12 September 2013
Many tributes have rightly been paid to Michael in the days since his sad death on 31 July. Many prayers and Masses have been offered for the repose of his soul and for the comfort of Norah, their family and many friends. It is right that we add to that treasury this evening. We pray that the Lord will welcome this true and faithful servant into his presence, there to await the final resurrection and the fullness of eternal glory. We pray that our faith and love will be strong in the face of this loss and foremost in this prayer are Norah and the Whelan family.
We all know and appreciate Michael’s strength of faith and know that his faith was so much more than a simple confession of belief. It was faith put into practice, every day. In fact his life is a strong and inspiring echo of the words of St Paul, providentially given to us today by the Church:
‘Be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience.’ This indeed was Michael at his best.
And the words of St Paul also express the challenge to us, a challenge that is an important part of Michael’s legacy: ‘Let this message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home with you!’ (Col 3:12-17)
That indeed is what we must do.
So let us look more closely, for a few moments, at the example of Michael’s life, especially in his initiative ‘Friends of the Holy Land’.
As many have said, for Michael giving to those in need was simply a vocation. As Laila, from Bethlehem, has said: ‘Dr Michael taught us the value of giving not when it was convenient to do so, or when we could gain something from the appearance of being charitable, but when we were called to by Christ to do so.’ She tells us that she will always remember Michael for these qualities: ‘His love and concern for those in need, his devout belief in the Catholic faith that was the centre of his life, and his endless encouragement for us never to give in to despair, even as he himself prepared for the end of his own life, and to keep trying to make the Holy Land a living testimony to the Christian faith.’ These are the qualities we are to take to heart ourselves.
Michael’s involvement in the life of the Holy Land began formally in 1985 when he became a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre later leading the Knights in England and Wales for eight years. In 2008 he took the courageous step of forming a new charity, the ‘Friends of the Holy Land’ which, in Laila’s terms, has become ‘such an important part of the Palestinian Christian community.’
So many who have been to the Holy Land over the last six years on Diocesan or Parish Pilgrimages, return asking what action they can take in response to all they have seen. ‘Friends of the Holy Land’ was Michael’s response to that question. And all who have been on those pilgrimages or who have become involved in the work of ‘Friends of the Holy Land’, will have seen first-hand his dedication both at a personal and organisational level to the well-being of the poorest people there. Inevitably that dedication has had a particular focus on the town of Bethlehem and it was no surprise for me to witness, in 2011, the conferring on Michael of the Freedom of Bethlehem, an honour of which he was immensely proud.
The activities today of ‘Friends of the Holy Land’ bear witness to the strong network of contacts that have been built up over these recent years, often starting with Michael’s quiet charm and persistence – in equal measure. Today we see those activities including support for Syrian refugees in Amman, house renovations among the poorest in Bethlehem, schools and university fees for people living in the West Bank and Gaza. And under consideration are projects such as support for a sandwich-making business at St Martha’s House and a housing project for 10 young families in Beit Sahour.
This is vitally important work, and as we thank God for the initiatives taken by Michael and his closest associates we have to be resolved ourselves to continue it, by building up the network of contacts, supports and parish groups committed to Friends of the Holy Land. I know that today, as we pray for the repose of this noble soul, we are right also to ask God’s blessing on this work.
We do so because it is an important contribution we can make to the prospects of peace in the Holy Land. Poverty is an enemy of peace. The humiliation caused by such poverty and by the lack of opportunity for self-development is an enemy of peace. To help a people to fight against such poverty, to help people to create opportunities for self-development, is to work for peace.
The removal of violence is also an essential condition for a people to prosper. As Pope Francis wrote in his recent letter to President Putin on the eve of the St Petersburg Summit, ‘Without peace there can be no form of economic development. Violence never begets peace, the necessary condition for development.’
For these reasons the peace talks between the State of Israel and the State of Palestine, which have been taking place since July, are so important. They are difficult, having to face the well-known problems of security, of boundaries, of territorial occupation and settlements, illegal in international law, a prime example of which is the situation in Beit Jala and the Cremisan Valley. These talks have been given a nine-month time scale; they face major challenges; they need our prayers.
Just twelve days ago, on the 1st September, the new Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogues of Great Britain and the Commonwealth was installed here in London. In his inaugural address, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said these words:
‘At this time, Israel and Palestine are set on holding negotiations with an eye towards establishing a true and lasting peace. In years to come I would love people to look back on this day [the day of his Inauguration] and associate it with the time when finally we were on the path to beating swords into ploughshares in Israel, and throughout the Middle East (Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis 1 Sept 2013).’
No one who has seen the security wall that divides so much of the Holy Land, cutting off people from their traditional land and means of sustenance, no one who has felt the fear and insecurity that mars that land, no one who has seen the contrast between the provision of goods on one side of a line and the lack even of a reliable source of water on the other can have any doubt about the importance of finding this pathway to peace between Israel and Palestine as soon as possible. And the situation in Syria makes this challenge even more urgent.
So we do well to make our own the prayer of the Chief Rabbi, the prayer with which he concluded the remarks I have already quoted.
‘May Almighty God bless our leaders with the wisdom to make wise and responsible decisions through these days, weeks and months of challenge.’
The imperative which spurs us on is the same as that which motivated Dr Michael Whelan. It is most clearly expressed in the words of the Gospel that we have heard:
‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. …Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate…Give and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back (Lk: 6 27-38).’
Heavenly Father, welcome into your Kingdom our beloved Michael Whelan. Grant him a full measure of your mercy, cleansing him from all his sins and running over in your joy. Grant to us a generous measure of your compassion that even as we comfort one another in faith we may grow in generosity towards your people in all their needs. Bless our efforts through ‘Friends of the Holy Land’ and guide us always in the ways of peace.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.
X Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster