Page 4, 14th September 2001

14th September 2001
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Page 4, 14th September 2001 — Singing the Lord's song on alien soil

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Singing the Lord's song on alien soil

Last week, Cardinal Cormac MurphyO'Connor addressed the National Conference of priests on his vision for the future of the Church. Part of his remarks, out of context, have been widely and misleadingly reported. This is what he really said

Recently, as some of you may know, I took part in Desert Island Discs in which I had to match the music to my life. I had to think back to my own family and upbringing, my years in the seminary and the period I was a curate, nine years in two parishes, my then being bishop's secretary, a parish priest, rector of a seminary, and bishop.But it occurred to me that the most interesting parts of anyone's life are not necessarily when we arc more influential or when we are perhaps older or in a more important position, but rather when we are younger.

A chance encounter, the book you read, the person you met, an unexpected grace, perhaps above all, it is the mistakes and the failures one learns more from than anything else. I had an uncle who was a priest, whose favourite words from any speech he made were from Isaiah, "Remember the rock out of which you were hewn". So it is with each one of us and indeed with the Church. I used to think, when I was young, that when we priests got older we became holier and in a way I still think this is true. One thing I have noticed about the priests I know well is that. as the years have passed, they have become wiser and more compassionate and that is unquestionably something to do with holiness. But today I want to give you a few reflections on the Church in our countries. I will reflect, at times specifically, on us priests as we all have a crucial responsibility for the future of the Church.

The words that come to my mind are the words of Psalm 137: "How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. May my tongue remain stuck to my palate if I do not keep you in mind, if I do not count Jerusalem the greatest of all my joys" (vv.4-6).

"How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?" There is the alien soil of our world to which we are commissioned to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ and of the Kingdom of God. Our world, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us, is "charged with the grandeur of God". So amid the pain and the brokenness and the alienation there is always a rumour of God, a search for the spiritual and for transcendence. It seems to me that the majority of people try, maybe subconsciously, to remove God, or at least to relocate the divine to the periphery. We have all met people who believe that God does not matter and is too far

away to be contemplated

anyway. There are many today who think that to believe in God is to limit one's freedom.

We also know that many in our society seek to quench their thirst for real freedom in what they perceive will satisfy their deepest needs. Most people in our countries turn excessively to the freedom of the market place and the consumer society, and, while I understand that to some degree we are all consumers, this is something we all enjoy a bit. However, it's quite clear that a sole reliance on the market place does in the end actually prevent people from taking their destiny into their own hands, from having a firrn hold of their lives and their own future. It is our responsibility and that of all believers to challenge and counter this illusory concept of freedom and to proclaim the true freedom gained through faith in Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who says, "The truth will set you free". The market place is a very unforgiving domain. That is why the continuing work to see countries of the developing world overcome their debts is quite a revolution.

The unease, even anguish, of our Western world is there for all to see. I could go on about this, and talk also about the rise in New Age and occult practices and the search being made by young people for something in which, or someone in whom, they can put their complete trust. It is strange, is it not, how these old questions, leading to the search for God, come about with renewed force in our alien world.

To give you a few examples, we are all green now because nations have suddenly begun to realise that the Earth is not something you can ravage at will; it has to be cared for. As Klaus Topfer, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said only last week: "If you cannot combine the fight for a better environment with the fight against poverty, you cannot blame people in Africa for cutting down a tree to burn when they have no fuel." We are all stewards of this world. People are slowly coining to realise that the world has been given to us as a gift, so the old questions about how we are to care for God's world are again brought to the fore. Or, again, take the extraordinary technological advance of the last couple of centuries, especially over the last fifty years. Yes, wonderful things have happened, but is it not extraordinary and tragic that a situation has arisen where the rich get richer and the poor become more numerous and even poorer? It is highly regrettable that we, with all our technical knowledge, should now be living in a world where millions are starving, while we seem to accumulate more and more and get into more personal debt in the process.

So, we in the West become richer, able to possess what we want when we want, and yet in doing so we do not necessarily become happier. Why is it that so many in our society seek transient happiness through alcohol, drugs, pornography and recreational sex? I remember going to South America on numerous occasions when priests from my former diocese were working there. On my return I would contrast the simplicity of life. relative contentment, and yes even the joy, of the people in Peru with the lack of so many of these qualities in our own society, which seems to blind us with a swplus of all that glitters.

