Cardinal's summation at the end of the synodal gathering in Westminster Cathedral on Saturday 19th February 2022
May I express my personal thanks to each and every one of you for being here, for spending this time today, and, more importantly, for contributing to and guiding this synodal process.
Everything that we have done and heard today has to move forward. That’s why Bishop Nicholas said at the beginning that we want to see this as part of an ongoing journey in our diocese. Yes, our first task is to gather our thoughts together and offer them into that Church-wide synodal process, initially here in England and Wales, but then gathered together at the level of Europe and finally feeding into the world-wide Synod of Bishops in October 2023. A pathway is being marked out and we must be ready to follow it, both at the level of the Universal Church and here, at home, in our own particular Church, the diocese.
I want to thank all who have guided us so far. Many have worked together under the leadership of Bishop Nicholas. And he must carry on, taking this forward to our next stages, towards this wider horizon of continuing renewal in the life of our diocese. I know how hard these teams have worked, not only to guide, but to model themselves all that they have been asking of us.
Listening is at the heart of what we’re doing. It is the heart of this whole process. It’s wonderful to see and experience. Listening attentively, active listening, giving our full attention to another person, and not simply waiting for our turn to speak, is so important. And it is humbling. In this kind of listening we not only come to understand what another is saying, but we also begin to sense their goodness.
This is so different to sitting down and writing a long letter containing all our own thoughts and, quite often, our complaints. To leave out the listening to one another is to miss the whole point of this synodal process and to miss out on its fruit. True listening is something special! As one lady said to me, there’s simply not enough listening in the world today.
In response to all that I have heard today there are four simple points I would like to make.
1. First, I want to underline that the golden thread that has emerged throughout this process, and throughout today, is the profound and enduring love for the Church which you have in your hearts and which has been expressed in so many contributions. This is a value and treasure beyond measure. It is utterly central to how we go forward together. Only this love of the Lord and of the Church can keep us together and responsive to each other, and to the Holy Spirit.
The golden thread of this love also includes a persevering love for our priests. I want to mention this because some of our priests have failed us and betrayed us, most notably in the abuse of those in their care. Sometimes these failures, and the immense hurt and damage that they have caused, are projected as the only truth about the Catholic Church, and its leadership, in this country. You will hear of it constantly. Yet even so the love you have for the Church and for us priests is not shaken. That, to me, is a wonder and a gift from God.
So I give great thanks to God for the love that is in your hearts. And I rejoice in the desire that rises from this love, the desire to work hard to let the true face, the true nature of the Church emerge, putting right its wrongs and strengthening its life. The sadness in our hearts in the failings of the Church, as we have heard this morning, is a fruit of this love.
There is a sadness in our hearts at the absence of those who are missing. There is a sadness at our failures during the pandemic. There is a sadness that people feel left out. That sadness is the fruit of love.
When I was a young priest, many years ago now, I did a lot of work with a Sister of Notre Dame, Sr Hilary. Sr Hilary was not to be defied. She taught me this interesting lesson. She explained that while we set off in life choosing what we love, we end up in life loving what we have been given. This is true in the choice of a marriage partner; it’s true of the vocation to the priesthood or religious life: we set off with one idea and slowly learn to love what in fact we have been given - this parish, this role, this particular mission. The same lesson is true in a parish. People, like yourselves, grow to love the parish priest we have been given, rather than the one you may have wanted or chosen in your own mind. We set out choosing what we will love and in the end we come to love what we are given.
This is all quite a journey, but it’s such an important journey. This growth in love is what families are all about, like the family we have just heard about. This love roots us in reality, not in ideas. Yes, we see failure, but we don’t withdraw our love, nor lose our nerve. Yes, we have disagreements, but we never let bitterness enter in. Otherwise, our venture - family or Church - becomes a battle ground in which we fight over ideas, rather than engaging with our hearts and with all the love we have.
2. The second thing that struck me this afternoon is that, quite rightly, there has been great sensitivity towards those people and ventures who are 'missing', who feel left out or distanced. The list has been fairly long and inclusive: young people, people with special needs, prisoners, LGBT communities, divorced people, recognition given to women, caring for victims, financial transparency, deeper spirituality. I could go on.
