Cardinal Nichols at the Patronal Festival

Choral Evensong
Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula
HM Tower of London
Patronal Feast Day
22 July 2015

Acts 12:1-11
Matthew 16:13-19

The Church of St Peter-in-Chains in Rome is a great tourist attraction because it contains Michelangelo’s magnificent statue of Moses. But the visitor can also find there the double set of chains believed to be those from which St Peter was freed, as we have heard in the first reading this evening.

It is a dramatic account, made all the more telling by the later added fact that when daylight broke there was a great commotion and public enquiry as to how this could have happened. It resulted not only in the execution of the sets of Roman soldiers to whom Peter had been chained but also in the death of Herod himself. Peter, meanwhile, returned immediately to the Christian community to continue his courageous mission.

It is the Gospel reading which we have also heard, however, that shows how these remarkable events began. St Matthew tells us that the proclamation by Jesus of the primacy of Peter among the disciples took place at Caesarea Philippi. Why there? Why did Jesus put this particularly telling question to his disciples in that place?

At Caesarea Philippi there was a huge marble temple, erected by Herod the Great, to honour the godhead of Caesar. It was later embellished by his son Philip, who actually added his own name to the name of the place itself to emphasise his point. This, then, was the focal point and most important symbol of the might and divinity of Rome. It was here, then, that Jesus said to his disciple, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And it was here, standing in front of this vast temple that Peter declared: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!’

This set the course of his conflict with the power of the state, a conflict in which he was warned not to preach, and flogged for doing so; a conflict in which he witnessed the beheading of James, the brother of John and in which he himself was thrown into the Jerusalem jail, in preparation for a great show trial. Peter will have remembered and observed the clear instruction of Jesus that he was to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ (Matthew 22:21), but throughout this time, he never stopped insisting that he must proclaim what ‘we have seen and heard’ and that ‘obedience to God comes before obedience to men’ (Acts 4:18 & 5:29).

Such conflict has arisen many times and in many different ways throughout history.  Whenever the state sees itself, or indeed is, under threat, the question of religious freedom surfaces.   Only yards from here lay the remains of many who faced that dilemma and whose principle was that of St Thomas More:  “I am the King’s good servant but God’s first”.

Last week’s debate in the House of Lords explored again this issue.

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of religious freedom as fundamental to the raft of freedoms which we so cherish.  It is the freedom to think, act and worship, in public and in private, according to faith and conscience. 

The Archbishop states that it is the recognition of this freedom,  that “prevents the state claiming ultimate loyalty in every area – a loyalty to which it has no right, never has done and never will do if we believe in the ultimate dignity of the human being”.  I fully support those words.

Of course, religious freedom has its own duties, too.  They are duties to respect the human dignity of every person. Those duties flow directly from the duty of religion to the Creator.  For this reason alone, the Prime Minister is right in defining extremism as any ideology which glorifies violence and subjugates people.  We must see this for what it is and work hard to defeat it in all its expressions.

In this challenge, religious belief is to be respected and seen as a vital resource.  After all the remarkable achievements of this country, spoken of at present as British values, are founded on, and nurtured by our long effort to express in practice the treasures of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  The religions now present in this country, will find their place when they sense they have a real contribution to make to our public and shared life, a positive contribution which goes beyond demonstrating their support for “British values”.

For this to happen we have to recall the clear appeal made by Pope Benedict in Westminster Hall that “the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and on-going dialogue, for the good of our civilisation”.  (17 September 2010).

The conversation we need, therefore, is always one that appreciates and explores positively the place of religious faith in true citizenship, even as St Peter claimed when he said to the authorities “If you are questioning us today about an act of kindness to a cripple  ...  I am glad to tell you that it was by the name of Jesus Christ ... that this man is able to stand up perfectly healthy here in your presence”.  (Acts 4: 8-10)

The building of our society as a stable foundation for its traditions of democracy, the rule of law, desire for peace and respect for all people, needs the best from everyone.

May the freeing of Peter from his chains be a constant reminder to us of the strength to be gained when the truths of our own faith flow strongly in the mainstream of our society.

X Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster


Acts 12:1-11 King James Bible (Authorised Version)
Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.
And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.) And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him. And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison. And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me. And he went out, and followed him; and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision. When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city; which opened to them of his own accord: and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him. And when Peter was come to himself, he said, Now I know of a surety, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews.

Matthew 16:13-19
When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.