The merciful heart of a priest

Filed in Spirituality by on August 25, 2015 1 Comment


A beautiful sermon by Fr Francesco Donega, about Christ’s mercy and the merciful heart of one of his priests: Fr Tony Sacré, whose Requiem took place on Monday:

Two or three days before his death Fr Tony typed on his computer a few notes with some instructions for his funeral. At this point he entered: “Homily – Preach on the Word of God. No panegyrics, Please!!” I will then have to try my best to follow his instructions…

I am much helped by the fact that Fr Tony not only had chosen the Gospel we have just sung, but also left some notes to explain why he chose it. I read them out to you:

I was very struck by this reading when hearing it on the Feast of Christ the King two years ago [this was very soon after he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer].  I am exceedingly conscious of myself as a sinner in profound need of God’s mercy. What will I be able to say to Christ when I come face to face with him? “Lord, have pity on me, for I am a sinner?” The Good Thief says something quite different: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom!”.  What confidence and trust he shows in the merciful love of God – Lord, give me that same confidence and trust.

Fr Tony was well aware that this trust, this openness to receive God’s mercy, is a gift, perhaps the most precious gift. As a matter of fact, we do not know what happened of the other thief who was crucified with Jesus and was challenging him, demanding to be freed from suffering and death. He may well have been saved, because God’s mercy is, indeed, immense; but we don’t know, we are completely in the dark about what happened to him. What we know is that the “Good thief”, who was given the grace to be open to God’s mercy, received this promise from Christ himself: “Today you will be with me in paradise” and we are sure he is now with Christ. Fr Tony has asked us to pray for him, that he may be granted that same confidence and trust as he comes face to face with the Lord.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into you kingdom”. This is what the Good Thief said to Christ who was hanging on the cross. That’s interesting: we are here today wanting to remember Fr Tony, his life, how God has accompanied him, empowered him to exercise his ministry in the Church – and this is not only a legitimate thing to do, it is a good thing, it is a way of giving glory to God. Yet, Fr Tony seems to have thought that something else is much more important: that JESUS today should remember him. Jesus…

What should Jesus remember? Fr Tony’s achievements, his missions, his work, his zeal?… I do not think they are what matters most. His weaknesses, his sins? I don’t think so. What should Jesus remember about Fr Tony in a few moments, when, here on the altar, as we celebrate the memorial of his sacrifice on the Cross, he will be present, as he was on the Calvary, giving himself up for us all in that victorious death which introduced him into his kingdom?

We do not know what the young Tony was thinking when his elder brother died in the war, or when at thirteen he was told that his mother had been killed in an accident and had already been buried for months. We may guess, have some ideas, yet we do not know for sure. But we do know what Christ was thinking in those moments, as if looking again from the Cross upon Tony’s predicament Jesus said: yes, I love you, I give myself up for you, I give you my own Spirit, that you may have life, and strength, and faith. That’s it: Jesus today should remember his mercy, that immense love which moved him to give himself up on the Cross for Fr Tony and for each one of us.

Fr Tony has asked that today all his life – his seminary years with all his uncertainties about his vocation, then the joy at the ordination, the early years as a young curate, the enthusiasm of his time in the Catholic Missionary Society, and then the parish, the desire to evangelise, the difficulties, the good decisions and the mistakes… – he asked that all this, all his life should be put today again under the gaze of Christ on the Cross, and that Christ should today remember what he always said, in every moment: I love you, I give myself up for you, that you may be saved, helped, empowered, forgiven – whatever Fr Tony needed in that moment.

Fr Tony always wanted to be an instrument of God’s mercy. With time he discovered the Church as the place where human compassion, far from stopping at the level of tolerance or broad-mindedness, would give way to the mercy of God himself: to a love and a grace able to heal profoundly, to transform people, to regenerate them. And he spent his life to bring people to meet with this mystery, with this womb of the Church where God’s mercy is present to give new life.

The first reading we heard is from today’s feast, St Bartholomew. It is taken from the last chapters of the Apocalypse, which describe the heavenly Jerusalem as a beautiful city, built with precious materials: gold, diamond, pearls, ruby, topaz, emerald, sapphire, amethyst and many others. This heavenly Jerusalem is the Church, both as it is and as it will be, because the Church, as it is, is not the final product, it is still work-in-progress: God is constantly at work on it – but it is the same Church, it is already here. And all these precious stones, what are they? Our works? No. Our gifts and qualities? No. All those precious materials are the different ways in which the mercy of God has been working in us, transforming us to make us part of his Church.

