I was blessed recently to be able to spend a precious hour or so in stillness and silence in Westminster Cathedral, gazing up at the great crucifix of Christ. It was a chance, as Holy Week approached, to look back over the journey travelled this Lent...
I would like to share with you both a highlight and a “lowlight” from my Lenten journey this year. The lowlight happened right at the beginning of Lent when I was invited to hear confessions for Year 7 children at a truly outstanding Catholic secondary school in our diocese. With a priest stationed in each corner of the school hall the children began to file in, guided by their form teachers.
The first few children who came to me were all carrying a little card with the act of contrition written out for them. But then a boy came towards me without a card, sat down and told me, “I don’t believe in God.” I was dumb-struck at this 12 year-old in a Catholic school declaring so boldly his lack of faith. And he was not the last – several more during the hour or so that followed came forward without their prayer card, sat down and said the same words.
Talking to each of the children it became clear that behind these stark words there was a spiritual hunger, a need for God and that these words were not their own but rather echoes perhaps of their parents’ lack of faith, reinforced by the widespread cynicism towards faith so dominant in our society and media today. It was a powerful reminder to me in this Year of Faith that for many the “door of faith” remains shut because they simply do not know Christ. Indeed it is a sad truth that for an increasing number of people in our country this door is difficult to open. How can we help others to open this door? As Benedict XVI has stated, it is through the witness of believers radiating the light and truth of Christ that a new generation can be helped to open the door and enter into the life of faith: “The renewal of the Church is also achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us...” (Porta Fidei par. 6)
During these days thousands of people will come to Westminster Cathedral for the Holy Week and Easter liturgies. It is true “divine drama” – those most elemental forces of our faith: light and darkness, water and fire, death and resurrection taking us to the very heart of God’s self-sacrificing love for us. I remember so vividly my own experience of these awesome celebrations during my diaconal year in the Cathedral six years ago. And it was at the Easter vigil in 1994 in a small parish church in Poland that I was baptised surrounded by a loving community who by their radiant witness had opened for me the door of faith.
Baptism is at the heart of the Easter liturgies – that total immersion in the death and resurrection of Christ. And like a physical immersion in fresh water, the celebration of Easter is meant to awaken us afresh to the urgency of this gift of faith which has been won for us at such cost. Easter is a time when we are to be renewed in that baptismal calling to live a radical, Christ-centred life.
That light of Christ which we receive in the darkness of the Vigil night is to be taken out into our everyday lives to illuminate whatever darkness we find in the world around us. So if we are mere spectators at this divine drama, if we come away untouched and unchanged then that light has not truly been ignited within us. There is a real risk that we can remain bystanders and not be true witnesses who will come forward to share with others “that which we have heard and seen with our own eyes, that which we have watched and touched with our hands – the Word, who is life.” (1 John, 1: 1)
But Lent is a time of hope so let me finish with my Lenten highlight! It took place a few weeks later at another reconciliation service, this time at a primary school. At the end of the afternoon, as I and the other priests were edging our way through the crowded playground to go home, a boy whose confession I had heard earlier suddenly came running up to me with a huge smile on his face. “I just wanted to say thank you,” he said breathlessly. “’Thank you’ for what?” I asked. “For helping me to be “me” again. That stuff I told you about wasn’t the real me – now I feel like me again!” And off he ran to join his friends, laughing and full of life. Here was a boy whose life had been touched by God, illuminated by Christ’s healing love and who, in his own way and in the circle of his own world, was now illuminating others with that same love. A true witness to the joy which only Christ can give.