Continuing on the forces coming into play in our alien world, there is also the extraordinary and ever growing challenge of the meaning and source of life as we are faced with genetic engineering, stem cell research, and cloning. Another old question that will not go away is "where and when does life begin?" Some practitioners say they are just scientists; they have the technology and they can do these things. Others seem powerless to think of alternatives. But again, slowly, many are beginning to realise that the JudaeoChristian tradition is possibly the only one that can provide any substantial responses to the questions being posed. We have only to refer to the fast chapter of the Bible. God made humankind in His own image and likeness. Therefore human life is to be respected from its very beginning to its very end. It is to be reverenced and not manufactured at human whim. Nor is it to be fashioned and used in the image and likeness of this world's agenda or need.

These are some of the questions which do not go away, but we recognise that there are certain answers to the future that the Church cannot give. However, we must never forget that there is one particular thing that it can give and that is the wisdom of its tradition and of its truth. To stir ourselves to try and answer the questions, the song must be sung, the song of God's presence, the song of God's creation, the song of God's hope for the world that He created in love. We are here to sing it, with our people in mystery, in memory and in example.

It would only be honest if we are to face the future with confidence and hope, that we also face the past and present and look at it with realism and with compassion. It was Dickens who spoke of the period of the French revolution as "the best of times and the worst of times". There is indifference to Christian values and to the Church among many young people and, indeed, not only the young. If you couple that with the sketch of the culture in which we live, you see quite a demoralised society, one where the only good is what I want, the only rights are my own and the only life with any meaning or value is the life I want for myself.

And there are others who look to the Catholic Church in our country today and feel downhearted. There is a growing concern about the reduction in the number of priests and religious. Congregations in our churches have been dwindling quite significantly over the past thirty years. These are but two reasons for the sense of unease and discouragement that many in the Church feel today and possibly the same is true for us priests.

here is also the particular shame of child abuse that has affected the Catholic Church in our countries. All I want to say about this is quite clear and simple — I do not try to make excuses for the past. Yet we must recognise the depth and extent of the damage done to the Church and its mission in these cases. It is true that priests, and especially bishops, were not sufficiently aware of the insidious and pathological nature of child abuse and did not treat all allegations with the seriousness which they merited. Now we know much more and are prepared to learn, to act and to lead the way in making the Catholic Church the safest possible place for children. To achieve this, leadership will be needed from bishops, priests and members of our parishes.

The recommendations of the Nolan Committee, to be included in the Final Report published later this month, will be an incentive to all of us to do just that. I want the Catholic Church to become an example among all the voluntary organisations of best practice in both the prevention of child abuse and in responding to it.

There can be no apathy or negligence in this matter in the future. I trust all priests and religious will respond to the efforts now being made by the Bishops to understand more deeply the terrible damage that is done by child abuse, to implement proper procedures for child protection, and to treat allegations properly and to make our communities, as they should be, the safest place for children. There is a sense in which we could easily become disheartened by events of recent years. But, as we look at the dark side, I would want to say this. The problems associated with the lack of vocations are not easy to analyse or to answer. I personally do not think that the crisis in vocations is a crisis about celibacy; rather it is a crisis of faith which affects the whole Catholic community. Do not

think that the indifference of so many people in the Church, or of those baptised into the Church, is just due to the alien culture. We have to ask ourselves whether it is because we have not yet managed to find exactly where it is that people itch? And they do itch. Among the many young people whom I have met over the years, there is a desire for the things of God and the willingness to work for His Kingdom, a willingness to sacrifice themselves for that end. I think the time has come to turn from looking at, as it were, the dark side and examine how, as John Paul II often quotes from St. Luke, we "launch out into the deep" (Luke 5). So, what should be our strategy'?