Because each one of us needed his own special mercy, so to say, he needed to be loved as he was. Some of us here were completely out of the Church, and Christ in his mercy had to come in search of us, literally carry us back to the fold. Some others were instead very well settled in the Church, perhaps so settled that we had become an obstacle, we were keeping other people out: we needed God to unsettle us, and he did. Some of us needed God’s mercy in our marriage, others in our priesthood. Some here were reached by God’s mercy in the midst of the craziest sins of youth, others were rescued from a dull life leading nowhere.

All this mercy does not fly in the clouds: the Lord has entrusted it to his Church, has given her, so to say, the keys of this mercy. There is no doubt that for many people here Fr Tony, his ministry, the decisions he took and the choices he made as parish priest, were instrumental in our meeting with God. Without him, many of us would not be in the Church, would not be here today, and this is no panegyric, it is a simple fact.

The Apocalypse says that this beautiful city has twelve gates, always open, day and night, to allow all those inside to go out and announce the mercy of God – and to allow the nations, no matter how distant and how pagan, all those who have been reached, pierced by this announcement of the Good News,  to come, to enter, and be healed by God’s mercy, be regenerated. Fr Tony lived this missionary dimension of the Church with all his being, and saw it fulfilled, happening, in his parish.

By putting us before Christ on the Cross and inviting us to appeal to his mercy, Fr Tony certainly wanted us to intercede for him today. But he surely wanted also that Christ might raise his eyes from his coffin here, and look at this assembly: look at his family, for whom Fr Tony prayed so much all his life; and at his community, who are counting one more of their members leaving their assembly on earth to join the heavenly one…  and at all those who have been his parishioners, and all this diocese of Westminster, which Fr Tony faithfully served for 60 years, and all the people whom he reached in his ministry wherever he went: and he would like that Christ should pour out his mercy upon us all today, and make us a little bit more like this heavenly Jerusalem, where we are praying today that Fr Tony may be welcomed, by the mercy of God. Amen.

Fr Tony’s obituary follows below:

Anthony Howard Sacré was born in Neston, Cheshire on 6 July 1931, the second youngest of five siblings. His younger sister Rosemary Ann, known as Tigs, whom Father Tony called his ‘kid sister’, survives him. His parents, Lester Howard Sacré and Jocelyn Ward, were both converts to Catholicism. His father was of Huguenot descent, hence his French surname. Born into a military family, Tony’s early years were not unacquainted with bereavement. His elder brother Michael was killed in the Second World War and his father, a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army, served in Burma, meaning the young Tony did not see much of him. But the event which would leave the deepest mark would be the untimely death of his mother, tragically killed in a cycling accident on her way to Benediction when he was thirteen years old and away at boarding school. He would not find out about her death until long after her burial.

While a boarder at Douai College (1945-49), a Benedictine school in Berkshire, Tony must have shown some signs of a possible vocation, because he was asked if he intended to become a Benedictine monk. He replied that he would prefer the diocesan priesthood. When aged 18 he left Douai College and began training at Allen Hall, at St Edmund’s College, Ware. The following year, 1950, was a Holy Year, and Tony, with a fellow seminarian, made a pilgrimage to Rome, hitchhiking and sleeping rough.  Fr Tony later remembered how that pilgrimage strengthened his resolve to stay at the seminary and helped him to continue with his formation. He was Ordained to the Priesthood on 4 June 1955 at Westminster Cathedral, with a dispensation because he was a month short of his 24th birthday.

Fr Tony’s first appointment was Assistant Priest at St John’s, Islington where he arrived on his 24th birthday.  He spent six happy years with Canon Fairhall as his Parish Priest.  Regular intensive home visiting was a standard pastoral activity at the time and Fr Tony was assigned the part of the parish which included Chapel Market. He was also Chaplain at the Royal Free Hospital in Liverpool Road.

In 1961 Fr Tony was appointed Assistant Priest at St James’, Spanish Place and served as Chaplain to St William of York School and at University College Hospital.  In 1964 the parish had a Mission conducted by Fr Kevin O’Brien of the Catholic Missionary Society. A few weeks later Fr Tony was invited to join the CMS, an appointment he accepted. Fr Tony was a member of the CMS for eight years, longer than the usual term. In 1970 the then Abbot of Worth attempted to persuade Cardinal Heenan to release Fr Tony to assist with the establishment of a monastery in Peru knowing that his time at the CMS was drawing to a close. Cardinal Heenan resisted.

