Thursday 2 May 2013
In welcoming our distinguished visitors to this Mass this evening I am reminded of that moment, two and a half years ago, when Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass here during his Visit to the United Kingdom. For us that was a most important moment, in which new impetus was given to many aspects of the life of the Church and to the project of faith in our society. Indeed a theme of the Visit was the simple phrase: Faith in God is not a problem to be solved, but a gift to be discovered afresh.
The scope of this theme clearly included the role of religions other than our Christian faith and the role of dialogue between us. This was powerfully expressed in the meeting that took place on 17 September 2010 in St Mary’s University College, Twickenham. It was not simply a meeting with the Pope of religious leaders. It was that. But it was much more. It was a meeting of people of our different religions who play leadership roles in so many different walks of life: sport, the police, academia, politics, enterprise and industry. The very make-up of the meeting was an assertion that people inspired by their faith make a crucial contribution to the leadership of our society, in so many different ways. It was an affirmation that faith in God is a great resource in our efforts for the Common Good today.
This meeting, I believe, provides a marker for future dialogues, not least with the Muslim communities present in our countries. There must be a place in our inter-religious endeavours for bringing together similar groups of people, who work or care about many different aspects of society, so that we can explore the practical contribution that faith in God makes to leadership for the common good. I know of one venture, for example, in the North East of this country, where groups of Christian and Muslim women meet to share their concerns about some of the problems faced by women today and to be encouraged by each other’s dedication and example.
There was a second important emphasis given by Pope Benedict during that historic meeting. He spoke of the need ‘not only for theological exchange, but also sharing our spiritual riches, speaking of our experience of prayer and contemplation and expressing to one another the joy of our encounter with divine love.’
Importantly, he stressed that an emphasis given to the spiritual is not one which devalues other fields of human enquiry and endeavour. Rather, he said, it gives those other endeavours a context which magnifies their importance, pointing beyond their present usefulness towards the transcendent and their part in the greatest quest of all.’
Indeed the Pope spoke of this spiritual quest as being the one thing necessary. And he spoke of it as an adventure. This gives us the right frame of mind in which to go forward together: we are engaged together in a quest which is an adventure. Nothing is more important; nothing more exciting. Together we seek the mystery of God, rejoicing in the gifts we know we receive in our faith, for us the great mystery of Christ Jesus, and generous in wanting to share that gift, while utterly respectful of the gifts of others, which we know will contribute to our human endeavour.
As this conference progresses and continues to look closely at the challenges and opportunities of dialogue with members of the Muslim faith, I hope these two points may be of assistance: that we do not forget that the practical application of faith to the problems confronting us today is a rich source for dialogue and cooperation, and that the spiritual quest lies at the heart of our human pilgrimage.
In this dialogue we also have to work hard at overcoming the burdens of the past which so often feed into another difficult task: that of overcoming suspicions about each other’s’ motives. These are difficult and substantive tasks, but I believe we are increasingly ready for them. As our own Bishops’ Conference stated in its own document ‘Meeting God in Friend and Stranger’, the effort to reach out in friendship to followers of other religions is becoming a familiar part of the mission of the local church and a characteristic feature of the religious landscape in our countries.
During this Mass we have kept the Memorial of St Athanasius a man who fought so hard and suffered so much simply for the sake of the truth about Jesus, the Christ. Today his example reminds us of our commitment to search for the fullness of that truth in our lives in the light of it having been made visible in him who is both truly man and truly divine with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God. The Arianism that Athanasius fought against left an infinite gap between God and man and put beyond our reach that true relationship of filial love which is a hall-mark of our Christian faith. St John said in the first reading: ‘Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten by God’, and ‘only the man who believes that Jesus is the Son of God can overcome the world.’ This is the faith in which we rejoice and which we are always to recall in our exploration of faith and spiritual journey.
May God always bless our efforts to reach out to all his children. May we reach out with such humility and love that no-one is distanced from the truth through our failings. Rather may we walk together under the gentle sway of God’s call and together come to the fullness of life. Amen.
Archbishop of Westminster