I remember listening to a lecture once about two strategies that have co-existed in the Catholic Church since the restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850. You will remember that Cardinal Wiseman issued his grandiose, flamboyant pastoral letter Out of the Flaminian Gate, which caused much uproar amongst the establishment of that time. Very soon afterwards he had to write a further letter called An Appeal to the Good Reason and Fairness of the English People. In this he said that our task as the Catholic community is to look after the Catholics, especially the poor Catholics who come in from other countries, and particularly at that time those from Ireland. That was much more acceptable than his earlier pastoral. After all it did not upset the equilibrium. So the first of the two strategies, as contained in the first pastoral letter, was the conversion of England, and the second, was to look after our own.

From 1850 onwards we have for the most part been trying to look after our own. We built our churches, we established our schools and the religious orders flourished. However, we were on the whole content to remain on the periphery of Church and social life here in England and Wales. Yes, we prayed for the conversion of England, but it was a bit of a pipe-dream and the converts that came were more a token of a dream than the reality.

Today it is quite clear that things are totally different. The Catholic community is no longer on the periphery and can no longer afford to be comfortable there. I make no apologies for saying that now we are, and have to be, at the heart of institutional Christianity in this country. Yes, we share that with our fellow Christians, but our voice, our presence and our witness are all more important than ever before. In a strange way the Catholic community punches above its weight and will do so more and more in the years ahead.

he time has come to look for a clearer strategy in the light of the new situation. How can we

world, how can we sing a new song in our world? I remember reading a book over thirty years ago called The Shape of the Church to Come by Karl Rahner. When I read it I thought it was rather far fetched, but re-reading it I see that many of the things he said about the future shape are becoming true.

I would just like now to sketch a few things that seem to me to be essential if we are to think about a new strategy. In doing this we must be faithful to tradition as we seek to build up the Catholic community in our land. It is based on those evocative words of the Acts of the Apostles: "These remained faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers" (Acts 2. 42).

It is essential that the prayer life of the Church, the liturgy, be developed in a way that reveals the gift of God in Word and Sacrament so that it comes alive in all its power. Many people in our society acknowledge the need for spirituality, but we should be able to celebrate and speak of God and his revelation in Christ with a deep faith and great passion. I recall the Gospel from several weeks ago where Jesus says, "I have come to send fire on earth and what would I but that it be enkindled" (Luke 12.49). How often do we speak in our sermons of the love of God and God's love for us, with, as it were, tongues of fire? How often do we speak of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a way that is meaningful for people? Here is the answer to the world's questions revealed in God's unconditional love for us.

How often do we speak of the Commandments, not as a duty to be painfully observed, but as a way to freedom, a way to achieve the liberation of humankind from the enslavement of fear and frustrating egoism? How often do we speak of prayer as itself a gift of the Spirit and as glorious grace? Do we celebrate the liturgy and especially the Holy Eucharist, the Mass, with the reverence and faith that is at the heart of what we profess to believe? Liturgies must be celebrations that allow people, baptised in the Spirit of God, to rejoice in their faith and go out strengthened and emboldened to confess it.

Then there are the communities of our parishes and in particular our need for small communities. It seems to me, and I do not think I exaggerate, that most Catholics in the future, apart from their Sunday Mass, will need to belong to some form of small community. It could be the family, yes, it could be any particular parish or diocesan organisation, or the small communities that develop or emerge from people themselves. Increasingly there will be people who come together to listen to the Word of God in Scripture, to reflect on their own lives and to pray. I often think these small communities are the secret for the future of the Church. It is no wonder that Pope John Paul encourages the new movements, as I do

myself. I think that these new movements —and I wish there were more —will find their rightful place in the Church in the West where parish communities themselves also become more a movement. Basic communities can be the source of new inspiration, of new hope and new evangelisation for the Church of the future.

We should not be over concerned about the diminishment of numbers. At a certain point we have to leave the question of converts to God, but we must also seek to regain the lapsed. If we are the little flock, it does not mean we are the same as a ghetto or sect, it means that the Church of the future will be one much more open to our unbelieving world, One more able to touch people where they inwardly long to be touched. It will be a Church that does not hide itself away but rather, in a quiet and brave fashion, like the city on the hill or the leaven in the Mass. is the hope of the world.

The first two pillars of my strategy, as it were, for building up an evangelising conununity, are first the liturgy — prayer — and second the community. I could say a lot more about that. We should be clear that, while talking of small communities, any strategy for the future in England and Wales must seek to maintain the parish, perhaps more loosely based, but a parish as a communion of communities. It is within the parish, seen and developed as a conununity and within which there are small communities, that we equip people to evangelise. these two I must add education, and by that I mean education in faith.

