Cardinal Vincent Nichols, President of the Bishops’ Conference and Archbishop of Westminster, gave this homily at the Episcopal Ordination of Bishop Peter Collins in Norwich.
Dear Bishop-elect Peter,
In a few moments, all of us gathered here on this splendid occasion will act as witnesses as you solemnly promise to undertake the duties of a bishop until the end of your life. These promises, one by one, detail the tasks that lie ahead of you – preaching the Gospel, teaching the truth, sustaining the unity of the Church, serving others in charity and compassion, reaching out to those on the margins, and practising constant prayer. All fulfilled, as you will promise, so as to afford no grounds for reproach.
Peter, this is not an easy task!
In fact, in 1846, the Benedictine Bernard Ullathorne was facing the prospect of becoming a bishop in the Western District. In a letter to him from Cardinal Acton, the appointment was described as bringing, I quote, “pain, trouble and labour to be accepted through love of Christ and His Church”. Little wonder that a while later, Bishop Ullathorne wrote these words, “there is nothing less desirable to flesh and blood than an English mitre – under any circumstances in this age”. And Peter for a Welshman, too!
However, I would prefer to linger on the words of Saint Paul, with which he opened the twelfth chapter of his Letter to the Romans. He wrote, “I urge you then, my brother, remembering the mercies of God, to present your body as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.”
Peter, this is what you will do very shortly as you lie prostrate before the Lord your last act before becoming a bishop. Your act of prostration is our keenest moment of prayer. We beseech for you every grace and blessing, for we know and believe that all this, all that is good, is the work of the Holy Spirit. For that gift, we pray with all our hearts.
Saint Paul continued his letter by instructing us about how we are to conduct ourselves in lives given in service to the Lord. He tells us not to exaggerate our own importance. Now, that’s advice well chosen by a bishop. He tells us always to strive for the unity of the body of Christ, his Church. We do this by recognising that we belong to one another, whether recently arrived or long in possession of our place, and that this bond of unity excludes factionalism or the provoking of divisions.
He tells us to judge soberly by the standards of faith, a task in which every bishop needs wise counsellors. He tells us to recognise and make good use of the variety of gifts given by the Holy Spirit. A spirit of ready cooperation lies at the heart of the life of a diocese. He tells us that only love, without any pretence in its makeup, can hold us together, and that this love is expressed in a profound respect for each other, in an untiring effort, and in a willingness to serve with great eagerness of spirit. So our motivation in our life of service of the Lord can never remain at the level of fulfilling a duty, but it has to rise from an unambiguous love of Our Blessed Lord himself.
And then, with great realism, Saint Paul reminds us that trials and tribulations will be part of our lot. But Paul also highlights the joy that is ours too, rooted in our Christian hope.
With the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham present among us today, I cannot help thinking of the designation of that shrine as described in 1485, as, I quote, “a perpetual memorial to the great joy of the annunciation – ground and origin of all the joys of Mary. Indeed, we hold her to be the mother of our joys, and we do so especially as we approach the great joy of the birth of her Son, the eternal Word of God in our flesh. May Our Lady of Walsingham sustain you, Peter, and always keep your heart filled with joy, no matter the trials that may come.
Now, as Peter takes up his crozier, Bishop Alan lays his down – well rather, he hands it over. So we take this opportunity to salute you, Bishop Alan, and to thank you most sincerely for your tireless leadership during these ten years or so at the helm of this diocese. You have fulfilled your ministry with dedication and care, never slacking in pace, even as age brought on its additional demands, as we all know. Bishop Alan, thank you.
Bishop Alan, thank you so much. Enjoy the years ahead and keep us all in your prayers. Thank you.
Today, then, is a day of work for the Holy Spirit, who never steps down or misses a mark. Today we affirm that through the actions of the Church, this same Holy Spirit is granted to our new bishop, never leaving his side, giving us all the confidence of faith in this bishop’s leadership. Saint john makes this so clear in the words from his Gospel that we’ve just heard, “You did not choose me. No, I chose you. And I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will last.” And Jesus does not abandon those He has chosen.
But I want to give the last word to another John – Saint John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrate today and who has a special place in the life of our new bishop. In the darkest days of his life, this John never lost sight of the Lord’s presence. He is an example for us all, and he expressed his unwavering faith in poetry.
“How well I know the spring that brims and flows although by night its deathless spring is hidden even so full well I know from where its sources flow, although by night. The eternal source hides in the living bread that we with life eternal may be fed, though it be night. This living fount which is to me so dear within the bread of life I see it clear, though it be night.”
Today, though, is not a day of darkness, it’s a day of great light. In both the joy and the trouble, the faith that sustained John of the Cross will guide us, too, with this same steadfast faith in the work of the Holy Spirit, in this great gift of the Eucharist.
Let us now proceed with the Episcopal Ordination of Peter Collins to serve here in East Anglia in the joy of God’s Holy Spirit. Amen.
Given in the Cathedral Church of St John the Baptist in Norwich on Wednesday, 14 December 2022.
You can see photos from the Episcopal Ordination on our Flickr channel.