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Being distracted at Mass – you’re not alone

January 21, 2015

Saint Wulstan, Bishop                                 Monday 19th January (2015)

Romans 6: 19-23      John 10: 11-15

The readings for the Feast of St Wulstan in the Archdiocese of Birmingham are ‘proper’ (specially selected just for St Wulstan). And once you know something about St Wulstan’s life and some of the stories about him, the selected readings make more sense. Do you remember last Sunday St Paul wrote to us telling us to avoid fornication?[1] It’s mentioned again in today’s readings. Well, St Wulstan was not indulging in that sort of thing, but he was tempted. He was a very good looking man, and he had women throwing themselves at him right at the beginning of his ministry and throughout, and he had to resist them. There is a story that he had a vision shortly after one young lady had made proposals to him – and he saw a bright light, and at that point he said, ‘No, I’m not going to be tempted any more, and lead a good life’. And that is what he did.

St Wulstan has links to this area of England.

Have you ever wondered why Yardley Wood is over there and Yardley is three or four miles in the other direction? It’s because this area was once known as Yardley: Hall Green was in the middle of an area known as Yardley. And presumably Yardley Wood belonged to Yardley. I say that because we are linked to St Wulstan. In 680 the Synod of Hatfield…. (in Hertfordshire – isn’t it wonderful English names!) … the Synod of Hatfield was chaired by Saint Theodore, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury. And he created a diocese in this area – the Mercian Diocese of Worcester. We used to be in the Diocese of Worcester up until the Reformation. (Incidentally, it was Theodore who also appointed Saint Chad to be the Bishop in the neighbouring Diocese of Lichfield.)

The line of the Bishops of Worcester was unbroken up to 1565, when Catholic bishops could not be appointed because of the Reformation. Saint Wulstan became the Bishop of Worcester in 1061, five years before William the Conqueror arrived. That’s significant. At that time he was our Bishop, based in Worcester, large parts of Yardley, including Hall Green, were owned by Pershore Abbey. So, we belonged to Pershore Abbey. There was a church over Yardley way. If you go across to Yardley Old Village there you will find Saint Edburgha’s church, a fantastic mediaeval church: if you go round it you’ll find the signs that it was a Catholic church, now obviously Church of England. It is, in effect, our original ‘mother’ church. We owe our origins to St Edburga’s church. A lovely little spot hidden away in Birmingham.It’s well worth a visit.

Wulstan himself was born on the year 1008 at Long Itchington, two miles north of Southam, near Stratford-on-Avon. His parents were called Aethelstan and Wulfgifu (who, interestingly, both later gave up the worldly life after the children were grown up to enter monasteries at Worcester, he as a monk and she as a nun. You don’t get many people do that nowadays).

St Wulstan as a boy and young man was educated at the abbeys of Evesham and Peterborough. When he returned home to his parents after completing his schooling he was clearly a strong athletic type and, one evening, easily won a race with young men of the area. It is said “Wulstan shone out among the rest – and, by common consent, bore off the prize.” And as I said, he was obviously handsome, because there are stories of ladies being attracted to him, with him having to fight off them off!

As a young man he entered the household of Bishop Brihtheah of Worcester, and the bishop quickly worked out that he had got something special in Wulstan, and offered to ordain him as a priest and put him in charge of a parish near Worcester, but Wulstan declined. He said he wanted to become a monk; and he became a Benedictine monk at Worcester Monastery. And before long people were singing his praises, and said, quote, “never in our days has there been a monk more free of faults and more perfect in virtues”. It is said he endured many self-imposed hardships, including little sleep and lying prostrate for many hours on the bare floor in front of the altar.

He later became Prior of Worcester Monastery, and there he continued with such a saintly life. It was said he would stand for hours at the door of the church so that he could help those who had suffered violence (remember, we were going through a violent period with the Norman Invasion) or he was waiting to baptise the children of the poor. His good deeds came to the attention of the Cardinals and, when the time came to appoint a new Bishop of Worcester, his name immediately came to the fore. He reluctantly accepted the appointment in 1061, five years before William the Conqueror arrived. So after overcoming initial doubts about whether he was good enough to be a bishop, he demonstrated such skill after the Norman Conquest that he was the only bishop in this country who was kept in his post by William the Conqueror, who got rid of all the Anglo-Saxon bishops and replaced them with French bishops: Wulstan was the only Anglo-Saxon bishop left.

And for the next 30 years Wulstan put into hand the building of the present Worcester Cathedral, cared for the poor, and he struggled to alleviate the harsh decrees of the Normans upon the vanquished Saxons – it was a tough time, a defeated nation.

He died just after midnight on 19th January 1095, and he was 87. He had been a bishop for 34 years. He was canonized 8 years later in 1203. For centuries after his death, St Wulstan’s tomb in Worcester Cathedral brought pilgrims flocking to Worcester. Sadly, that shrine was destroyed at the Reformation (just like the shrine of St Chad in Lichfield).

If you go to Downside Abbey near Bath, in the Chapel of St Oliver Plunkett at Downside Abbey near Bath, there’s a stained glass window, and it depicts a less official story concerning Wulstan: that one day, whilst celebrating Mass, he was distracted by the smell of roast goose, and it wafted into the church from the neighbouring kitchen. He prayed that he might be delivered from the distraction and vowed that he would never eat meat again if his prayers were granted. Well, his prayers must have been answered, because St Wulstan today is the patron saint of vegetarians!

[1] 2nd Sunday of the Year 2015: 1 Corinthians 6: 13-15, 17-20

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