Saturday 22 June 2013
John Fisher and Thomas More are among the best known of all English saints. Today we joyfully celebrate their feast as we mark the 150 anniversary of your diocesan Catholic Care.
The reasons for the renown these saints enjoy are many. They complement each other so well: a bishop and a layman; a scholar and a lawyer; a pastoral bishop and a man who held the highest public office in the land; a solitary hero and a man surrounded by family and friends. Yet they are most famous for what they shared: a deep love for the Lord; a courageous faith that never wavered; a life of deep prayer which matured in the rigours of imprisonment; a readiness to engage in public debate, each using their different and favoured means.
But today, as we celebrate this anniversary of Leeds Catholic Care, there is one particular feature we can draw from each and thank God that it is still alive today.
Thomas More was a lawyer, a judge and eventually Chancellor of England. He was at home in the courtroom. So when his crucial conflict of conscience came to its head, over the nature of authority in the Church, he did not hesitate to use those skills in order, first of all, to protect himself and then, in his final acts, to profess his unshakable belief in the God-given authority of the Bishop of Rome as the sign and source of the visible unity of the Church. For this truth he gave up his life. He found no ultimate protection in the law.
Leeds Catholic Care, along with the other Catholic adoption agencies, found itself faced with a very difficult dilemma when a new law was proposed to insist all adoptions agencies had ‘open policies’ regarding those couples they prepared as potential adopters. Great efforts were made by the Bishops Conference and CSAN working together to find a legal solution that would allow an accommodation within the law for these agencies, and a number of routes were explored. Under the leadership of Bishop Arthur Roche, Leeds Catholic Care took a particular path to try and defend itself and its adoption service in the courts of this land and in the tribunal of the Charity Commission. Other dioceses in a variety of ways also sought ways through the grave problems presented by new discrimination laws. But despite the noble efforts of many, in the end we found no ultimate protection in the law.
The effect of this law was the imposition of one form of discrimination in the name of removing another. Continued unimpeded access to public funding would not have adversely affected the rights of any couple applying to adopt and it would have saved the integrity of a sound and proven service to the common good. I can only comment that the net effect of that process has been a loss to children in this country, especially to children who are described as 'difficult to place'.
Limitations on the exercise of religious freedom in the public sphere, such as this, penalise society as a whole by inhibiting or preventing the public contribution of religious organisations to the service of society. I trust that in months and years to come a far more mature debate will take place about the true importance of the fundamental human right of religious freedom not just for individuals but also for religious organisations in the public sphere. Such a debate could lead to an enriching of our society, in its pluralism and in its pursuit of a truly common good.
St. John Fisher gives us another strand of thought and celebration.
In 1505 he was appointed as Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester. This was the smallest diocese in England, with a yearly income of £300. Yet St John Fisher remained committed to it, turning down offers from the King that he might be considered for more prestigious placements.
On his appointment, Bishop Fisher started a practice which is familiar to all of you. He set out to visit all the parishes of his diocese, one by one. He did so, systematically, for many years, making visitations in the years 1505, 1508, 1511, 1514, 1517, 1520, and 1529. What you might not know, however, is that as far as records go he was the first bishop in this country to do so.
In the course of these visitations, St. John Fisher made a particular point of visiting the sick and the poor. There are descriptions of him doing so from contemporaneous sources: ‘Wherever he lay his order was to inquire where any poor sick folks lay near him…Many times it was his chance to come to such persons’ houses as far want of chimneys were very smoky, and thereby noisome that scant any man could abide in them. Nevertheless himself would there sit by the sick patient many times the space of three or four hours together in the smoke. And in other poor houses where stairs were wanting, he would never disdain to climb up by a ladder for such good purpose.’
Pastoral care, then, especially of those most in need, was a mark of his saintly ministry.
It is wonderful to see this example replicated today in so much activity within the Catholic Community, and more widely too, of course. Here in Leeds, today, we are right to have in mind the work of your Catholic Care, with its three residential homes for adults with learning disabilities, eight supported living projects, two children's residential homes as well as outreach services to other needy children in their homes. Then there is the school and family social work service, adapting to the new scenario of Academies, and the mental health services, older people's services and the Gianna project focused on pregnancy and parenting. You do not need me to list the pressing needs in our society today: as Pope Francis has put it: poverty spreading like an oil stain across the fabric of our world. So many crucial needs! So many practical responses of which the good Bishop Fisher would most certainly approve.
The reading we have heard from the Second Book of Kings, held before us the courage of Eleazar. Both Thomas More and John Fisher showed the same courageous judgement in their old age. They wanted to be consistent in the example they gave to the younger generation. So must we. And yet when it comes to the faithful expression of our faith, we must also be ready to be led by so many prayerful and generous young people who are already in our midst. Such young people are not simply the Church of tomorrow. They are already the Church of today.
The Gospel warns us not 'to let love grow cold'. How central that warning is to all who seek to express their faith in the service of those in need. Over and again, Pope Francis, just as Pope Benedict before him, insists that love is at the heart of practical social action, love of the Lord flowing into love of others. And he also reminds us that this loving service has to be rooted in our own sense of need, our own sense of our dependence on the mercy of God. This humility before The Lord ensures that our service remains properly motivated: a service of love offered to our brother and sisters who, in their turn, enrich our lives.
Today we remember the founders of Catholic Care, lay men and women, priests and bishops, most substantially heroic religious women, all of whom responded with courage and love to the poverty and need that surrounded them. We remember those who have directed the work over these 150 years. We pray that we, who strive in our time, in our challenging economic and financial circumstances, to give expression to the Lord's unfailing love may be sustained by the example and the prayers of the SS John Fisher and Thomas More and be blessed by God for the next 150 years or more!