Given at Proclaim Westminster at the Royal Horticultural Halls, WEstminster on 14 November, 2015.
Last Sunday I celebrated my 70th birthday. It is supposed to be quite a landmark. I thoroughly enjoyed the moment except for the realisation that this marks the halfway mark in my allotted years here as Archbishop, God willing. That bothered me, because the years are passing so quickly and there is simply so much to do, so much that I would like to do, or at least contribute towards.
Today's meeting is the best example of that! We are here to look practically at how we can take this great message of our faith, through our parishes, into our society. Urgency is what I feel. I am in a hurry now! I hope you feel the same. I think we are at a crucial moment. Perhaps a fairly long winter is slowly beginning to thaw, a winter in which there was such opposition to the things of faith and in which we had to learn to face our failings with proper penitence and humility. But now I sense something of an opportunity. I sense a more evident uncertainty in our society about how we should go about things, a troubled sense that all is far from well: the sharp and widening divisions between rich and poor; the troubled world around us that casts millions of people as refugees, some of whom are just outside, knocking on our door. How are we to react? How do we best teach our youngsters that deep respect for each other, for themselves, for their bodies, for their sexuality that can equip them to live with firm and reliable foundations? These and many more questions are in the air. This is a time of opportunity. So for us there is real urgency. I hope you too have a sense of being in a hurry!
Our task is evangelisation. Bishop Nicholas has described evangelisation very clearly: Evangelisation is at heart about sharing with others, in word and deed, a relationship with Christ, which might lead them to ask 'Who is this Jesus?'.
I want to speak for a few minutes about evangelisation in the light of the rapidly approaching Year of Mercy. I believe that the unbounded mercy of God is the starting point, the lens through which we can look at our task of proclaiming the Gospel and find there an even more surprising richness.
Who is this Jesus? Jesus is the face of God's mercy. In Him the love, compassion and forgiveness of God takes its fullest human expression. To look at Jesus is to see how the Eternal Father looks on us. In the face of Jesus we see that our Father is prepared to do anything, everything, to draw us to the love for which we have been made. God's mercy is the shape taken by the love of God when it comes face to face with our broken human reality. God weeps and pours out His heart in Jesus that we may know how much He longs for us to be with Him for ever.
Jesus is the face of God's mercy. But we are to be the hands, voices and actions of that mercy in the flesh of our world today. Here we must remember again that everything we have to do and say in the name of Jesus springs not from ideas, nor from study, but from our relationship with Him. God's mercy is not an idea. It is a reality, the fullness of love offered to us in Jesus. In other words, the only way in which we truly learn about this mercy is by experiencing it in our own lives. If mercy is to be the hallmark of all we do, it must first be the hallmark of our relationship with our blessed Lord. And this comes about when, in the deepest part of our being, we know that we stand in need of that mercy for we acknowledge that we too are broken and marked by sin. When we have received His mercy, when we have been caressed by mercy, then it flows from within our hearts and we are ready to offer it to others and find in that mercy the source of all that we do.
And today is about doing. We are here to harness ideas, in the light of mercy. We will go from this hall, I trust, with ideas and plans to take back to our parishes. No one should leave here empty handed, and certainly not empty headed! Rather have some concrete proposals that you want to put before your parish in the most appropriate way, especially in the context of a parish evangelisation team.
But let me return to the mercy of God.
One way of understanding the depth of God's mercy is to start at the very beginning. The first act of God's mercy is the act of creation. God's Spirit hovers over the 'darkness' and an ordered universe emerges. Thus we live in a 'cosmos', an ordered world, and not in chaos. The ordering of creation is to its fulfilment and not to its ultimate annihilation. This is a great mercy, an enormous blessing.
Similarly, we can say that the second great act of God's mercy is that God calls each person into existence with a destiny, a purpose, a 'design' for every one of us. God's purpose for every single human being is that we come to share in God's eternal life. We are not called into being just to live an 'existential moment' and then be extinguished. We are not created for futility. We are given the gift of life for this great destiny: to dwell with God in fulfilment and joy for ever!
God's loving mercy not only gives us this vision of our world and of ourselves, but also makes it possible for us to achieve. In Jesus, the fullest manifestation of the Father's loving design, all is made possible. Through Christ, all of creation will come through its time of great groaning and be raised to its fulfilment (Romans 8.18-26). In union with Christ through baptism we will be brought into the very heart of the life of the Blessed Trinity. And in the power of the Holy Spirit we can live each day not only in hope and anticipation of that joy but also, in our daily efforts, serving its realisation, it's heralding.
