St John declares that the joy of his heart was made complete when he shared the good news of Jesus, the Word made flesh, with others. In the very first chapter of his gospel he narrates how along with Andrew he went in pursuit of Jesus. The Rabbi turned to them and asked them what they were looking for. When they enquired where He was staying, they received the invitation “Come and see.” This was what they were hoping for – to be accepted as His disciples and spend time at His feet, listening to His teachings and heralding God’s salvation for His people. They joyfully accepted this invitation and went with Jesus and stayed with Him. That bond of love grew strong over the next three years when he remained close with the Master as the beloved disciple. At the Last Supper he leaned on the chest of the Master to feel His heartbeat. As John stood by the foot of the Cross he saw the heart of Jesus pierced open and blood and water streaming out. He wrote “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
“Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world” (Rom 10:18)
Inscribed deeply in the heart of this apostle was the commission Jesus gave to the disciples before His Ascension, “You will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth” (Ac 1:8). He recaptures all these divine experiences in his first letter and writes, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life – for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it… what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you… so that our joy may be complete” (1 Jn 1:1-4). The completeness of a joyous Christian commitment is in the proclamation of the Word. Jesus himself said a light is not lit to be put under a bushel (Mk 4:21). The light of Jesus enlightens us that we might reflect the glory of it to everyone around us.
From the time of the disciples, the Church has been continuing this work of evangelisation. Pope John Paul II declares clearly “The Church exists in order to evangelise.” Without this prophetic mission of the Church Pope Francis warns us that it would degenerate into a stagnating clerical structure.
“Thy word is a lamp to my feet” (Ps 119:105)
The Vincentian Congregation has always been at the vanguard of the proclamation of the Word. Through the Popular Mission parish retreats and retreat centres around the world the Vincentian Fathers have been in the service of the Church to spread God’s kingdom on this earth. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Lk 4:18), is the motto our heavenly patron St. Vincent de Paul gave us. After his example the Vincentian community has always been open to respond to the cries of the poor. The poor however are not only merely those who do not have sufficient financial means for sustenance, but those who are convinced that their financial means are not sufficient for life and therefore reach out to God to fill their hearts.
We have been preaching not only in our retreat centres but we have been responding to the call of the people to hear God’s Word, wherever this call came from. One such response was the Divine Vision, the media wing of the Divine Retreat Centre producing and telecasting gospel programs through Goodness and Divine channels. In the UK and other European countries the Divine channel was welcomed with much eagerness. Every year the Vincentian Fathers held retreats organised by the regular viewers of this gospel channel. In every such retreat there was a prayer expressed that there should be a Divine Retreat Centre in Europe. Intercessory prayers were being raised up to God from all quarters. The Europeans felt a new surge of faith in their hearts through the preaching ministry of the Vincentian Fathers. At the same time they expressed the deep pain of the vacuum felt in the absence of such inspired and powerful faith proclamation in their usual spiritual exercises. The migrants from India and other Asian countries who already had a taste of the power of God’s word through the retreats at the Divine Retreat Centre longed for such an experience to be available in their new settings. The migrants from the African and South American countries were attracted to the vibrancy of worship and proclamation of God’s word that was effecting a transformation in their own lives. It was in this atmosphere of spiritual fervour that God responded to the longing of His people with the gift of a Divine Retreat Centre in the UK. The ancient heritage site of St. Augustine’s Abbey was offered to us to start a spiritual renewal centre.
“The glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Is 60:1)
St Augustine’s Abbey Ramsgate was blessed and inaugurated as Divine Retreat Centre UK on 16 March 2014. This was a Benedictine monastery built upon the mortal remains of St Augustine of Canterbury in 1860. St Augustine was commissioned by Pope Gregory the Great in 595 AD to preach the good news of salvation to the British people. He reached the shores of Canterbury along with a band of Benedictine monks and began the mission of evangelising England. The King of Kent himself was converted to Christianity. Later more Benedictine monks arrived and the monastery was established. In 1896 Pope Pius IX declared this monastery as St Augustine’s Abbey.
His Excellency Peter Smith, the Archbishop of Southwark while blessing and inaugurating this spiritual renewal centre said, “With great joy I welcome the Vincentian Fathers of India to my diocese. I am sure the Vincentian Congregation which is committed to the proclamation of the Word and to the charitable works for the poor will bring a new spiritual wave into my people.” He spoke in glowing terms about the Asian migrants who have come into the country bringing in the spiritual wealth of their religious fervour. Interpreting the gospel of the day which was the narrative of the Transfiguration of Jesus the Archbishop said, “Once again St Augustine’s Abbey should become a centre where Jesus brings his disciples to manifest His glory and power. St Peter after having seen the glorious manifestation of the person of Jesus flanked by the great prophet Elijah and lawgiver Moses in delightful oblivion exclaimed that it was good to be there in Divine presence. Unfortunately God has disappeared from the lives of the people today. Hence the delight of life has also vanished from their hearts. People are not able to relish the beauty of Christian faith and living. I wish that this new retreat centre will bring the presence of God and delight of living to them who come here.”
The blessing and inauguration event was preceded by a weekend retreat in which 200 people participated. The Abbey has 65 rooms which were cleaned up by the volunteers who came in large numbers to complete the great task in time. Certain sections of the Abbey were not occupied for a very long period time and so required renovation and cleaning up and this involved hard labour. As one enters this heritage structure which was planned by Augustus Pugin, the famous architect in 1860, one and a half centuries ago, one is impressed by the cross-shaped broad verandah flanked by majestic gothic arches.
