By Canon Stuart Wilson
The phone call from the Cardinal usually comes in the afternoon. In the last two years I have had two of them. Each time Cardinal Vincent has asked me to come and see him so he can talk about something.
The first time was two years ago. His request was simple. Would I take over the Chairmanship of the Caritas Advisory Board from Canon Pascal Ryan? I said yes, little knowing what it would involve.
I met with the Director, John Coleby, and we tried to work out whether I was the man for the job! That’s when the truth began to dawn on me. I wasn’t taking over Caritas; Caritas was taking over me.
So began two amazing years. I knew little about the work so I was on a steep learning curve. However, I wasn’t altogether hopeless.
I realised early on that I had some influence and I used it to make a name change. We needed a good brand name. We came up with Caritas Westminster. I think it has been received well.
I was soon to discover what was behind this name and what we needed to do. Some things were well established: Magic Breakfasts in schools, clubs for the lonely and our many food banks. Early on we called our food bank volunteers together and I realised how much I needed to learn.
Fr Michael Dunne who runs the highly effective (and ecumenical) Bow Foodbank taught me. His exposition of scripture took us to the Garden of Eden where we learnt that in the very beginning God provided food for Adam and Eve. For us to provide food today is simply an extension of that first merciful act of a wonderful God. I also learnt something else that day. Food banks are not about food they are about PEOPLE. People who visit food banks have many needs, not just hunger.
Caritas Westminster had been given a brief by the Cardinal. The work done should be in every parish. Because of the money being raised by Growing in Faith, we began to recruit staff to help realise this aspiration. Edward and Phoebe were our first hub workers and they were a blessing. Now the number has grown and our hub workers are making amazing differences.
The idea of the hub is that at a local level there is an effective person who tries to ‘add value’ to whatever a parish is trying to do. If a parish is just getting going then our hub worker offers ideas, enthusiasm and professional skills that will help every parish have an effective plan in their outreach and service to others.
It’s only two years ago that we started out. We soon realised that we also needed to map what was already happening in the diocese. So many parish communities had projects established that we knew nothing about. Now there is an interactive map on the website http://rcdow.org.uk/caritas/social-action-initiatives/ where you can see what is happening in your locality. It’s wonderful to relate that new projects are added all the time.
Occasionally things crop up that are not planned but which become very important. One such project is Bakhita House, a haven for women rescued from trafficking. Working with other agencies, we have established a safe home for up to 12 women who were held in slave-like conditions. Our leader is Karen Anstiss and she is doing amazing work with her team to give new life, new hope and new beginnings for women from all over the world. The house certainly brings hope where there was once despair.
By the end of my first year as chair, many new things had come into being. I have been so privileged to work with a really dynamic team. We didn’t just work together, we prayed together, we trained together and we celebrated together. We were not simply workers; we were a committed group.
However, quite unexpectedly, our team of workers were challenged to do new work. Our beloved Pope Francis issued his exhortation Evangelii Guadium at the end of 2013 which challenged every Christian to spread the joy of the Gospel. This challenge was not primarily about preaching the Gospel but living it. It meant we had to refocus and rise to the challenge.
Then in December 2015, the Holy Year of Mercy began. The document which helped us understand the year of mercy began with these amazing words: ‘Jesus Christ is the face of God’s mercy’. Over two years I had truly learnt that Caritas and its work was about showing the mercy of the heavenly Father to those who for whatever reason were not able to see it for themselves.
And so we come to 2016. Again the phone rang and again I went to see the Cardinal. He told me that he wanted me to start new work as the Vocations Promoter. It was a big new piece of work and I am still getting to grips with the challenges it poses.
The Cardinal also asked me if I would be happy to hand over the chair of Caritas Westminster to Bishop Paul McAleenan. They say what goes round comes round. In 1996, after 25 years in Anglican ministry, I decided to become a Catholic. I was sent to Clapton to live and work with the future Bishop McAleenan. It was a great time.
Whilst I was there, the famous document called The Common Good landed on the doorstep. Both Bishop Paul and I studied this document closely along with many of our parishioners. It was such an exciting time to begin to understand the social teaching of the Catholic Church and Bishop Paul was an excellent companion as we tried to put the teaching into practice. He passed on to me that inspiration to live the common good; I am so happy to pass onto him the work of Caritas Westminster. It is in excellent hands. Deo Gratias.