The years with the CMS were important for Fr Tony. He was a popular member of the team, admired for his good sense of humour and self-deprecating manner. These years shaped his missionary zeal and gave him a taste for common life with other priests – something he would carry with him all his life. When he later moved to Mile End, traditionally a one-priest parish, Fr Tony would almost always have at least one other Priest staying with him in the presbytery.

When Fr Tony left the CMS in December 1972, he asked to return to parish ministry as an Assistant Priest, to get back into regular parish life.  Cardinal Heenan appointed him to the Cathedral – not exactly what Fr Tony had in mind. However, he did enjoy his time there, doing parish visiting and living communally with other priests. After a few months he was assigned to Guardian Angels parish, Mile End, as Parish Priest. He moved there in May 1973, arriving at a difficult time for the parish. Church, presbytery and school were scheduled to be demolished as part of the post-war plans for London.  Local slum clearance plans were forcing many parishioners to leave the area, and most of the residential streets near the church were destined to disappear to make way for Mile End Park.  Fr Tony and the school governors were faced with a battle to save the school from closure, or from inappropriate relocation until, unexpectedly, Fr Tony received notification that the school had been given listed building status.  This meant it could not be demolished, and effectively also safeguarded the church and presbytery which in their turn became listed during Fr Tony’s incumbency.

Guardian Angels parish at the time had two main ethnic groups, people from Ireland and descendants of Irish immigrants, and the more recent West Indian immigration. Fr Tony had to take some unpopular decisions, such as closing the parish club, but eventually was able to bring about greater unity in the parish. Slowly parishioners discovered in him a very friendly and humble man. Fr Tony took time to come to terms with the East Enders, and may have seemed imperious in manner. The relaxed Cockney approach to life sometimes riled him, but he came to accept the East End as his home. He would always make an effort to help or grant any request made of him, taking care not to compromise any of his strong principles. In return he commanded great respect from parishioners. He showed great compassion to all, particularly the vulnerable or those in need. He was particularly loved by young children, who felt at ease with him and benefitting from his simple and imaginative way of addressing them.

Acutely aware of the need to deepen the faith of his parish, in 1974 Fr Tony arranged for a CMS mission.  In Lent 1975 he agreed to a catechesis given by a team of itinerant catechists to open the Neocatechumenal Way in the parish. The team had been welcomed into the Diocese by Bishop Victor Guazzelli. A first community was formed in the parish, and began holding weekly liturgies lead by Fr Tony.  Other communities were formed in the following years. Cardinal Hume was kept informed of progress and was supportive of Fr Tony’s initiatives.

In supporting the establishment of the Neocatechumenal communities in Guardian Angels parish, Fr Tony showed great patience and resilience. He strove to take good decisions for the benefit of the parish. He was also not afraid to admit when he made a mistake and apologise for it. Many owe the deepening of their Christian faith to what he did as Parish Priest, and the Neocatechumenal Way brought new energy and renewal to his Priesthood. His promotion of the Way produced lasting fruits, most notably parishioners able and willing to engage in the work of evangelisation. Catechists from Mile End have been or are working in the UK, Africa, China, S E Asia, Australia and Pakistan. Above all, the Neocatechumenal Way served to form a younger generation of parishioners, many of whom might otherwise have drifted away from the Church.

A major undertaking of his was the reordering of Guardian Angels Church. In 1981 it was decided experimentally to bring the altar out towards the middle of the nave, and arrange the benches on three sides of a square round it. This change was to become permanent. A baptismal font was dug in the floor, at the entrance into the assembly, to enable baptism by immersion. Many parishioners became very fond of Fr Tony. He enjoyed social occasions with them, especially meals, parties and parish celebrations. While at Mile End he celebrated with parishioners, friends and family special anniversaries of his Ordination – 25, 40, 50 and 60 years of Priestly ministry. It was very important for him to have his own community, where he could be free to be himself. Fr Tony was indeed very happy to be a Priest, yet at the same time knew how to be a Christian among other Christians and was happy in that. He had the joy of being able to nurture a number of vocations to the Priesthood. Parishioners remember him as a man of faith and of the Church who tried, and succeeded, in living the Gospel he preached. Directly after Mass on Sundays he could be found sitting quietly in the Church in a moment of contemplation in front of the Blessed Sacrament. He taught by example, especially through the way he celebrated Mass every day and his own personal integrity.

