A long time ago, someone said that to understand John Sherrington, you always have to remember that he was an artist first. And then of course he was a Passionist. And then an ordained priest. As a Passionist, the image that John seemed most fond of was that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing at the foot of the Cross. For John, his Passionist vocation was first and foremost about standing at the foot of the Cross, standing with the crucified of today, in solidarity and with love, and finding God and Jesus with them, among them and in them. It was about finding, in his own phrase, ‘sites of suffering’ and standing there, staying there, being with those in whose wounds we can see the cross of Christ. And in whom, especially, we can see Jesus.
But John perhaps brought a particular artists way of seeing this, of living it.
It seems to me now, that one way to understand how John tried to live his life, is that he was trying to live as an icon. An icon of Mary, mother of Jesus, standing at the foot of the Cross, yes. And an icon of Jesus in His life, Passion and Resurrection. I hope that John, as an artist, would appreciate that image. After all, after the Resurrection, Christ lives in us all. We are all, ‘after the Resurrection’, living presences of Christ in the world: a Christ who is now always the Crucified and Risen One, who brings us hope of God’s love, both in this life and the next.
One of the things about an icon, is that it is not a photograph. It’s not trying to be an exact copy of the person it’s trying to represent. An icon writer is instead trying to pick out, in a stylised way, some of the key features of the subject, which seem to the artist to be the most significant.
John wasn’t perfect, none of us are. He made mistakes, like we all do. He wasn’t trying to be the new Messiah either. But in the way that an icon, a work of art and beauty can touch us at a deep level, beyond words, I feel John and his life and his commitments have touched us all deeply, beyond words. For me, over the years since he was the first Passionist I got to know, even when I have seen very little of him, he has always been a presence in my life, showing the way along a path, both inspiring and challenging.
An icon of the Risen Christ, like the risen Jesus himself, would not be without wounds. Jesus’ hands, his feet and his side still showed the scars of His passion and cross: the consequence of his commitment to live in solidarity with the poor and outcast, the oppressed and neglected and crucified of his time and place, in the name of God. This truth of Jesus, it seems to me, was true of John too. John did not try to hide or remove his wounds. Instead, he allowed them to give him that extra sensitivity to those suffering around him, to deepen his solidarity with the poor and outcast, the oppressed and neglected, in the name of God.
To his life as a street sweeper, carer and trade unionist, John brought his working class background in a mining town. Perhaps, if you will excuse the pun, he ‘mined’ these experiences to understand what he could contribute in solidarity to the struggles for liberation and racial justice in the Philippines and apartheid South Africa; to life in the house with young local young homeless people in New North Road, and to the community on the Pembury Estate.
To his work with people living with HIV and AIDS, and those struggling with feelings and experiences of rejection by God, Church and society because of their sexuality, John brought a deep sensitivity borne of personal experience and struggle.
To his life as a Passionist, John brought his experiences among and as one of the crucified of today.
He brought what he experienced and what he learnt from his life as a sweeper, care worker and trade unionist: he brought what he learnt from and among those rejected so often by both Church and society. To his membership of the Church, among an Order that traditionally worked to keep alive the memory of Christ’s suffering and Passion by preaching, John brought what he learnt from his experience of vulnerability and powerlessness, as well his stutter, which he overcame but never lost. His vulnerability and his sensitive nature as an artist didn’t always make life easy for him, but he never gave up.
What John learnt from these experiences of shared vulnerability, he brought to his way of being vocations director, director of studies, and Provincial: He brought them to the way he initiated the Community of the Passion, and to the way he was a good neighbour and friend in Byker. I’m sure he brought these experiences to other parts of his life too.
Like any good icon writer, John’s deep passion, through all his life, was never to stop communicating and living a deep feeling for the love of God. And despite his struggles with really-existing Christianity and Catholicism, with the Church and with us Passionists, John always sought out and found people in the midst of all that, sincerely seeking God, and loved them for it.
I don’t know if he knew the phrase, but I think as an artist John would have appreciated the saying of Dostoevsky that “the world will be saved by beauty”. Beauty is of course not just physical. It can be musical, moral or spiritual, to name just three. But it seems to me that the world will be saved by beauty because of the way beauty can inspire people, can lift their spirits.
Powerful oratory or propaganda can inspire people for good or ill. True beauty, on the other hand, it seems to me, can only lift the spirit and inspire aspirations to the good, the beautiful and the true. John sought to live a live that was faithful, full of love and beauty. Like an icon writer, he wasn’t about filling every space with busyness, but getting the important lines just right. Beauty works at a deeper level. I believe John’s influence has been something like that too.
In our Gospel reading today, we heard Jesus speak about the ‘seed dying and yielding a rich harvest’. John did not generally, even during his four years as Provincial, have a high profile ministry, either in the Church or in wider society. In common with many others, his was more of ‘a hidden life’. But he planted seeds that have gone deep but which have borne fruit, are now bearing fruit, and I hope and pray, increasingly will bear fruit. Fruit that will last.
John, in the words of our first reading today from the book of Wisdom, allowed himself to experience “testing”, and even “punishment, as mortals see it” in this life. Trusting that, in following the Crucified and Risen Jesus, it would yield a rich harvest. Only maybe, like the work of many an artist, a harvest that would only be fully recognised after his earthly life had finished.
As St Paul said in our second reading, John, with his gentle sensitivity and sometimes nervousness or reticence to speak, did not come among us with a show of oratory or clever words, or relying on the strength of his own personality. And he perhaps struggled with that same ‘fear and trembling’ that St Paul speaks of. Instead, he came with what was essential. Again, in the words of the letter to the Corinthians, John came to speak and witness only to Jesus, and Him Crucified, in the power of the Spirit who makes all things new: that we might depend not on the ideas of worldly power, or of the powerful of this world, but on the power in powerlessness of the God on the Cross.
For this we give thanks. And we pray for John now. We pray for ourselves, and for each other, as we mourn our loss, and heaven’s gain. We do this in confidence that our Redeemer lives, that the Lord is our shepherd, and John’s too. That John has taken his good deeds with him, and gone to a God who he trusted is full of healing warmth and welcome. A God who is full of not only merciful love, but also the joy of a good gin and tonic. For all this we give thanks to God, as we wish John bon voyage. Despite my rare venture into French, he’s not going to his home-from-home in France: because, despite the impression John might have given sometimes, France is not actually heaven on earth, or paradise itself! But we do indeed wish him bon voyage, a sweet journey into the peace and joy of the presence of God. To meet his Mum and his Dad, and all who’ve gone before him and us. And so we comfort one another in our time of need, offering our prayers and thanks to God. Amen.
For a biographical obituary of Father John Sherrington CP, see: