The Homily of Dom Cuthbert Johnson given at the White Fathers' centenary celebrations in Galashiels (2012)
This centenary celebration to commemorate the work of the White Fathers in the British Isles, is like all anniversaries, a time of thanksgiving for blessings received and a time to affirm our continuing hope and trust in the Lord and the designs of Divine providence.
Since it was here in the Archdiocese of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh that the White Fathers were first established in Scotland it is, as Canon John said, both fitting and an honour that we have H. E. Cardinal Keith Patrick O'Brien to preside at our celebration.
The White Fathers were founded in 1868 by Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, the Archbishop of Algiers and for the first four decades of its existence the majority of the members of the Society were from France and worked in French speaking parts of Africa. In God’s providence, anti-religious laws in France forced the Society to establish a junior seminary in England which took place in 1912 at Bishop's Waltham. At first 'The Priory', as it came to be known, housed only French students but within a few years it began to accept young men from all over the British Isles. Encouraged by the warm reception that the Fathers received on their visits to Scotland, a small house was acquired in Melrose in 1931. Within a few years the first seminary in Scotland for the training of missionaries for Africa was founded under the patronage of the missionary monk St Columba at nearby Newtown St Boswells.
The expansion of the missionary activity of the White Fathers into English speaking African counties heightened the need for proficiency in English. It was therefore decided in 1948 to move the final year of priestly training from the Continent to Monteviot House near Jedburgh. And that was how it came about that in this church of Our Lady & St Andrew, took place the ordination of so many young men who had responded to the call of the Lord, whom alone, in the words of Saint Peter in this morning’s Gospel "has the Words of Life".
During the ten years of the White Fathers stay in Monteviot the then Archbishop of Edinburgh, Cardinal Gordon Gray, ordained 149 young men from all over Western Europe as priests for Africa. He also ordained a young Keith O’Brien to the priesthood in 1965 and twenty years later ordained him to the episcopate as his successor of this Archdiocese.
Those of us who like myself, went to St Columba’s junior seminary in 1959 knew that the Archdiocesan Senior Seminary was a few miles away at Drygrange. Two young men who were also beginning their journey to the priesthood there are with us today: Canon John and Cardinal Keith. Isn’t life strange. In 1961 St Columba’s celebrated its Silver Jubilee and the highlight of this occasion was the ordination of Gerard Wynne, who became the 150th White Father to have been ordained by Archbishop Gray.
However, it is not only here in these beautiful border counties that there are links with the White Fathers. From Aberdeen to Abbotsford, from Glasgow to Galashiels and from Edinburgh to Dryburgh, so many persons and places have been associated and have contributed generously to the work and the apostolate of the White Fathers.
You are familiar with the history of the White Fathers in these islands and the places associated with them, Rutherglen, St Andrew’s study house in Edinburgh, Ratho, Saint Columba’s and Monteviot, it is not surprising that you may feel a little sad that there is no longer such a strong presence of the White Fathers and ask yourself why have things changed so much?
To answer this question let us turn to the words of the founder of the Society, Cardinal Lavigerie, who with prophetic insight, wrote: "The missionaries must be mainly initiators, but the lasting work must be accomplished by the Africans themselves, once they have become Christians and apostles". For Cardinal Lavigerie the work of White Fathers, Brothers and Sisters was simply to prepare the ground and sow the seeds so that as he often said, "Africa will be converted by the Africans".
These words of Lavigerie have never been forgotten as is evident from the following words written just over sixty years ago: "in the time to come, when the White Fathers have withdrawn to other fields, or the sources of European missionary supply have dried up, the African clergy will provide the ordinary ecclesiastical superiors for their own country, and the African Church will be African and the Church be securely rooted in that land.".
Africa now has its own bishops and priests, deacons and flourishing religious communities. The Church in Africa has its own Cardinals, the first of whom was the White Father trained Cardinal Rugambwa. African Cardinals have held and still hold important positions in Rome at the service of the Holy Father and the universal Church, for example, Cardinal Gantin from Benin, Cardinal Arinze from Nigeria and most recently Cardinal Turkson from Ghana.
We know that great strides have been made towards the goal set by Cardinal Lavigerie that the conversion of Africa should be accomplished by Africans. This Africanisation of the missionary activity of the Church in Africa has meant that the White Fathers, Brothers and Sisters have had to change and adapt to circumstances. The Society, which has always been forward looking, has met this challenge and is now undertaking new and important forms of apostolate and is developing new ways and opportunities to assist the Church in Africa.
Aware that all Christians in Africa are facing the same difficulties and challenges, sharing in the same uncertainties and sufferings, the Society recognises the need to foster unity among Christians of various Churches so that they may face the future together with one mind and one heart.
Consequently, the Society recognises that the work for Christian Unity has become a priority for Africa today.
Faithful to the ideal and wishes of Cardinal Lavigerie, the White Fathers, Brothers and Sisters are attentive to the believers of Islam and continue to promote encounters and dialogue between Christians and Muslims in continental Africa. Recent tragic events in Nigeria are a reminder of how important is this work.
Great efforts are being made in Africa to promote inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue in order to create a climate in which mutual respect and understanding among peoples can develop. As a result of internal conflicts, war and terrorism there is also much to be done to bring about healing and reconciliation.
From the social and humanitarian aspect the Missionaries of Africa are continuing their work to alleviate the poverty that is still widespread in Africa. Indeed, any ministry which has a real relationship with Africa, no matter in what part of the world it may be, is considered by the White Fathers to be within the scope of their Apostolate.
With this celebration the White Fathers, Brothers and Sisters have much cause for joy and thanksgiving as they look back over the past hundred years of their presence in these Islands. A Centenary celebration is also a time to look forward in hope and trust and renew their fervour and zeal.
As Blessed Pope John Paul II declared: "Today ... the Universal Church is called to have the same courage that inspired the missionaries of the past, and the same readiness to listen to the voice of the Spirit." This call is addressed to all of us and let us not forget the Lord’s command to pray to the Lord of the harvest that he will send labourers into the harvest.
The work of the Missionaries of Africa still needs the support of Friends and Associations which have been so generous in the past especially here in Scotland and some of whom are represented here today by those who have come from Rutherglen.
To be a Christian today involves affirming truths that go contrary to the ways of the world. As Pope Benedict XVI said only a few days ago Christians "are called to be courageous and credible witnesses in every sphere of society, so that the Gospel might be the light that brings hope in difficult situations, in troubles and in the darkness that many today so often encounter along the path of life".
You may remember that Africa was once called the "dark continent" because it was unknown and unexplored but now thanks to the work of the White Fathers, Brothers and Sisters and so many others, the light of truth now burns brightly. "Africa is a land of hope" declared Pope Benedict XVI, where are "found authentic values which have much to teach our world".
On this day of thanksgiving let us pray through the intercession of Our Lady of Africa that the seeds that have been sown and cultivated in the spiritual soil of Africa may continue to grow and bear fruit in abundance to the glory of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.