith is hope. Hope in a better world. Hope in a more just way of being. S. John in chapter 21 of the book of Revelation describes heaven as a place where all will be well.

He writes:

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away”.

This account of heaven gives us hope in the face of anxiety, suffering and death. At the heart of our faith it the hope demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Such hope can give us comfort.Years of inexplicable suffering will result in a better state of being.

And the new life offered in Jesus Christ is itself a gift. It is freely offered. However, it does require a response on our part. It requires a willingness to walk in God’s way and lead lives which reflect his glory.

I read from Revelation Chapter 21 and verses 3 and 4. However, if you go on just a few verses S. John writes this:

“He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

You may be relieved to hear that I don’t read those verses out at a funeral service!

These words are a warning that, whilst there is indeed hope in heaven, hope in a better world, it is a hope offered to those who lead lives of repentance and self-examination and seek to walk in God’s way.

In the new form of service, Common Worship, there were subtle changes made by liturgists. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, rather than sins. [There’s the old joke, what’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist!]

It is a feature of 21st century Christian life that talk of ‘sin’ is being fudged over or at least de-personalised. ‘Sin’ of the world, rather than sins, because there is only one sin – the sin of humanity. Sins of the world – sin in the plural – reminds us that each one of has had to be responsible for our own actions in a very real way. Our actions affect ourselves, they affect those around us and close to us, and we know our actions have an effect on our planet.  We cannot gloss over a personal notion of sin and take some comfort in a sort of vague notion of corporate sin just because it makes us feel more comfortable!

I remember some years ago there was something of a sexual scandal involving a priest in London and it made the papers, as it would do. It’s the only sin in the world in some people’s eyes! One of the sisters, in her 80’s, at S. Mary’s Convent in Chiswick read the newspaper article and said ‘Poor man. We must pray for him’. To the outsider Sister Hazel was probably very naïve, knowing little about worldly matters. Well, she may not have had much knowledge about the intricacies of human relationships. She did however know a lot about God’s love, His forgiveness, and His mercy.

Many of the saints have recorded in their personal writings their ongoing struggle with sin and temptation. Many spiritual writers have noted the fact that the closer one tries to come to God, the harder the devil has to work.

What hope do we have? Do we hope to one day enjoy the vision of heaven described by S. John? Do we trust his words? The challenge is though, if the words are true, and heaven is such a place of beauty, are the other words true too? Will those who have not repented of their sins truly be cast into the eternal fire?

Can we say that one verse is true and the other isn’t?

It isn’t fashionable to preach hell fire and damnation! People on the whole want to come away from church with a feel-good factor! Do we actually spend time thinking about how our lives might need to change? Are the Ten Commandments outdated? Is it OK to miss out on worship of the Creator each Sunday? Is it OK to steal and murder? Is it OK to have casual sexual relationships and extra-marital affairs?

Do we ever stop to think that engaging in sinful activities may prevent us from reaching heaven?

We have hope.

Forgiveness is offered freely to those who truly turn to God. As we say in our prayer of absolution: Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy on you…

In his book ‘To be a Pilgrim’ Cardinal Basil Hume writes:

“From sin to union with God, that is the journey which each one of us has to travel; it is our human pilgrimage. Day by day we have to travel along that road, from that which separates us from God to that which unites us to Him.”

No matter what our sins and failings are, what matters to God is that we turn to him in penitence and faith and ask his healing and his love. For it is in doing that we glimpse a vision of his kingdom. If we hope for anything it is to one day share in that glorious banquet of eternal life in heaven.

Some sins may well be difficult to give up. The saints knew that lesson too. Their sins may well have been different to mine or yours, but sin is sin. Repentance is repentance. And Love is Love. Let us hope for God’s love to be made more evident in our lives at this special time of pilgrimage and prayer.

For meditation as we thank God for the gift of 'hope'

Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that we, having this hope, may purify ourselves even as he is pure; that when he shall appear in power and great glory we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

My God, I love thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
nor yet because who love thee not
are lost eternally.

Thou, O my Jesus, thou didst me
upon the cross embrace;
for me didst bear the nails and spear,
and manifold disgrace,

and griefs and torments numberless,
and sweat of agony;
yea, death itself - and all for me
who was thine enemy.