With increasing age the happier and more contented Fr Tony seemed to be. His natural tendency to be compassionate had found in the Church a way to bring healing to wounded people, transformed by God’s grace. He saw Mile End as ‘mission territory’ entrusted to him and to his parishioners who were ready to announce the Gospel. New Evangelisation for him was something real and urgent, in which he was ready to spend himself. As late as last May one could find him with his parishioners preaching the Good News – or hearing confessions – around Mile End Road or Victoria Park.

In his prime, over many years, Fr Tony enjoyed good health and great physical energy. He relished long walks in the countryside, something he would continue throughout his life. Had he not entered the Priesthood he might have been a farmer; he was a good tractor driver and used to help with the harvest on his eldest sister Julie’s farm in Suffolk for many years. He was also good with his hands and liked to do handyman’s work – he helped out with the physical work when Guardian Angels Church was reordered.

Throughout his life Fr Tony remained very close to his family. Known as ‘Uncle Ant’, he had many nieces and nephews, great and great-great (exceeding 100!). All remember him for his love of walking, singing (especially in his car), his passion for board games (and always trying to win!). He would often spend his holiday time with various family members, rarely giving notice of his arrival and never knowing when he would leave.

In October 2010, aged 79, following a diagnosis of cancer which required treatment, Fr Tony resigned as Parish Priest of Guardian Angels, having served there for 37 years. In July 2011 he moved to the Redemptoris Mater House of Formation, where he was later appointed Spiritual Director. His strong sense of paternity won him immediately a place in the heart of the seminarians. His conversation at the table was witty and interesting. It was for them a window open on unexplored dimensions of British life and of the Church in this country – from the subtleties of porridge cooking to the secrets of Priest holes across the country. His vitality was infectious, he was a source of initiatives and took every opportunity to take seminarians to see somewhere interesting. Weeks before his death he was still practising his Italian on the computer, to better communicate with the women who helped in the house. All felt supported by his prayer. Passing by the chapel late in the evening one could be sure to find him there, in semi-darkness, praying before retreating for the night.

The flexibility of his duties at Redemptoris Mater gave Fr Tony the opportunity of becoming personally more involved in missionary work ad gentes, something he had been longing for most of his life. In the summer of 2012, aged 81, he agreed to move to the newly established Missio ad gentes in Wythenshawe as a temporary substitute for the Priest appointed to the mission who was still awaiting his UK visa. Those he accompanied all relished the care and guidance he gave to each of them, and were particularly impressed by his selfless attitude. Fr Tony never complained about the inconveniences he suffered, but always seeking to serve the community. In summer 2013 he went to Sibu, in the interior of Sarawak (Malaysia) for more missionary work with families. Fr Tony braved the heat and humidity of a small town on the borders of the jungle, with different languages and customs, together with a young lay missionary. The mission families and his companion were grateful for the time and care he gave them as a group and as individuals and for his good counsel.

Soon after his return to London he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Treatment gave him a year of remission, in which he continued his work as Spiritual Director and assisted in the evangelisation wherever he could. In September 2014 he accompanied once more a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land. An enthusiastic and determined driver to the end – the last time he drove his car was barely three weeks before his death – he was always ready to drive across the UK to help a team of catechists at a retreat or an important meeting. He continued to celebrate regularly with his Mile End community and to take part in other events in the parish whenever he could.

After Easter 2015 Fr Tony’s health deteriorated. Visits to Mile End became less regular. On Trinity Sunday he was there to celebrate Mass on the 60th Anniversary of his Ordination to the Priesthood but had to sit for most of the Eucharistic Prayer. He thanked God for his faithfulness and told the parishioners that next time they would meet him would be at his funeral. As they left the church, he greeted them one by one, sitting in the porch.

He returned to hospital where he had many visitors. He decided to leave and go to Redemptoris Mater, where he prepared to meet the Lord, who took him to himself on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August. The community at Redemptorist Mater gave and received much love, showing respect for Fr Tony, a wise, compassionate, committed and faithful Priest of the Diocese for over sixty years.

Cardinal Vincent, Cardinal Cormac, the Auxiliary Bishops and the Clergy, Religious and People of the Diocese extend sympathy to Fr Tony’s family and friends and, with them, pray for the repose of his soul.

May he rest in peace.

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These unsigned articles are prepared by different members of the Jericho Tree team

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  1. This is a truly wonderful eulogy. Fr Tony seems to have been a great and inspirational man. From reading about him, he seems to have had that rare gift of being able to engage with a great variety of different people in a way that spoke to them, personally.

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