It was very special indeed for me to be leading worship at All Saints Milan on their patronal festival: All Saints Sunday. Milan is rich in Christian history. There can be few cities where the sense of historical communion with the saints is so strong. Christians were martyred in this city by the Emperor Nero in the decades immediately following the crucifixion of Jesus. The memory of some of these martyrs lives on in story and legend; others are unknown to later history.
In the fourth century the Roman Governor Ambrose was made Bishop of Milan – almost before he had been baptized and somewhat against his will! Ambrose became a great teacher of the faith opposing the heresy of Arianism, at risk to his own life. Augustine of Hippo, who had previously been rather contemptuous of Christianity, was impressed by Ambrose’s intellectual rigour. Augustine was subsequently converted through hearing a voice telling him to read the letter to the Romans whilst he was walking in a garden in Milan. So Milan has produced two of western Christianity’s most influential saints, as well as countless others less well known.
I came to Milan for the weekend, and specifically to baptize, to confirm and to receive into the Church of England six adult candidates. Each of them has a lively personal faith and felt All Saints Milan to be the place they wanted to make their spiritual home. In a city with such a rich inheritance of faith, it was a joy to be celebrating the present day faith of these committed Christians.
Let me mention, in particular, Behrang Elgameh. Behgrang comes from a Christian family in Shiraz, Iran. He is studying civil engineering in Milan. He also plays the flute extremely well. Behrang is part of the extraordinary and impressive Iranian Christian community living in Western Europe. And Behrang’s sponsors had flown all the way from Pakistan to support him on this special day.
Our worship was led by an excellent choir. I particularly enjoyed a haunting chant that dated back to the 12th century Hildegard of Bingen. It was a very beautiful service, in which the presence of God felt close and real.
During the after-service coffee in the church courtyard, I was pleased to be introduced to a couple (doctor and communications officer) working with Medair in South Sudan. There are few countries more difficult or dangerous in which to work, and I hope All Saints will continue to strengthen and develop its link with this impressive couple.
Maria-Gracia is an Italian teacher by profession. She is one of the growing number of native Italians who have felt drawn to the community of All Saints during the ministry of Vickie Sims. I wonder how much of the future of our chaplaincies in Italy will lie with folk like Maria-Gracia.
So here are the candidates: Denise (baptized and confirmed); Gabriele (received into the Anglican Communion); Nicholas, father of Denise (baptized and confirmed); Maria-Gracia (received into the Anglican Communion); Luca (received into the Anglican Communion); Behrang (confirmed).
During our service, we thought about the career of the Christian, with reference to the verses of the fine hymn: ‘For all the Saints’. We live in a world of short attention spans, a desire for immediate satisfaction and absence of longer-term meaning. It is also a world where Christians are being persecuted, in countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Egypt. The festival of All Saints reminds us of our place in a grand narrative, a story of faithful Christian discipleship which began long before our birth and finishes with us taking our place with people from every tribe and nation before the throne of God. The Christian life is not easy, and in some respects it seems to be getting harder. The image of spiritual battle rings true for us today. So we join in praise to God for those who have gone before us, who have been shining examples in their time and who encourage us to keep going even when it is extremely tough:
“For all the saints who from their labours rest,
Who thee, by faith, before the world confessed:
Thy name, O Jesus, be for ever blessed.
Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight,
Thou in the darkness drear their one true light.