‘All I ask is that you remember me at the Altar of God.’
As you will have noticed, today there is a High Mass of Requiem being sung in Blackfriars, Oxford, for the repose of the soul of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who died on 23 February 1447.
Now why, you may ask, should one have a Requiem for someone who has been dead for well over 550 years ?
Well, largely because however long or short a time someone has been dead, until we know they’re in Heaven, we must assume that they are still in Purgatory, and need our prayers – and the only people of whom we know they’re in Heaven are the Saints, of whose presence in Heaven God has given us proof.
Humphrey, sometime Duke of Gloucester, was probably a good man : he had a wide range of academic and intellectual interests, but at the same time served both his God and his country well. History shows clear evidence of his commitment to the good of England : Regent of England, Warden of the Cinque Ports – and there was nothing honorary about the appointment in those days, when the French enemy stood across the narrow seas – Constable of Calais, and Lord Justice in Eyre; and his (incredibly lengthy) Epitaph says much about his devotion to his God – a devotion which, we can only assume, must have been well known for the authorities for them to have allowed his body to have been buried actually in the Shrine Chapel of S. Alban’s Abbey, right next to the Saint’s Shrine.
His death, whether it was due to poison – as some said, and as some still believe – or to natural causes, robbed England of a man who had done much for it in many ways, and whom had he lived would no doubt have done much more.
Nevertheless, his legacy remains : not least because the collection of books which he left to the University of Oxford remains to this day in ‘Duke Humfrey’s Library’, itself the basis of the Bodleian, one of the great libraries of the World.
However, all that is now unimportant : the question is ‘why pray for his soul ?’ : and I suspect that he would have valued the continuing prayers for his soul more than being remembered for what he had done, or given, in his life.
Why ? Well because of the quotation begun in the Title of this post : ‘All I ask is that you remember me at the Altar of God’.
They were the dying words of S. Monica, his holy and long-suffering mother, to S. Augustine of Hippo and his brother; and since her day endless Christians have felt the same, in their last hours – that what they really want from those who love them is that they will be remembered before God in prayer : and as the greatest of all prayers is the sacrifice of the Mass, so remembrance at the Altar of God is the most special, and most precious, thing one can do for anyone.
Through the sacrifice of Calvary, renewed on the altars of the Church day after day, year after year, the needs of the mankind – the dead as well as the living – are laid before God, and his mercy sought for all who have need of it – and that is all of us, whether we choose to admit it or not.
The only difference between us and Duke Humphrey is that we still have the chance to do things for the good of our own souls; whereas he – in common with all the holy dead – is dependent entirely upon the mercy of God, and the generosity of those still living to pray for him.
It was for exactly that reason that those who could, in Humphrey’s day, had Chantry Chapels built, and left money to pay for priests to celebrate Requiems for them; because those Masses are the way of remembering before God those who have died; and the way which works constantly towards their eventual entry into the glory of God in paradise.
Of course it may be – it well may be – that Duke Humphrey has, by now, entered into the joy of Heaven; but without evidence of his sanctity, we cannot know that, and so we continue to pray for him, as we ought for all those who have died, and of whose presence in Heaven we have, as yet, no evidence : and the best way to do that is to ‘remember them at the Altar of God’.
If Humphrey has joined his Saviour in Heaven, though, we are not wasting our time, as some would have us believe; because the merits which flow from the Altar today do not disappear – they are not like a present sent by post to someone who has ‘Gone Away’, which cannot be delivered, and just languishes in the sorting office ! Instead, they become a small – but an important – part of the Treasury of Grace which God can use for the benefit of all His servants – and in this case, the Catholic Faith teaches, principally for the benefit of those other souls, as yet outside paradise, who have need of our prayers.
So, whether Humphrey needs our prayers or not, whether he will benefit directly from today’s Mass or not, it is good that this Requiem is being celebrated, and that prayer is being offered for the repose of his soul. If he does have need of it, then what we do here today is helping that great Renaissance Man towards his eternal reward; and if he no longer needs it, then there will be someone who does, and Humphrey will gain great pleasure from seeing them benefit from what we have done for him.
They say that the Holy Dead have no illusions; and I am sure that that is true.
Duke Humphrey, certainly, has none now; and whatever his state, he is deeply, and eternally, grateful that he is remembered today ‘at the Altar of God’, whether for his own benefit, or that of others less fortunate than him.
So today’s Mass, as well as remembering Humphrey – recollecting, and giving thanks for, all he did for England – also proclaims the truth of the Faith which he believed during his life, and which he now knows to be the ultimate Truth.
So; we remember today before God His servant Humphrey, sometime Duke of Gloucester; and we pray for the repose of his soul, as of all Christian souls, in that best of all ways – ‘at the Altar of God’.
May his soul, and the souls of all the Faithful Departed, rest in peace and rise once more in glory.