However, as I listened, what struck me is that I know there is a place in the diocese where every one of those things is tackled. Maybe knowing this is my privilege, but it is true. Everything on that list, everyone in your hearts, is the focus of a very real effort and venture somewhere in the life of the diocese. So I can say that these efforts are not totally missing. We are not at a starting point. There are resources and excellent efforts being made to which we can look for example and encouragement. But it is clear that these aspects of our life together are not well-known and they are certainly not embedded in the entire life of the diocese. Yes, there is much to do, and, yes, there is experience and achievements to help us to do so.
3. A third thing. We have reflected a lot on our listening, our listening to each other. But we must also be aware that there are many other voices that we hear and listen to. Some are quiet, some are very loud. They are the voices that shape and emerge from the context of our daily lives. They are the culture in which we live. They come, as it were, on the wind, via the internet, radio, TV, newspapers, conversations. We are shaped by these voices, even as we strive to be shaped by our listening to the Word of the Lord. But my point is this: we should not think or imagine that all those winds that blow in our culture are all alien to, or set against, the messages of the Gospel.
Many years ago, I heard about a parish in France in which was located a major Kodak factory. Every week a group of parishioners used to gather to study and discuss the Gospel for the coming Sunday. At the end of their discussion they were all given a simple Kodak camera. They were asked during the days of the week if they could take a photograph that illustrated the Gospel message, or contradicted the Gospel message.
So they went out and looked around in their daily lives to see how people were behaving towards each other and what was there. Sometimes they returned with photographs of scenes which affirmed, or illustrated the Gospel message; sometimes they found its total contradiction. Then the photos were on display in their parish church that Sunday. In our daily lives, in the world in which we live, we can find both expressions of Gospel truth and its opposites. This is the world in which we are to give our witness.
I think we can also explore what we have been talking about in this way.
Take, for example, the desire to continue this dialogue. Now, that is so important, not just for us but for our wider way of life. In the culture in which we live there is so little dialogue. Much communication is curt and quickly becomes polarised, little more than a shouting match. So if we are indeed to continue dialogue, then we can do it as a witness in our society, not just as a benefit to ourselves. Our dialogue, our mutual listening, can be an important witness to the world in which we live.
Again, if we want to strive to be accepting of each other and not judgmental, and so we should, let’s remember that we’re doing it in a society which is very quickly judgmental and in a culture which is largely unforgiving. Once again, what we see ourselves wanting to do is a testimony to those around us.
Or again, if we want to be inclusive of all, and reaching out to all, then we can look to aspects of our society and find there real inspiration and encouragement. There are many good examples in our society of conscious efforts to be inclusive, to being sensitive to those who have traditionally felt excluded. Here we have much to learn from our contemporary culture.
Yet, we also have some particular characteristics of this 'inclusiveness' that we want to bring to the fore. We want to do it in a way that points to the person of Jesus as our model and our grace.
So, in pursuing this synodal pathway we will find ourselves giving vital and attractive witness in our society. And that is what we are called to do. Remember, the Church is missionary by its very nature.
4. My fourth and last point is this. The Gospel for today is the passage about the Transfiguration of Jesus, at the top of the mountain, with Moses and Elijah, and the voice of the Father saying, ‘This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him’. Then, the point comes when the cloud disappears and the disciples look around. We read that all that was left was Jesus. Then the disciples say, ‘It is good for us to be here’.
These two points are important for us today. Indeed, it is good for us to be here today and to share these moments. And it is good for us to realise that what lies at the heart of this, now and always, is the person of Jesus. His presence is crucial. His presence always remains. Without him, we are lost.
We have talked about everyone being accepted. Our sense of being accepted as we are begins with him. He accepts us. Because he accepts us, then we can live. We have talked about being non-judgmental and offering forgiveness. Our experience and sense of being forgiven for what we have done is rooted in him. He, the Christ, is the source of forgiveness. We find forgiveness in him.
We have spoken of our dreams for the Church. Our sense of being encouraged in what we dream starts with the words of Jesus when he issues his invitations 'Come follow me’ or 'Come and see'. Our sense of being corrected in what we get wrong is centred in Jesus, who says, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. All is to be found in him alone. We pray that the Church, which is his Body, despite all our limitations, will reflect something of what he alone can bring. In him alone does my heart find confidence, courage, readiness to act and joy.
Thank you again for opening such a pathway for us together in the diocese. We can pray together that the Lord will bless us, sustain us and keep us close to him always. Amen.