Then why, O blessed Jesu Christ,
should I not love thee well?
not for the sake of winning heaven,
nor of escaping hell;

not from the hope of gaining aught,
not seeking a reward;
but as thyself hast loved me,
O ever-loving Lord.

So would I love thee, dearest Lord,
and in thy praise will sing;
solely because thou art my God,
and my most loving King.


For some today is the end. The end of a pilgrimage. For others, today is a beginning; the beginning of a life renewed and re-dedicated to God. If you could take only one item with you as you returned home, what would it be? Passport not included! What is the one thing which would help you to be a better Christian when you returned home? The one thing you need is a towel!

Jesus came to earth to show us the Father’s love; he spoke about it; he taught and he preached it. Yet his time on earth was coming to an end and the message still had to be put across. People hadn’t quite grasped this message of love. I wasn’t there so I can’t speak about it, but I often wonder if the washing of the feet was in fact a last desperate attempt to describe the depth and quality of love Our Lord was talking and teaching about. I can imagine Our Lord saying ‘I’ve tried; I’ve run out of words; will you stupid disciples not understand?? – THIS…………..   is what I mean …’

And so he rises from the table, removes his outer garments, kneels down, takes a towel and some water, and He washes their feet. They had no notice or advance warning – no time to have a shower or apply Body Shop peppermint foot lotion! There and then he bent down and did the unthinkable.

And this action is the only action in the Gospels where Jesus asks us to do exactly the same as him. We are told to celebrate the Eucharist but we are not told to give our own bodies. He asks us to copy him. Why?

Because here is a pattern of humility and service. In Our Lady’s Magnificat the mighty are put down from their thrones; the humble raised up.

Many of you will know about the work of the L’Arche and the Faith and Light communities founded by Jean Vanier.

Vanier has written a book called ‘The Scandal of Service’ – Jesus washes our feet. And in it he writes:

“If Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, it is not just to give them a lesson in humility, which they could have understood, even if it might be difficult to accept. Jesus says to Peter: ‘Later on you will understand.’ The washing of the feet is a mystery, which we can only enter through a gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter will receive this gift at Pentecost. Jesus brings a whole new vision, a whole new way of living, which is impossible if we rely on our own human resources. The washing of the feet summarises the teaching and the message of Jesus. Actions speak louder than words.”

Jean Vanier goes on to describe how on ecumenical and inter-religious retreats with both L’Arche and Faith and Light, the washing of the feet has taken on a special meaning. For, at these retreats, eucharistic communion cannot be the visible sign of unity with a mixed gathering of Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians. They can, however, wash each other’s feet’ and that has become a part of their corporate identity.

Maundy Thursday is about sacrament (The Last Supper) – but it is also about service (The Washing of Feet). Two sides of the same coin. As we ponder the word ‘love’ we think of the way in which we are called to serve others and most importantly the attitude required of us if we are to serve in Christ’s name. If we have the wrong attitude we cannot serve or love as Christ asks us to.

Go up and down the country and watch what happens at church social functions. Our natural inclination is to want to sit at a table with our friends; with people who are like-minded. People who share our views, opinions and perhaps political views too. I have a priest-friend who talks (in a rather snobbish way!) about PLU’s! ‘He’s a P.L.U. A Person Like Us!’ We want to be on the right table with the right people.

But there is always a table full of people that no one really wants to sit with for whatever reason. Perhaps their clothes don’t have the right labels on them, perhaps they don’t have a university degree, they’re not glamorous enough or there is something different about them. They’re not quite like us.

Remember the story of the great banquet (Luke 14:15)? All the ‘top’ people were invited; an example in our day might be a party for all the crowned heads of the world; duchesses and dames; lords and ladies; people who were ‘something’. The ‘A list’, as it’s known!

Jesus invited the so-called ‘A’ list but what happened? One by one they made excuses. They all had a better offer. And so the poor, the marginalized, the crippled, the lame, the blind were all dragged in. And don’t miss the most important fact about this story – they were compelled to come in. No negotiation. Compelled: that’s the word used. And it was only when the outsiders were inside, that the party began. Think about it! The people on the edges are the VIP’s; in Our Lord’s own eyes the VIP’s are those who are marginalized. We worry so much about being with the ‘in’ crowd; whereas Our Lord would, more likely than not, want to be with the ‘out’ crowd.