Apart from Catholic schools, I wonder to what extent do we seek within our parishes to equip and educate in a realistic way those devoted parishioners who are our strongest collaborators. In most parishes now there should be parish teams, women and men, who collaborate with the parish priest in the leadership of the parish, and then there are the Eucharistic ministers and the readers. and also those who are members of different organisations. There are quite a large number of people, anything from 30 to 200 and beyond, depending on the size of the parish, who need to have formation in their faith. When you come to think of it the teaching of the Church, as in the Catechism, is encapsulated in four very clear categories: what we believe — the Creed, what we celebrate — the Sacraments, how we live — the Commandments or the Beatitudes, and fourthly prayer. There are numerous tools to help us take the lead in teaching in our parishes. It seems to me that, particularly within families, we should make every effort to do this more effectively.

Fourthly, I would add a reaching out to those in need, to be done with those of other Christian denominations who work alongside us. How will people know that we are a community of believers, if we do not love one another and reach out to the poor? I think that we have got to seek ways in which we become a voice for the voiceless, particularly for those who live in our innercities. I presided at the Requiem of Lord Longford the other day. I was always interested in the way he took the Gospel quite literally. He read it every day and had a huge respect for the Church and tradition. The Gospel proclaims that the pure of heart will see God. The Gospel proclaims that we visit those who are in prison. It seems it can only be right, even if we become slightly unpopular, that we stand up for and care for those who are in great need.

So, quite simply I hope that together — bishops. priests and people — we can change the culture of Catholicism in England and Wales. This means that with every avenue at our disposal we shall endeavour to form, equip and, with God's grace, inspire our people to be an evangelising community. Are we brave and courageous enough to do it? — I believe we can and should, I now want to say something very obvious, but I hope not irrelevant. Each one of us who is a priest should endeavour with all his mind and heart to speak out about what is true. I am constantly surprised and edified by the number of people in our society who are not necessarily Christian, but perhaps Christian in upbringing, who want to hear what is traditional morality — both social and sexual.

They are glad when we speak out in favour of the nuclear family as "the norm", based on the marriage of a man and a woman, though we know so well how many people, for one reason or another, find it difficult to live up to that norm. We must understand how incredibly important this is. Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, speaks very eloquently about this matter in his book Faith In The Future (DLT. 1995). He draws our attention to two systems of thought regarding personal relationships. He exposes how the healthy interdependence and responsibilities once common to married and family life are being corroded and replaced by a scenario that reveals individuals battling for personal rights and independence, plotting their own "private paths to happiness undistracted by the claims of others". He says this:

"Something happens in this scenario to make it unsustainable. Assisted by birth control, abortion, new work patterns and the liberalisation of all laws and constraints touching on relationships, we have divorced sex from love, love from commitment, marriage from having children, and having children from responsibility for their care. That extraordinary institution, marriage, which brought together sexuality, emotional

kinship and the creation of new life and wove them into a moral partnership suffused by love, has been exploded as effectively as if someone had planted a bomb in the centre of our moral life."

To urge people to stable family life, to help prepare young people for a lifelong commitment, to speak out to governments, to give incentives to help married people — all these things contribute to the building up of the Kingdom.

Then there are life issues which will certainly not go away and will become even mom important in the next five to ten years. We do not have all the answers to the questions posed by incredible advances of scientific and genetic engineering. But we do ask the right questions and we do challenge in the right places — God help us and humanity if we do not do this. There is the trivialisation of sex and its iniquitous affects on young people and on their prospects for stability and marriage. There are the refugees and others who come to our country — how much do we welcome them and strive for peace and justice among all our people, but particularly in the ethnic communities? How often do we strive to combat the consumerist conception of our society and tell people the Gospel truth that it is in giving that we receive and that a commitment to others is a commitment to life? The constant urge to possess more means that ultimately you possess less, and indeed lose yourself.