A large gathering of about 2000 people comprising the local Britishers, the migrant Indian, Sri Lankan, African and Filipino communities participated in the event enthusiastically. An elderly couple living in Ramsgate near the house of the famous English literary figure Charles Dickens said to me, “We almost despaired that this ancient spiritual heritage would be lost to us. We thought it would be bought up and used for commercial purposes. That would have been a terrible blow to the spiritual heritage of the British nation. In fact the Indian Vincentian Fathers have come forward to give new life to this ancient spiritual tradition.” Listening to our conversation was another British couple whose ancestor was working in India with the East India Company. They thanked me and the other Vincentian Fathers profusely saying “We are this day witnessing the true universal face of the Catholic Church. In the earlier centuries missionaries went from Europe to India and other Asian and African countries to evangelise. They established churches, seminaries and other ecclesiastical institutions. The church flourished because of their committed hard work. We are so happy that you are coming back to us as missionaries to give us a new vigour in our faith.” I praised God with them for calling us to a Church which is holy and catholic, committed to everyone, beyond boundaries.
“All nations shall stream toward it” (Is 2:2)
As part of the solemn event the entire congregation proceeded to the seashore where St Augustine of Canterbury first set foot in 597. We lit a candle there by the cross set up there in memory of St Augustine. Large framed pictures of St Augustine and St Vincent de Paul together with their relics were carried at the head of the procession. The candle was carried by a Benedictine monk to the altar and there it was handed over to the Archbishop who then passed it on to Very Rev Fr Paul Puduva, the Provincial Superior of the Marymatha province of the Vincentian Congregation. He pledged to the whole assembly that with great reverence he accepts this light a symbol of the rich spiritual heritage of prayer and fasting of generations of Benedictine monks. “The Vincentian Fathers are committed to continue this spiritual tradition to be of service to the Catholic Church in England.” He explained that the Catholic Church is enriched by the great spiritual traditions of St Benedict and St Vincent de Paul. The two spiritualities merge in this retreat centre for the renewal of God’s people.
Rev Fr Joseph Edattu, the young and gifted Vincentian priest appointed to the Centre, welcomed the August assembly to personally experience the graces of dwelling in the presence of God.
Most Rev Msgr John Armitage, the Vicar General of Brentwood, the neighboring diocese recounted with the congregation his experience of the Vincentian ministry of renewal, “Though I have myself never been to the Divine Retreat Centre in India, I am deeply impressed by what the retreats have done over the years to the lives of the people. I was on a ship as the chaplain to the pilgrims sailing in this vessel. Most of the young people who were serving the pilgrims were from India. They were sharing with each other their spiritual experiences and praying together in small groups during their intervals. I was fascinated by their spiritual vibrancy and enquired out of curiosity how they cultivated such a faith. They explained to me that they had gone for retreats to the Divine Retreat Centre, Muringoor, Kerala and these were intense spiritual experiences which transformed their lives thoroughly. My great hope is that this newly inaugurated Divine Retreat Centre may bring about the same spiritual quality to this country. In the increasing secularised milieu of Europe the renewal efforts of the Vincentian Fathers will bring the much awaited spiritual vibrance to the lives of the people.” Ms Mary Dwyer, the Deputy Mayor, representing the civil authority of the land expressed her great joy that a new life has come to this ancient spiritual heritage. She extended generously her cooperation to the Vincentian Fathers.
We knew it was the hand of God that had opened the hearts of everyone ushering us into this mission. We rejoiced for we also knew “that the One who began a good work will bring it to completion” (Phil 1:6).
“It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Is 35:2)
In Ramsgate on the shores of the sea of Dover the beautiful season of spring had already set in. Before this solemn event, lovely pink flowers had blossomed on the cherry trees. There were many such trees in the compound of the St Augustine’s Abbey. Looking at those cherry blossoms announcing the advent of spring Rev Fr Marcus Holden who was in charge of all the heritage buildings of the diocese of Southwark made a prophetic declaration. “The first springtime of the salvation of Canterbury was when St Augustine set foot on the shores of Kent and proclaimed the good news of salvation. The second springtime set in when in 1860 the Benedictine monastery was established and the monks took charge of the evangelisation of the area.” Then raising his voice he announced, “Now the third springtime has come in with the Vincentian Fathers taking up St Augustine’s Abbey to start the proclamation of God’s word with the Divine Retreat Centre. It’s a time for rejoicing for all of us.” As the crowd gave a thunderous applause, hailing this prophetic announcement there was a prayer in the hearts of the Vincentian Fathers present that a thousand lovely flowers of faith must blossom here spreading the fragrance of the God experience throughout this continent.
Lord Jesus, we thank you for giving us the joy of your word and a mission to share this great good news with the whole world. Thank you for sending us to the ends of the earth that we may join hands with all of humanity as one family of faith.
We thank you for the gift of St Augustine’s Abbey and this new mission for the renewal of Europe. We trust in you to strengthen your humble servants to fulfill your plan for the people you hold dear to your heart. May a thousand blossoms of faith flower here, that the fragrance of salvation may spread to the ends of the earth. Amen.