What does this mean in practice? Well, let me frame the question another way. What does mercy mean in practice? We know it means the works of mercy, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It is the practice of those works which gives a face to the presence of divine mercy in our day.
Think of it like this: God has created for us an ordered world in which to live. Yet it is not always experienced or seen to be so. The corporal works of mercy are the practical ways in which, day by day, we re-establish and regenerate, the mercy of God's ordered creation. When we give food to the hungry, we re-establish a proper sense of order. When we give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead we are doing the work of restoring a proper order to things, for no one should be left thirsty, naked, lost in sickness, isolated in jail, unwelcomed in their need, left abandoned and unburied in death. When those things happen, as they do every day and on a great scale, any sense that we are living in an ordered world is rendered implausible. The corporal works of mercy, then, are the ways in which in my neighbourhood, on my street, in my community, I can help to restore that sense of place and belonging, of respect and acceptance that our cosmic home, as created by God, should embody.
Think of mercy again. God has created each person to dwell in the glory of God's presence for ever. This is the ultimate vocation of every human being. The spiritual works of mercy serve the fulfilment of that purpose. To offer counsel to the lost and confused is to help them redirect their lives to their true purpose. So also to instruct the ignorant, to admonish those who are heading in an erroneous direction, to comfort the lost and bereaved, to forgive those who have offended us, to be patient with those who truly test us and always to pray for the living and the dead, is precisely to serve the great mercy of God who has created us for such a high destiny. The spiritual works of mercy are all the nudges and encouragement we give each other on our pilgrimage to God.
The work of evangelisation, then, can be thought of in this light. Every activity on which you may be focusing today can be planned for in this light. It is to be carried out in this light: that of serving the mercy of God because we have been blessed, caressed by that mercy ourselves. Any one of these works of mercy can become the vehicle for our work of evangelisation. And every work of evangelisation can be related to these works of mercy and, if it is rightly conceived and carried out, clearly display that mercy to all involved. Thus, our efforts will serve to proclaim again that God's work of creation is purposeful, that God's call to every person is the deepest meaning of our life, the foundation of our dignity. The restoration of these horizons, step by step through our actions, is a true proclamation of the Gospel and a clear invitation to know Christ Jesus more clearly and to follow Him more nearly, for he alone is the vision of this truth and he alone is the one in whom it is attainable.
Now the choice of action is yours. But in making it, both here and in your parish, and in putting it into practice, please absorb and be formed by the wonder of the mercy of God, our call to constant conversion of heart. This is the beauty of this Jubilee Year of Mercy, for as Pope Francis knows, every person, whether they think of themselves as religious or not, longs for the embrace of mercy, the love that accepts us as we are and, at the same time, calls us to become what we are made to be. Or, as St Pope John Paul II said: 'Apart from the mercy of God, there is no other source of hope for mankind!'(17 August 2003). For this reason, I have prepared a booklet expressive of the riches of God's mercy, designed as a companion for us all in this Year of Mercy. I would love to see every family have one. They have been sent to every parish. There is a copy for each of you here today. When you get home, please do see if they can indeed be made available and followed in your parish.
Recently I was reading about that wonderful moment at the end of the Gospel of St Luke, of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. For them the realisation that Jesus was risen from the dead changed everything. Now they knew Him! Now they were truly in a hurry to let others know this great truth, for they were truly embraced by the mercy of Jesus, coming to them in their dismay and solitude and turning their sadness into joy. Then I read these words:
'Inflamed with his Spirit they rush back to Jerusalem to share with the rest of the Church what they now know from their own experience: Jesus is alive. And they hear from the others the echo of their own experience, that he has appeared also to Simon, and to others. And over the days, and down through the centuries, the stories keep coming in. I saw Him. He spoke to me. He is with us. He is not dead. Death has no hold over Him nor, because of Him, over us. Jesus is alive! Alleluia!' (The Resurrection. Sandra Schneiders IHM 2013).
This is the witness we too are to give in our day. We too hear these same stories and we too tell them ourselves, in word and deed. He is alive. He is not dead. We know Him. We hear His voice. He is with us always! May the Lord truly strengthen us for this task!