Homily by The Right Rev John Arnold given at the 50th Anniversary Mass

Homily by The Right Rev John Arnold given at the 50th Anniversary Mass



An anniversary presents us with opportunities. First, there is the invitation to reflect on and give thanks for all that has been achieved.

I wonder what our Founding Fathers would say if they were here to celebrate with us today? I suspect that Monsignors Dan Shanahan (Brentwood), John Humphreys (Birmingham), Lawrence McReavy (Ushaw) and Bishop Gerald Moverley (then Leeds) all now deceased, would be rather proud of this large gathering of Canonists in Westminster Cathedral and of the work achieved by the members of the Society in its 50 years.

The idea of a Society arose in 1952 in Rome over a cup of tea between two of the Founding Fathers who has just finished their canonical studies. However, the actual need for a Society became evident from what they found when they returned to England.

Tribunals, where they existed at all, were entirely clerical and hardly functioned, and where they did function the processing of matrimonial cases was cumbersome to say the least. From their study and experience they saw the need for a forum in which Canonists could share ideas and good practice, and they were impressed by the role which the newly founded Canon Law Society of America played in this work in the united States.

Although the “winds of change” to blow through the Church had not yet stirred, there were Canonists everywhere who were aware of the need for change. So it was a very happy coincidence that when pope John XXIII announced his intention to call a Council, he went on later to announce the reform of the Code.

The first meeting of a handful of Canon Lawyers, all priests, was in Holy Week 1957, in Hull. Its aim was ‘the fostering and promotion of the study of Canon Law and its administrations and practice, including its relation to other branches of learning. The annual conference now numbers about 130, and includes both men and women, clerical, religious and lay. It was not until the late 1970s that we had our first lady members – two religious sisters, both in Westminster, Sr Ishbel Macpherson, SND (with us today), and Sr Enid Williamson, OSM.

If this newly formed association of Canon Lawyers was regarded with a slight degree of suspicion at first, it was to receive the encouragement of the Bishops of England and Wales as early as January of the following year. In due course it received some formal commendation from all Bishops’ Conferences in these Islands, although the Society is only an accredited consultative body to the Bishops of England and Wales.

The Society has pursued its foundation aims, largely through publications such as Abstracts, the Newsletter and Matrimonial Decisions. The Society was responsible for the English translation of the new Code; and wrote a Commentary, produced in 1995. As a body of Canonists, the Society rightly enjoys a fine reputation, not least in Rome.

Of particular importance – and with justifiable pride – is the Jurisprudential Course. Initially, all the participants were clerics or religious but now lay women and men enrol for the training it offers. A sign of Rome’s approval of the course is shown by the fact that some of its "graduates" have been dispensed from the requirement of obtaining a licence in Canon Law before becoming associate judges.

The reformed Code of 1983 made its own impact on the Society’s work. It rather turned our way of looking at the Church on its head, legislating for the People of God who through our baptism, share in a common mission. The Society has assisted the Bishops and the Church in these Islands in developing this understanding of who we are and how we interpret the Gospel for our daily lives.

Although we are not specifically celebrating his feast today, it is the feats of St Anthony Claret. He was not a Canonists, but whether he was aware of doing so or not, he filled his ministry with canonical principles in a rather prophetic way. During his extraordinary ministry in Cuba he preached against slavery and regularised marriages. He attributed particular importance to the dignity of the individual and the respect due to all human beings as children of God, not just the baptised. These are fundamental principles of the new Code, and his feast gives us a timely reminder that Canon Law is not an abstract science but it runs through the heart of priestly ministry and the pastoral work of the Church.

But our celebration this evening cannot just e about congratulation for good work done. It is also our opportunity to look ahead, and to reaffirm the principles that have brought the Society this far.

Is there a role for the Society?

Well, in so far as it facilitates the development of "best practice", that role becomes ever more important. In 1992, when this Society celebrated its 35th Anniversary in Rome, Pope John Paul II addressed them and highlighted (and I quote) that "much of the work of the Society has been devoted to the correct interpretation and implementation of the Code".

The globalisation of our world, the arrival of Catholics of diverse cultures and traditions in increasing numbers in our cosmopolitan cities underlines the urgency for establishing rights and clear procedures that are accessible to all. And with the increasing secularisation of government legislation, Canon Law now carries a greater responsibility for preserving and promoting the truth of the Gospel and those Christian principles on which we base our ethics and morality.

The Canon Law Society is now one of several societies throughout the world who together promote good practice of Canon Law in the Church so that the law of the Church is not something that is merely a last place of appeal – but the appropriate place to find procedures for the resolution of conflict.

But let us not be naïve. Moulding different systems of law together in a seamless partnership will never be easy, particularly when rules and regulations are drawn from such different foundations as Roman and Anglo-Saxon law – and there will always be a place for those lawyers who specialise in finding a way through that shadowy area of the "conflict of laws". But the journey has begun and serious progress has been made.

The Gospels suggest that Jesus devoted a considerable amount of time to the criticism of bad law and bad lawyers. His language is strongest in his condemnation of those lawyers who made life all the more difficult for Jews who wished to live the covenant, when they created additional burdens and refinements which made the full observance of law a practical impossibility for most people. Whatever the Canon Law Society can do to show that law is at the service of people, the more it will do to make the Gospel itself accessible, challenging and attractive.

Canon Law has the reputation for being rather dry and tedious! Some of you might have heard of Gianfranco Ghirlanda, now Rector Magnificus of the Gregorian University, when he was a lecturer in Canon Law. He sealed the role of Canon Law for me in his first lecture to us in the First Cycle of Canon Law. It was 1981. He began his lecture by speaking about the love within the Trinity. Thirty minutes into the lecture I was convinced I had come to the wrong place, "Law" had not even been mentioned. It was a tour de force through Theology, with Scripture and references to social justice. His final sentence was something lie this: Now it did not make "General Norms" or "Canons about the status of Physical Persons" any more enticing, but it established for me, without question, our need for good law and good lawyers.

Let us commend the Society to Almighty God, thankful for its impressive achievements in its first fifty years, and for the work of so many of its very able and generous members. Let us keep that vision of its role clearly in mind so that Canon Law may be of pastoral service particularly in circumstances of distress and broken relationships. The law can never be an end in itself but it can greatly assist us in living the Gospel, building our Church and making Christ present to the world.

The Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland has a fine record and an important future.