You see, in the kingdom of God people who are the wrong shape and size fit perfectly! In the Kingdom of God everything is upside down; in the kingdom of God everything is inside out, back to front, the wrong way round. The mighty are put down from the thrones; the humble raised up.
In the washing of the feet Our Lord demonstrates the fact that he came to give dignity and worth to those who are marginalized. And as members of His Body, the Church, strengthened by the power of the Holy Eucharist, we are called to do exactly the same.

Jean Vanier also says:

“These two actions are linked: in order to wash others’ feet, that is, in order to be as humble and loving as Jesus, we need to be nourished by his body and blood in the Eucharist. Without this presence of Jesus in us, it is impossible to live out such poverty and such humility; without t the Eucharist we cannot live out such a deep presence and communion of the heart with others. On the other hand, we cannot adequately receive the body and blood of Jesus unless we are forgiving and loving towards others.”

‘Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you… take up your Cross and follow me… give away all your possessions and give your money to the poor, then come, follow me.’  Show me a command from the Lord which is easy to follow! Being faithful to the calling to be the Lord’s own people is a long hard slog. Thank God for pilgrimages. Thank God for opportunities to start again each time we come to Confession. Thank God for the privilege of being called to love and serve him, however difficult it may seem at times.

In a few moments there will be some bowls and jugs of water passed around with the towel. What I will invite you to do is to uncover one of your feet and then for your neighbour to wash it. When that is done, then I would like you to wash your neighbour’s foot….

In fact I am not serious! But, for a moment, how did you feel? Did you consider it a privilege to copy the actions of Jesus, or did it fill you with fear? We can’t begin to talk about love if we are not prepared to have the towel to hand.

Saint John of the Cross, priest and doctor of the Church, said’“at the end of life, we will be judged by love alone’. Yes, at the end of our lives we will be judged on how we have loved, and not by our clothes, or the masks or labels society has imposed on us. We will be judged according to who we really are and not our so-called ‘place’ in society. As Jesus removes his outer garments, he is reminding us of what is most important in life: our hearts. We cannot be serious about Christian charity and Christian service unless we are prepared to do as He did, unless we are prepared to see people and things His way.

If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.

In the 1920’s there was a great Anglo-Catholic congress in the Albert Hall at the time when catholic practice and discipline was returning to the life of the Church of England. The catholic movement was not just about beautiful worship but also a social dimension to the Gospel. Bishop Frank Weston, then Bishop of Zanzibar, addressed the conference, challenging the brethren to remember that catholic Christian practice was also Christian service. In the language typical of the 1920’s he says this:

But I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.   If you are Christians then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country. And it is folly - it is madness - to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done. There then, as I conceive it, is your present duty; and I beg you, brethren, as you love the Lord Jesus, consider that it is at least possible that this is the new light that the Congress was to bring to us. You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you.
Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.

You see – you can’t love without a towel!

For meditation as we thank God for the gift of ‘love’

Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth: send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Great God, your love has called us here as we, by love, for love were made.
Your living likeness still we bear, though marred, dishonored, disobeyed.
We come, with all our heart and mind, your call to hear, your love to find.

We come with self-inflicted pains of broken trust and chosen wrong;
half-free, half-bound by inner chains; by social forces swept along,
by powers and systems close confined; yet seeking hope for humankind.

Great God, in Christ you call our name and then receive us as your own
not through some merit, right, or claim, but by your gracious love alone.
We strain to glimpse your mercy seat and find you kneeling at our feet.

Then take the towel, and break the bread, and humble us, and call us friends.
Suffer and serve till all are fed, and show how grandly love intends
to work till all creation sings, to fill all worlds, to crown all things.

Great God, in Christ you set us free, your life to live, your joy to share.
Give your Spirit's liberty to turn from guilt and dull despair
and offer all that faith can do while love is making all things new.

Almighty and everlasting God,
increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love;
and, that we may obtain what you promise,
make us love what you command;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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