Last Updated:

Given at the Mass for the Inauguration of the National Tribunal Service in Westminster Cathedral on the Feast of St Charles Borromeo, 4th November 2023

This morning we have heard an important appeal from the Apostle Paul. Recognising the diversity of gifts and services that make up the life of the Church, his appeal is that love is to be at the heart of everything. It is the love of Christ that alone binds us together in our life in the Church and in his service. 

Paul makes this appeal when writing to the Church in Rome. The overriding shape and purpose of his letter is to explore the relationship between the law and grace, to understand how justification comes through Christ and not simply through the law, though the law has its place. In exploring these themes, he knows that at the heart of the Roman culture and society the law had a crucial place. The Pax Romana had been long established and maintained in part through the role and development of the law and its enforcement.

Yet, for Paul, love has to have predominance. Love has to shape everything, including the exercise of the law, for without that work of love, or grace, the law is no more than an instrument of establishing guilt, or, in other words, sin.

Today is a most significant day in the life of the Church in England and Wales, and indeed for the Church more widely. This National Tribunal, established specifically for the application of penal law in the Church, is a focus of practical love and service. It is established to ensure that the rights and obligations of all the Christian faithful are upheld, robustly and impartially, and that justice and equality must prevail. This is love in action.

By setting up this National Tribunal the Church in England and Wales is recommitting itself to this pursuit of justice for all those who find themselves involved in the Church’s penal system, from complainants and the accused, to witnesses and others involved in giving evidence, to victims and those found guilty of an offence, always and in every case reflecting the dignity of each person.

Clearly one focus of this work, and it is only one, will be cases of the abuse of minors and adults at risk. Here the nature and importance of evidence, and the testing of evidence, in clear attempts to establish fact and truth are crucial elements. They underpin every system of justice, including canon law, and must be central to every process, and be seen to be so.

Today, as we take this major step, we keep the Feast of St Charles Borromeo, the reforming Cardinal Archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1582 and truly an example of the Good Shepherd presented to us by the Lord in the Gospel today.  

His is an interesting story. At the age of 21, he completed his doctorates in canon and civil law at the University of Pavia. Working in the Holy See, and as a tonsured cleric, he was appointed Cardinal in 1560 and, then, still yet to be ordained, he became the administrator of the Archdiocese of Milan. In 1563 he was ordained priest (in September) and bishop (in December) then being appointed as Archbishop of Milan.

As Archbishop he established in his diocese his own courts of justice and necessary penalties. He did so rather than permit the Inquisition to function in his diocese. The correct administration of justice was to be assured. 

Some years ago I celebrated Mass in the Cathedral in Milan at the tomb of the saint. I remarked to the sacristan that when Borromeo was Archbishop there were dungeons in the basement of Archbishop’s House for those clergy found guilty of serious offences. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘and they are still there!’

Charles Borromeo is then a good patron for our initiative today, but not because of the dungeons. He too, like St Paul, insisted that all work in the Church must be a work of love. He said: ‘When you take care of your people, meditate on how the Lord’s blood has washed them clean so that all that you do becomes a work of love. This is the way in which we can easily overcome the countless difficulties we have to face day after day, which, after all, are part of our work.’ From love springs every good motive.

Interestingly, too, Charles Borromeo followed the upheaval of religious life in this country at that time. He had a great regard for the martyr priests of England and Wales and is known to have carried on his person a picture of our great saintly bishop, St John Fisher. May his patronage guide and enrich our work.

The establishment of this National Tribunal today was recommended in the Elliott Report. There it is stated that: ‘The defence of the dignity of the human person stands at the very foundation of our common mission to safeguard those who are most vulnerable in our communities.’ Indeed, the dignity of the human person informs and is a foundation for all the work of the National Tribunal, whether that be of a safeguarding nature or otherwise. Those who will work in it and take responsibility for its good functioning must always see the work they do through this prism of the service of justice and mercy, the upholding of dignity and of love. We pray for them in this Mass.  We pray that we all may be inspired by the spirit of St Charles Borromeo so that the Holy Spirit may indeed guide the work of this Tribunal. Then our efforts will be for the good of God’s people and to the glory of God’s name.

And now please stand as we invoke the Holy Spirit as our guide and inspiration.

✠ Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster

Photo: Mazur/