The Agenda for the Church in the United Kingdom
Archbishop Vincent Nichols*
The success of Benedict XVI's trip
Pope Benedict XVI's Apostolic Journey to the United Kingdom has been an outstanding success. Everywhere he has gone the Holy Father has been received with warmth, enthusiasm and joy.
Of course there were some who expressed other views. But they were few and far between. Over 500,000 people have seen the Pope personally, with more than 200,000 turning out on the streets of London for the most remarkable Pope-mobile journey. I was privileged to be in the Pope-mobile with the Holy Father. It was a wonderful experience to see the smiles, the delight, the respect and joy on so many faces. This Visit has given our countries a great lift.
Of course, this was an official State Visit. Yet even the solemn official moments were marked by great warmth. Her Majesty the Queen was radiant. So were the major political leaders who met the Pope here in Archbishop's House, Westminster. And, for me, the highlight of the Visit was the historic address given by His Holiness to the political and civil leaders of these nations. They stood to welcome the Holy Father with immense and warm applause and they continued the same right through his slow, long journey down the length of that Great Hall.
The message of the Visit was consistent and clear: there is an important role for faith in God in modern, pluralist societies. The arguments were clearly put: we cannot afford to forget or neglect our cultural foundations; democracy needs a foundation of moral principle if it is to be stable; faith and reason serve and complement each other.
During his speech of farewell to the Holy Father at Birmingham Airport, Mr Cameron, the British Prime Minister echoed these themes unambiguously. He described the Visit as "a great honour for our country" and thanked the Pope for "asking searching questions about our society and how we treat ourselves and each other." He assured the Pope that "Faith is part of the fabric of our country. It always has been and it always will be. As you, your Holiness, have said, faith is not a problem for legislators to solve but rather a vital part of our national conversation." He quoted the newly Beatified Cardinal Newman who said that one little deed to relieve the sick and needy, or in forgiving an enemy, evinces more true faith than could be shown by "the most fluent religious conversation."
Then the Prime Minister made this appeal to the Holy Father: "When you think of our country, think of it as one that not only cherishes faith, but one that is deeply, but quietly, compassionate." I think that anyone who took part in this visit will recognise a real degree of truth in those words.
During this Visit the Holy Father has set a new agenda for the Church here. In the first place, he has modelled for us the way in which to speak of the faith to our complex society. The qualities which he has established as essential are these: a gentle courtesy, a sensitivity to the achievements and anxieties of the audience, a stance of being open hearted, a readiness to say difficult things clearly and with reason, an ability not to overstate the claims of faith. I hope all who seek to speak to people here about the faith will show these same qualities.
Then he has highlighted the main focus for the witness we must give. He asks us "to witness to the beauty of holiness, to the splendour of truth and to the joy and freedom born of a relationship with Christ." [from Homily at Westminster Cathedral].
The beauty of holiness was seen so often in the liturgies of this Visit, especially in the periods of prayerful silence which punctuated them. Who will ever forget the profound silence of 80,000 people at prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in Hyde Park? Such silence is golden.
Any witness to the truth, if the truth is to be seen as splendid, needs to show forth the attractiveness and goodness of truth more than its logical consistency.
The witness to joy and happiness was given by so many young people. Outside Westminster Cathedral they promised to be the saints of the 21st century. Their readiness for prayer and their embrace of silence, together with their practical kindness and compassion, shows that they are learning the way.
The third aspect of the pointers given to us by the Holy Father is seen in the particular way in which he drew our attention to Christ. It was to Christ the healer: to Christ who offered himself in sacrifice on the cross, to Christ who makes that sacrifice present to us in the Mass, to Christ who continues to offer an eternal sacrifice to the Father in heaven. Here Pope Benedict XVI is reminding us that only in the gift of Christ's own sacrifice will we find the freedom to express the self-forgetfulness that lies at the heart of all true and enduring love. We all know the nobility of giving up what we want for the sake of those we love. We all know that sacrifice is a key part of self-fulfilment. We do it all the time. In the mystery of Christ this is taken up and becomes truly redemptive. Only in this mystery can we overcome our failures and start out afresh, as we must. It was in this context that the Holy Father again repeated his sorrow and dismay at the crime of the abuse of children within Catholic circles and at the failure of us bishops to deal with these matters effectively at times.
The Holy Father has left us an agenda of increasing cooperation with public authorities for the sake of the common good. He reminded us that at a time of financial constraints there will be extra calls on our generosity and sensitivity to the needs of others. He also left an agenda of increasing cooperation between the Holy See and the U.K. Government on a range of international issues of mutual interest: the relief of poverty and maternal mortality; the care of the environment; the project of primary education in the poorest parts of the world.
This has been a truly remarkable Visit. The Holy Father has contributed an important step to our rich history and is helping to shape our future. We thank God for his ministry and assure him of our love and prayers.
*Archbishop of Westminster, President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales
Weekly Edition in English
29 September 2010, page 7
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