Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The recent Referendum has thrown us into uncertainty. Some of this, please God, will be of short duration, but other elements will be with us for longer. We are not used to this. The whole world, indeed, seems particularly volatile and tormented at present. Pope Francis’ call for a Year of Mercy seems increasingly timely.
It’s not the role of a bishop to offer political opinions, but surely we can ask ourselves, as Catholic Christians, how to respond to the present situation. What might our faith, hope and love urge us to offer?
Prayer, first of all. ‘First of all, says St Paul, there should be prayers offered for everyone…and especially for kings and others in authority, so that we may be able to live religious and reverent lives in peace and quiet’ (1 Tim 2:1). The liturgical form this takes is the Prayer of the Faithful at Mass – something not to be undervalued, something to come from the heart.
Secondly, we will need an array of social virtues to meet the challenges ahead: wisdom and courage, a sense of solidarity and the common good, the overcoming of selfish interests. Civility seems especially needed. In matters of free political debate, it is better, as St Ignatius of Loyola says, ‘to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false’ (Spiritual Exercises §22). One of our parishes has been recently offering study and discussion on Catholic Social Teaching. This too would be timely.
There is something else though. In times of transition, things usually hidden can surface. They can be dark. Our political leaders have already spoken out against recent expressions of xenophobia (hatred of foreigners) directed at people from elsewhere living in our country. There has been a rash of them. They are deplorable. As people who believe that all men and women are created in the image and likeness of God and who have received the grace of belonging to a Church called Catholic, we should be especially sensitive here. More so still in our diocese, where we have welcomed so many fellow-believers from other countries, not least those of the EU. Our governments will, we hope, offer those from abroad the practical reassurances they deserve. But beyond that and in the context of our parishes and communities, we must reaffirm our love of them as our brothers and sisters in Christ and show our gratitude for their presence, their faith and a fervour that often puts us to shame. The New Testament describes Gentile, non-Jewish Christians as ‘aliens’ and ‘foreigners’ who, by God’s grace, have been given a place in the Temple of God which is the Church (cf. Eph 2:11-22). What we have received, we should give. Other passages describe Christians as nomads, migrants, refugees, displaced persons, pilgrims making their way through this world to heaven (e.g. 1 Pt 1:1; 2:11; Hebrews ch. 11). ‘For there is no eternal city for us in this life, but we look for one in the life to come’ (Heb 13:14). In our own society, trying to be a consistent Catholic Christian will, anyway, place us at the margins. We will feel inwardly estranged from much going on around us. We can’t always join in the party. All this should make us sensitive to those who are refugees or migrants or marginal in the more obvious social senses. We should recognise ourselves in them – and recognise Christ. ‘I was a stranger and you made me welcome’ – or did not – he will say (Mt 25: 35, 43). ‘While we have the opportunity, then, says St Paul, let us do good to all, and especially to our brothers and sisters in the faith’ (Gal 6:10).
In the name of the diocese, therefore, I would like to reassure all those in our congregations from elsewhere, and especially from the EU, that they are a welcome and cherished presence. We are grateful for the riches you bring. We would be poorer without you. We wish you to keep your own forms of Catholic culture and at the same time take an ever fuller part in our Catholic life here. We don’t want you to leave. We want to make our common pilgrimage of faith with you, in the communion of the one Church of Christ, turned to ‘the one God who is Father of all, over all, through all and within all’ (Eph 4:6).
Beyond all politics, ‘leaving’ and ‘remaining’ are the two sides of life and history. We live change and stability, stability and change. One grace of a time of transition is that it compels us towards what is firm and lasting. We are stripped of the secondary and can rediscover the essential. ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’, said Jesus as he was about to leave his disciples for the Cross. ‘Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty…Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love’ (Jn 15:5, 9-10).
One of those commandments is to love the stranger in our midst. May we do so.
Devotedly in Christ,
+ Hugh OSB