By Cardinal Vincent Nichols
The Diocesan Pilgrimage to the Holy Land arrived home early on Wednesday morning. It was a marvellous experience, one during which I was given so much encouragement and renewal. That has prompted me to write this simple Advent letter.
On the evening of the first day of the pilgrimage we stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Fr John Farrell said: ‘Here on this beach, this is where discipleship started.’ It was there that Simon, Andrew, James and John left their nets and followed Jesus (Mark 1:16-20). They went on to Capernaum and began to be taught and formed by him. We followed their route along the shoreline and to the Mount of Beatitudes as well.
On that beach I reflected that I too have followed that call of discipleship in the ordained priesthood.
How did that call first come to my attention? I recalled my youthful moments of fascination with the life of the priests around me. They all seemed to be happy men, men who had found something rather special. I recalled my first attempt to put into words the persistent thoughts of priesthood that simply would not go away, yet left me uncomfortable and resistant. I remembered, by name and face, those priests who encouraged me, and one whose insensitive persistence, kindly meant, was an embarrassment and an obstacle.
I have found these days of pilgrimage a time of renewal, in part because they awakened in me the story of my calling and how full of grace it was, a grace easily now forgotten. During this time, and in the context of those memories, I found I could say, with a renewed readiness, ‘Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.’
As priests, recalling our first summons, and how it came to fruit, can be time well spent. To go over again those moments from earlier in our lives, those steps towards ordination, can help to recall forgotten enthusiasms and graces.
Sharing this story might allow us to gain new appreciation of the goodness of God at work in those earlier years, especially now, as we enter into Advent. After all, as the hymn proclaims: ‘The coming of our God, our thoughts must now employ’. And come he has, into the life of each of us, with that decisive summons and all that has flowed from it.
In Jerusalem I asked Archbishop Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch, how his Franciscan charism related to his role in the Holy Land. He spoke, briefly, about St Francis’ insistence on holding together event and place. Every event unfolds in a particular place. And clarity about the place enriches the meaning of the event. This is true of the event of the Incarnation itself. It was first in Nazareth, and then, in its fulness, in Bethlehem, that the great event took place. Thus St Francis composed the crib to present to us something of the reality of the place and so deepen our appreciation of the event.
There is no doubt that as we knelt to kiss the star of the Nativity, stood on the shore at Tabgha, or prayed on Mount Tabor, the events which occurred in those places came alive to us more vividly and with fresh impact. In the Garden of Gethsemane, in the prison pit of St Peter in Gallicantu, bending low to venerate the rock of Golgotha, we were reminded that the salvific journey of Jesus was not upwards towards the high ground of success, but downwards into every loneliness and darkness of our human condition, with its dilemmas, its seemingly relentless roll call of duty, its pain and injustices.
But, most wonderfully, he entered into these barren places. Now he is always there, with us and for us, for the event of his risen life is not confined to a place. It lives and happens in every place. There is nowhere we can find ourselves that is outside his embrace. This, too, is part of our Advent reflection: the coming of Jesus in every situation, every moment, every darkness and every joy. It is there we can find him.
So whether we are pondering that first call to priesthood, or struggling with its daily demands and the responsibilities which come with pastoral ministry, with our eyes on his presence we can continue and prosper. He never leaves us, whether we feel alone, fearful, let down, overcome with sadness, or simply stuck in a rut. And he comes always with overflowing mercy and tender compassion. These are the qualities, the strengths, which he brings to us and which can flow through us to all in our care.
In my Holy Land reflection on our ministry, I realised that our efforts - or mine at least - often arise as an expression of duty, or as a desire to do things correctly and fairly. The downside of this is that we may often live with a sense of being burdened by demand and duty and anxious that we are failing to meet those expectations. Of course the motivations of duty and service are very honourable. But, of themselves, they are not sufficient. One thing alone suffices for our calling: that we act always out of our love for the Lord. Being close to him in all the richness of this pilgrimage has brought this truth home to me again.
When our eyes, like the eyes of the handmaid, are on him, and on his presence in every situation, then our actions arise from the love we have for him and in the knowledge that whatever failure we encounter as we strive to serve, his love is there to repair these situations and to bring to fruition our best intentions and desires.
Doing something out of love has a different dynamic and quality to those of duty. In a ministry of love, nothing is too much trouble. In fact it is a pleasure. Yet love also knows its limitations. So often the Lord taught his disciples to rest a while, to be alone in his presence and to find refreshment.
This, too, was there by the Sea of Galilee.
I am grateful to all who helped to prepare this pilgrimage and to all who took part in it. It was a most enriching experience.
We were privileged to be in Bethlehem for the first Sunday of Advent. There we celebrated Mass with the people of that place, a people of remarkable faith and joy, of resilience and perseverance, who support each other in circumstances of great difficulty. It was an honour to be with them.
I promised them my continuing love and prayers as they go forward into Advent. I offer the same to you, as together we ponder and proclaim this threefold coming of the Lord: in history, in a final majesty and in the mystery of his presence here and now, in every moment of our daily lives and, supremely, in the sacrifice of the Mass.