Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster

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Mass and Rite of Reception for Cardinal Vincent Nichols

Want to help the poor? First, embrace your own poverty

In an article published in The Times on 30 March 2013, Archbishop Vincent Nichols calls us to respond with solidarity, compassion and mercy to the challenges of poverty, hardship and economic inequality.  

'The people of Cyprus now face a difficult and uncertain future. The rescue package that has been imposed on them, while averting the immediate crisis, demands enormous self-sacrifice and a strong sense of solidarity. It is the first EU country to introduce capital controls, but it may not be the last. In our interconnected economies there are no longer any off-shore islands. This serves to underline the uncertainty faced by many people today. It is a stark symbol of the difficult social and economic times we live in. For most people, not only is money tight, but basic costs are rising, not least in energy supplies. The prospects, too, are uncompromising. For most people this is a harsh and unforgiving landscape.

Today it is easy to identity a deep, often unspoken, frustration and not a little anger borne by many people. The determination to make the best of the situation is there. But only when the frustration and anger within ourselves is acknowledged can we begin to appeal to what is best in each other. Understanding and compassion for others is, therefore, much needed.

Into this scenario a new figure has arrived with a message and a manner which is clearly touching the hearts of many. Pope Francis has taken the See of Peter by storm. His manner is engaging, speaking frankly, heart to heart, with a grasp of the realities of everyday life, both of factual circumstances and their emotional impact. He speaks repeatedly of the mercy and compassion of God especially for the poor. It is a message for our day.

He expressed this so powerfully in a cry from the heart: 'Oh how I wish for a Church that is poor and for the poor!' He speaks with a great awareness of the impact of poverty, of daily hardship, especially in the context of profound inequalities generated by some factors of our economic systems. But it is vital to understand that he couples this, always, with a vision of God whose face is that of a merciful Father and who never tires of forgiving his family of its failings.

Poverty and mercy go hand in hand. The first poverty we are called upon to recognise is the poverty of each of us as we stand before God. This poverty is born of our willingness to admit our own failings, our own dependence on others and ultimately on God for the essential strength and hope which we need. We accept our own poverty only through receiving the compassion and mercy of God. From there we rise to act in genuine solidarity with those in need. When we embrace our own poverty then we see ourselves as truly brothers and sisters with those whose poverty is also material and physical. Without an appreciation of our own poverty this perspective is quickly lost and we see the poor and vulnerable simply as those who receive the crumbs that fall from our table. We quickly become patronising in our attitude toward them and domineering in the solutions we propose. Then it becomes all too easy to turn off the taps when money is tight.

Here is a crucial underpinning of our concerted action to respond to the harshness of today's circumstances and to those who are really struggling to survive. We are at a moment of choice. Does pressure on our own resources mean that we abandon others in their need, jealously guarding what we have and hardening our hearts towards the plight of others? The compassion and understanding that prevent this happening are best offered when they have first been received. Even forgiveness, which many sense is lacking in our uncompromising circumstances, can only come from an experience of having been forgiven ourselves. We can neither presume our own goodness nor assume that our own failings, and those of others, are beyond forgiveness.

In his first Sunday address in Rome, to 250,000 people, Pope Francis spoke of these themes in the most simple and moving of terms. He said: 'Let us never tire, let us never tire! God is the loving Father who always pardons, who has that heart of mercy for us all. And let us learn to be merciful to everyone. Let us turn to Mary who held in her arms the Mercy of God made man.'

In the Easter celebrations of our churches, we have seen that ‘Mercy of God made man’ fully expressed in the figure of Christ. The symbolic washing of feet eloquently demonstrates his new command that we serve one another. Thousands of people returning to the practice of individual confession speak powerfully of our need of a merciful ear and the grace of forgiveness. Good Friday held before us the true measure of the unfailing mercy of God. On Holy Saturday, the Church remembers that the dead Christ, in his divinity, descended into the deepest hell. There, in the imagery of faith, he sought out Adam, the representative of us all, and led him by the hand out of the pit. In this Christ redeems even our past. He enables us, in repentance, to live in peace with our past failings. This is not a peace that the world can give, and it is ensured, once and for all, in his resurrection.

Much in our society is in need of healing. It is easy to blame our present circumstances entirely on political or financial leaders. But the challenge before us calls for more than that. Blame is one response to anger, but it is a response that can easily, and wrongly, distract us from our own responsibilities. Solidarity with those in need, compassion for those who suffer and mercy towards each other are foundations for collective endeavour. These best of motives are within us and these days of Easter show us their deepest roots.




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