Given at the Mass celebrating the 1050th anniversary of the Baptism of Poland on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 1 May 2016, at Ealing Abbey.
I am most happy to be with you today to celebrate this great anniversary. I understand full well that these celebrations of the 1050th anniversary of the baptism of Poland are being held not only across your homeland but also wherever Polish people have settled. Fifty years ago was not a good time for such celebrations. Indeed they caused considerable conflict. But now you are able to celebrate more whole-heartedly. And I am glad to be part of these celebrations!
Today we recall the baptism of Mieszko I, the first ruler of the Polish State, which took place on 14 April 966. It started the process of transforming Poland from a pagan country to a Christian country, with the first Bishop of Poland, Jordan, appointed in 968.
Today we celebrate not only that long, slow process by which this faith of light and truth spread through your country, but we also ask the Lord’s blessing on all the people of Poland, wherever they may be. We pray that the Catholic faith may continue to inspire your country and that the strength, generosity and sense of sacrifice which springs from the very heart of this faith may long be a fundamental part of your national characteristics. Certainly this country has benefitted from those qualities, at our greatest hour of need, just as our country continues to benefit, in these days, by your contributions in so many fields.
The readings of our Mass today help us to deepen these celebrations so that they truly express and serve the Catholic faith established in your land all those years ago.
The Second Reading, for example, renews in us the true focus of our hope. For many people of Poland, exile has been a harsh experience. That is not so today with our freedom of movement. Yet this freedom itself can turn our minds away from the ultimate homeland for which we have been created. In this reading we hear of that homeland in dramatic and wonderful terms. We are given a vision of light, beauty, richness, all flowing from the immensity of God: ‘The city had no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb of God.’ (Rev 21.23)
Yes, that is the homeland for which we have been created and today, at this Mass, we pray that we will indeed attain to its light and blessedness in God’s good time. And we also pray that, each day, we may live by the light of God and by the shining lamp of Jesus, the true Lamb whose sacrifice on the Cross will nourish and recreate us again today.
This is a fervent prayer for we know that our way in this life is not easy. We have much to learn. We need, in the words of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit, the Counsellor who will teach us all things. This promise of the Lord, to be with us, to give us his Holy Spirit, means that we may indeed live in his peace, without our hearts being troubled or afraid. This is what we so long for: that our hearts are not troubled or afraid. Yes, this is the gift that Jesus wants to give us.
At this time, in his new Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis is speaking to the Church about the importance of the family, and of love as the heart of family life. He, like you, knows the importance of family, not just husband and wife and their children, but families reaching over the generations. This corresponds so well to today’s celebrations in which we ponder this long history of your country. Pope Francis reminds us that we are all part of an age-old pilgrimage and that memory is necessary for growth. Otherwise we become orphans. So he appeals to us in these words: ‘Make your families places where children can sink roots in the rich soil of your collective history’ (AL 193). Today’s celebrations indeed help us to do that!
Pope Francis is also realistic about our family lives. He fully recognises all the problems that are to be faced, sometimes mundane, sometimes dramatic and traumatic. He says that we are never to stop upholding the high ideals of Christian family life and we have always to work hard at the love which holds a family together. Love, he says, ‘is a kind of craftsmanship’ (221). He reminds us to have both parties (226) and prayer (227), both of which you are doing today! And he asks the whole Church to go out to find those who are struggling and make sure that they have the support they truly need.
In this light I applaud the appeal made by your bishops on 30 March, in the context of these anniversary celebrations, that Government and leaders take initiatives and launch programmes to provide practical help for those in the most difficult situations: those with profoundly sick children, those with children who have severe special needs, and those with children conceived unwillingly, sometimes even in violence. This appeal is so right. This is the work that we all need to do to create the circumstances in which recourse to abortion is recognised for what it is: the destruction of an innocent human life and a tragic intervention into a woman’s life.
Some want to argue that abortion can be a right in conscience. This cannot be so because abortion is always the destruction of innocent life. As Pope Francis says ‘Every child growing within the mother’s womb is part of the eternal plan of God the Father, with a place in God’s heart from all eternity….We need to see it with the eyes of God, who always looks beyond mere appearances’ (168).
Like Pope St John Paul before him, Pope Francis recognises that often difficult circumstances can cause a lack of freedom that leads a woman to the painful and agonising decision to undergo an abortion. This can never really be the best choice as it leads to a dreadful wound in the mother and the destruction of innocent human life. God’s mercy can heal this wound, especially through the Sacrament of Reconciliation with repentance and desire for a new start. At this time, then, we work and pray, with your bishops, to overcome these terrible circumstances so that those trapped in them never think to include in their actions the destruction of innocent human life. This is a work worthy of this great anniversary.
Today we pray for Poland and all its families. May God bless you always. May your journey through history be a ‘never ending vocation’ and a ‘shepherding of mercy’. In this way you will be a light in the world to the mercy of God, to the tender embrace of our loving Father and a sign of the glory that awaits us when this pilgrimage is over.