In the south transept of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome there is the startling funerary monument of Pope Alexander VII – the last work, when he was 80 years of age, by Bernini. The huge red jasper carving, in the form of a theater curtain, is so dramatic that it almost hides a bronze skeleton. Above, a figure holds up an hour-glass that represents Death. But below there is a door (leading now to the Basilica’s sacristies), reminding us that death and the grave are nothing other than the gate that leads to eternal life. With that in mind …….
Part One: OPERATION HOPE [NOT]
Sir Winston Churchill, Knight of the Garter, Order of Merit and Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society, Academician of the Royal College of Art, died a little over fifty years ago. His health had been slowly failing over the preceding years; and – such considerations serving to concentrate the mind — some thought had been given during that period to the arrangements for his funeral. A file, containing notes to and from Churchill’s personal secretary, Lady Churchill, the Earl Marshall (the Duke of Norfolk) and Buckingham Palace, was gradually assembled and kept to await the day of its need. The file was entitled — with characteristic humor rather than vapid optimism, surely! – “Operation Hope Not”!
The day came; and for three unforgettable days, in the last week of January 1965, Churchill’s body lay in state in Westminster Hall. At that time, I was priest-in-charge of St George’s, Stevenage. On one of these evenings, José and I were taking part a study group meeting in the home of a parishioner which happened to be in Knebworth – a little south of Stevenage and so, to that extent, nearer to London. On the spur of the moment (we were young then!) we decided not to go home after the meeting but to drive to London in order to join the huge crowds that were slowly passing through Westminster Hall.
We arrived in Westminster at around midnight and joined to huge line of people that extended along the Thames Embankment and around the Palace of Westminster. It was bitterly cold. The solemn procession progressed slowly, and we eventually got inside Westminster Hall at around 4 a.m. The scene was deeply moving. In all, 321,360 people took part in that three-day tribute to the man, who in the opinion of most, was the greatest Briton whoever lived.
It is poignant, at this moment fifty years on, and with the world still beset by so much terror, to remember a speech he gave in 1950 in Edinburgh:
At least I feel that Christian men should not close the door upon
any hope of finding a new foundation for the life of the self-tormented human race.What prizes lie before us; peace, food, happiness, leisure,
wealth for the masses never known or dreamed of; the glorious advance into a period of rest and safety for all the hundreds of millions of homes
where little children play by the fire and girls grow up in all their beauty
and young men march to fruitful labour in all their strength and valour.
Let us not shut out the hope that the burden of fear and want
may be lifted for a glorious era from the bruised and weary shoulders of mankind.
We emerged from Westminster Hall just before dawn, to find a full rehearsal for the great State Funeral taking place outside. Under ghostly television lights in the misty and cold January pre-dawn, we saw the military processions forming – the horses shod in felt, so that their footfalls might be relatively silent in the night; columns of soldiers, sailors, airmen and veterans; the oblong areas to be occupied by military bands marked out by soldiers holding cords. And we walked right past Walter Cronkite as he was making his preparations for covering the State Funeral itself.
Churchill was a patriot; and he chose as one of the hymns at his funeral, the glorious words of Sir Cecil Spring-Rice who had served as British Ambassador to the United States throughout World War One:
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love:
the love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,
that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
the love than never falters, the love that pays the price,
the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
Ah, but here is where that word “not” fades, and leaves only “Operation Hope”:
And there’s another country I’ve heard of long ago,
most dear to them who love her, most great to them that know;
we may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
and soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase.
and her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.
Part Two: OPERATION HOPE
As I suggested above, certain considerations do tend to concentrate the mind. One such consideration is the fact that, on the eve of my 81st birthday, I am to have some surgery next week. Of course, I ask for the prayers of those who may read this; but I am not concerned about the procedure; and I am confident that the outcome will be helpful and health-giving. Nevertheless, the circumstances serve as a focus for prayer.
In his old age Pope St. John XXIII, of happy memory, prayed thus:
O Jesus, here I am before you.
You are suffering and dying for me, old as I am now,
and drawing near the end of my service and my life.
Hold me closely, and near to your heart,
letting my heart beat with yours.
Such words are deeply moving, as my cardiologist prepares for his work next week.
Finally: Norman Eldridge – may he rest in peace – a very fine musician and liturgist, a devout Anglo-Catholic and an ally in the cause, was the organist and choir director at St George’s, Stevenage. He played for our Nuptial Mass there almost 51 years ago. He died suddenly a couple of years or so thereafter. Among the clear directions he left for his Requiem he requested a hymn, written originally in Latin by the somewhat strange 18th century French priest Charles Coffin (yes, that was his name), translated in the 19th century by John Chandler, and sung to the lovely Irish tune, St. Columba. Its words have echoed in my heart ever since Norman died.
As now the sun’s declining rays
at eventide descend,
so life’s brief day is sinking down
to its appointed end.
Lord, on the cross thine arms were stretched
to draw thy people nigh:
O grant us then that cross to love,
and in those arms to die.
All glory to the Father be,
all glory to the Son,
all glory, Holy Ghost, to thee,
while endless ages run.