Mass for Catholic Parliamentarians

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Given on Wednesday 11 June 2014, the Feast of St Barnabas, in the Crypt Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, Palace of Westminster.

I thank you for this invitation and the privilege of celebrating Mass in this very special place.

Today we keep the feast of St Barnabas and I would like to tell you something about him and the place he holds in the story of the young and growing Church. There are many resonances here, which you will pick up, for all that goes on within these hallowed walls.

In the reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles the scene has moved to Antioch. But there are a few lines of the text which precede this passage which are important. These lines point back to the martyrdom of Stephen in Jerusalem. After his death and the subsequent persecution, the believers scatter, except for the Apostles. These disciples are fearful and not too courageous. Some end up in Antioch, the third city of the Empire, behind Rome and Alexandria, and a place noted for self-indulgence and promiscuity. Not a promising place for the Gospel. Not surprisingly we hear that at first they were ‘speaking the Word only to Jews.’

Yet here, the Acts of the Apostles tell us, something remarkable happens, and it is barely recorded. For the first time, the Gospel is preached directly by disciples to non-Jews. Who exactly first took this mammoth step we do not know. Their names are not recorded. All that we know is that they came from Cyprus and Cyrene. Remarkable!  Crucial steps by which the Gospel reached us, this place, come about through the efforts of nameless Christians. But maybe that is how it should be – all that matters is that the truth is told and that Christ is proclaimed.

Now there is a second point. In this preaching, central position is given to the title of Jesus as ‘the Lord’. The emphasis is on his authority, on his power, on his place in the entire order of creation and its unfolding truth. They do not speak of him as ‘the Christ’, a Jewish term with all its overtones of the coming of the Messiah.

Then another point quickly emerges. This new and dramatic development catches the attention of the Church in Jerusalem – the visible and historic centre of the emerging Church. Those in Jerusalem, headed at this point by James – send an envoy to Antioch to see what exactly is going on. They choose Barnabas.

We know something about him. He too was from Cyprus. He was a land-owner, a farmer, and on his conversion he sold his land and ‘laid the money at the feet of the disciples’ for distribution among the poor (Acts 4.36). At that point his name was changed from Joseph to Barnabas, a name which means ‘son of comfort’. It was this envoy, then, a ‘son of comfort’, who came to Antioch to guide this new and dramatic process of the explosion of the Christian message. And he realised he needed help in managing this remarkable moment of continuity and change. So he went looking for Paul, one who held in his own history that astonishing conversion. But it is also worth knowing that it was Barnabas who had ‘sponsored’ Saul in that process of conversion.

So the Church in Antioch grows, and events unfold, not without great tension, gradually leading up to the Council of Jerusalem which began to lay down the patterns of belief and observance essential to a faithful reception and following of the Gospel of Jesus both within and without the setting of its Jewish origins.

One last point to note. A leadership for the Church in Antioch emerges. Note of whom it consists: Barnabas, a man from Cyprus; Lucius from Cyrene in North Africa, Simeon who has a Roman name, Niger to show that he had moved in Roman circles, Manean a person with aristocratic connections and Paul himself. Here is an early sign of the power of the Gospel  to bring together people from such different backgrounds and cultures and fashion something new round the ‘secret’ of the Lord Jesus.

So what do we draw from this for ourselves.

Two or three points:

The first is obvious: there is a dynamic within the Gospel which impels its message outwards. It is a message, a gift of truth and salvation for all people. It cannot be held back. How many times we have seen that in the course of its history. Yet we also see clearly the challenges of bringing the Gospel to the different cultures and settings of the world. As Pope St John Paul II pointed out, every generation is a new field for evangelisation. How clear that is in this place, in particular.

The second is this: in Antioch the disciples proclaimed that Jesus is Lord.  At the heart of the Gospel is the proclamation of God’s sovereignty, of the Kingdom of God. In Jesus, God is drawing out from each of us the obedience that comes with faith. We give this obedience, freely, when we grasp the unconditional love He has for us. Fascinatingly it is suggested that the Simon who is also called Niger, one of the leaders in Antioch, is the same Simon who helped Jesus carry his cross. That encounter, that relationship with Jesus, opened his heart to the obedience of faith. It is the same for us.

This, of course, is a great challenge in life of every one of us. We are all tempted to see an autonomy of thought and action as the best exercise of our freedom. Yet the radical demand of the Gospel, which we proclaim here at this Mass, and of the love we celebrate here, is that He is Lord, above all others. Our freedom finds its true purpose in obedience to Him.

The challenge of this deep call is particularly felt in the interface between the Gospel and political systems since political systems are, in their various patterns, a society’s way of dealing with the issues and exercise of power. You know these tensions well. They come to the surface powerfully on occasions but often underlie so many pragmatic decisions about what is truly for the good of the person, for the good of a society and, most clearly, for the common good of all.

Speaking so nearby, in the Great Hall, Pope Benedict praised work of this Parliament over many centuries. He spoke of ‘our national instinct for moderation’, the ‘desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it.’ He praised ‘the remarkable degree of stability’ with which these institutions have been able to evolve. But he also posed the crucial question. He said: ‘Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask itself anew: What are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved?’  

You know this speech. It is so well worthwhile reading it again. It highlights your role here in Parliament, it emphasises the ‘fit’ between faith and reason. It invites you to make vigorous contributions, through robust dialogue, to the fashioning of the demands made by governments and to do your best to ensure that they are both built on the light that God gives us through the light of truth guiding our reason, and not opposed to it. This is the work which started, in some crucial ways, in Antioch.

And finally, the story from Antioch reminds us yet again that the Gospel we are to live and proclaim is never a matter of private judgement. It is a gift and the exploration, unfolding and handing on of that Gospel is entrusted to the work of the Holy Spirit within the whole Church, a charism secured in unity through the ministry given by Jesus to Peter and to his successors.

The task of oversight, first exercised by the Church in Jerusalem, and then, through the blood of Peter and Paul, embodied in the Church of Rome, is one that I have been invited to serve more fully as a Cardinal. In thanking you again for this invitation, I ask for your prayers that I may fulfil this role, described as one of having broader horizons and a larger heart, with generosity and integrity.