Given at the CSAN Parliamentary reception on 4 November 2015.
Good afternoon; it is a pleasure to be back in Parliament for the fifth annual Caritas Social Action Network reception. I am delighted once again to see so many charities, supporters and parliamentarians gathered here for this special and important event.
We are invited here to share our work and our vision for society, and also to consider the positive impact our charities, dioceses and parishes are having on the everyday lives of people today.
So many people today are outstandingly generous. Awareness of the suffering of others evokes real compassion, over and over again. This we can see in face of the ongoing refugee crisis. In our Catholic parishes all across the UK, and in other church communities and more generally people have responded, with enormous generosity. Pope Francis’ call to offer assistance and shelter to a migrant family has found an echo in many hearts. I appreciate the initiative of our Government to bring Syrian refugees direct to our shores and we are co-operating with that scheme as best we can. Our charities and dioceses have offered their expertise and experience for the resettlement of refugees, and we will continue to work to coordinate this practical response and promote effective action. Yet progress is slow, but the plight of refugees cannot wait. People’s generosity, in my view, far outstrips the response of our Government. Yes, it is right to help people avoid the dreadful journeys that are being undertaken. Yes it is right to put significant help into the refugee work on the borders of conflict zones and I am glad we are leading the way. But so much more needs to be done both in welcoming refugees here and across Europe to make the response to this crisis both better organised and monitored, thereby becoming more respectful of the dignity of those seeking help. As a member of the EU we should be playing our full part in this effort in Europe.
This year CSAN is working in solidarity with Caritas France in Calais, supporting and focusing the practical efforts of many groups and parishes in England, in response to that particular refugee crisis. Today we welcome some visitors from Calais. On a visit recently Caritas personnel saw the loss of dignity in the ‘Jungle’ in Calais (what a sad name for a place where large and growing numbers of people live) where people must wash in public, queue for food and live amongst rubbish, even though it is carefully collected together into piles. It is still rubbish. These conditions dehumanise those living there and rob them of their dignity. I am glad to hear, today, that efforts are being made to improve these conditions. But the underlying problem remains.
This crisis calls for us to be clear in our vision and hope for our world. We need to witness to the kind of community we want to inhabit; we need to show that we are a community which welcomes the stranger; and more broadly we need to help build a community and a society which offers opportunity to all, and the wherewithal to build a life and a livelihood.
Our charities seek to embody these values and employ their skills in its pursuit. Despite the good news on the rising employment figures, helping those struggling to overcome the barriers to employment is still central to our efforts. And this is a shared effort with government departments where work, rewarded with a fair and living wage, is seen as a key support for families. The Cardinal Hume Centre here in Westminster and the St Antony’s Centre in Manchester, for example, both with good links with their local Job Centres, combine a person-centered approach built on trust and compassion with a varied and well-crafted tool-kit to help their clients into work – into work with sufficient and consistent hours and a just wage.
I am pleased to state, today, that the Diocese of Westminster has, this week, completed the process by which we are recognised by the Living Wage Foundation as a living wage employer. This is an important step for us and, I hope, a sign of encouragement for others.
Other Catholic Charities, such as Caritas Westminster in its food bank projects, act as a vital lifeline in protecting those faced with difficulties in simply feeding the family and holding onto home and heating. They offer food, shelter and support to those whose circumstances are worsening or who have long term problems. We obviously wait now to see how the Chancellor refashions his reforms of working tax credits so as not to have the impact on millions of families that was foreseen and provides mitigating action in the introduction of these changes.
Our charities also work to move families along the developmental line from urgent assistance to re-building their capacity to self-sufficiency. Our Children’s Societies, often working in and with our Catholic schools with counselling services, also play a key role in supporting families and children, helping to prevent and mitigate the consequences of poverty and so build a future of hope.
We, in the Church, walk alongside those families whether trapped in a camp in Calais, or suffering on winter seas in the hands of criminals, or victims of human trafficking, or struggling with emotional, social or money problems at home. We offer authentic pastoral care and a heart attuned to Christ’s mercy.
I have just returned, as you know, from Rome where I took part in the Synod on the Family. I see the family as the first witness of the faith in society, the first workshop in the faith and the backbone of every parish, the first tutoring in humanity for every person. As we have seen today, the Caritas network recognises that reality in the work with the family in all areas - from the grassroots in our parishes to our services in the charitable organisations. The Synod of Bishops meeting over the last few weeks, in Rome, gave a great deal of attention to the effects on the family of poverty, violence, war, migration and desperate need. Our work there focused on how we respond pastorally to families in their unique situation and embrace them in God’s mercy and understanding. This could be no better guidance and affirmation for the compassionate work that you all do day by day.
I thank you for all you do.