These are simple wisdoms that we offer our world and they are crucial because they are to do with the Kingdom of God. Above all, perhaps, what we show and what we witness to is forgiveness, because we live in a world that does not understand the word "forgiveness", or at least finds it too painful to hear. Name and shame has become the way of the world. It can be very heartless and very cruel. What we witness to is a loving and a very forgiving God who knows our weaknesses, and our sins, and who is also infinite in His compas

sion, love and forgiveness. How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?

Let us be honest, there is also alien soil in our own hearts, and in our own lives, and in our own priesthood. Each one of us has his own struggles — struggles with boredom, with failure, with celibacy, with discouragement, with fear, with perseverance. We must be prepared to accept that God may lead each one of us into the wilderness, where the old certainties vanish and we are faced with a void which we may be tempted to fill with half believed platitudes, substitutes for the living God.

The great mystic Meister Eckhart said, "Stand firm and do not waver from your emptiness". We should not be afraid of the darkness because we sing the song of the Lord in that darkness, we tell another story to the story of the world, especially we priests. We tell the story of strength, of God's creativity in raising Jesus from the dead — we always see signs of something new, of something fresh. of new life. God says, "Behold. I make all things new".

hen I was installed as Archbishop of Westminster I said that I had no time for prophets of doom. I was echoing the point made by Pope John XXIII who said the same at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. There have been many "worse periods" in the life of the Church than now. We are at the beginning of a new era and singing a new song. We know that the Church will continue whatever happens, but we must not be complacent.

I love those words of Newman at the time he became a Cardinal. While lamenting the rise of liberalism, and saying that Christianity in many of its forms would perish, he also said that the Catholic Church would not fail because it has been tried through the ages". That is our faith and I do not think we should be discouraged or downhearted. May I repeat that this is true for us priests. It is a good time to be a priest. It is a good time for our mission — of that I am convinced. We must go out and build evangelising communities that will be an echo and a sign of the new Kingdom which is there in our world but has yet to be fully recognised, encouraged and lived. Our Catholic Church has to prepare again for mission in the new context of our world, a world for which God, in His Son Jesus Christ, gave his life.

In all the teaching about priests that is contained in the New Testament, there is one that strikes me above all others. Yes, the priest is one, like the Apostles, who presides

at the Eucharist. The priest is one who preaches and is an Apostle, and a pastor. But more powerfully than anything else a priest is a disciple. Yes. every Christian is called to be a disciple, but we priests in a special sense: "(you) are my friends, no longer do I call you servants" John 15.14); "A man cannot serve two masters" (Mt 6.14); "Follow Me," says Jesus "and let the dead bury their dead" (Mt 8.21). All hint that in a particular way the priest as an apostle is meant to incarnate in his own life the implications and demands of discipleship, to leave all and follow Him. Let us try to be disciples and walk with our fellow priests, our fellow disciples, on the way. Be a.s a disciple and recognise the Lord in different places. We know our own weaknesses and acknowledge them, yet we must always have the courage to try and continue walking. We should always remember that we, priests and bishops, who have care for people in our parishes, must continue to strive to build the necessary environments in which our communities may thrive.

S many of you know, I have had the privilege of being given the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva as my Titular Church in Rome. St Catherine of Sienna is buried there. Now she was quite a woman! I will end with a quote from Father Timothy Radcliffe's homily on St Catherine and her exhortation to God. to Cardinals, to all of us:

"[St Catherine] even dared to tell God what to do. when she prayed:

'You know how and you are able and it is your will, so I plead with you to have mercy on the world, and to restore the warmth of charity and peace and unity to holy Church. It is my will that you do not delay any longer.'

The Church in our time also suffers from divisions, caused by misunderstanding, intolerance and a loss of 'the warmth of charity and peace'. Today the love of the Church is often assumed to mean an uncritical silence. One must not 'rock the boat'! But Catherine could never be silent. She wrote to some cardinals, 'Be silent no longer. Cry out with a hundred thousand voices. I see that the world is destroyed through silence. Christ's spouse is pallid, her colour has been drained from her,' " May St Catherine teach us her deep love of the Body of Christ. and the wisdom and courage to speak truthfully and openly with words that unite rather than divide, which illuminate rather than obscure, and which heal rather than wound.

This article is a slightly edited version of the Cardinal's original text

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