Two dramatic occasions have been in the news this week: Pope Francis inaugurated his pontificate with a joyful celebration of Mass in Rome, and Archbishop Welby was installed in Canterbury in magnificent style. For once, the eyes of the world were on the celebrations of the Christian faith. And today is Palm Sunday, marking the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, greeted with waving palms and sung “hosannas”.
All three events point to the constant effort involved in bringing the Word of God into the city and the world. The journey of Jesus, down the steep slope of the Mount of Olives and into the old city of Jerusalem, was to end in initial rejection, suffering and death. That pattern is repeated throughout history.
Yet the effort to bring his message into every age and circumstance has never stopped. The messengers come up against their own short-comings, failures which invite ridicule and scorn. They have to reach beyond weariness and cynicism. Often they are rebuffed as offering nothing more than unrealistic ideals and fanciful hopes.
Seeking entry, Justin Welby struck the door of the Canterbury Cathedral with three resounding blows and insisted that there was “every possible reason for optimism about the future of Christian faith in our world and in this country”. He reminded us all that it has been “through Christ-liberated courage” that so much is achieved: slavery ended, Factory Acts passed, the NHS and social care established. Moreover, he warned that if, as a country, “we sever our roots in Christ, we abandon the stability which enables good decision-making”. The hint was clear: that may be precisely what we risk doing.
Pope Francis is developing his own style, too. The key words that he is using in these first days of his pontificate are these: simplicity, humility, poverty, mercy and tenderness. These are taken from the lexicon of the heart. And he uses them with a startling directness, with intonations and illustrations that turn them into the music the heart longs to hear. Already so many have responded, taking him into their hearts.
The account of Jesus’ last week, this Holy Week, traces the profile of this mercy, tenderness and love. It comes to its sharpest delineation in the figure of the crucified Christ. There, and there alone, we see the fullness of God’s mercy, tenderness and love, which alone fully soothe our hearts and restore our freedom. The person of Jesus is the one we bring into the city, the one in whom we are invited to place every ultimate trust.
The entries of these two leaders into the city of human enterprise hint at the richness of the Christian message. That message has to be rooted in the meeting of each one of us with Christ the Lord. As the motto of the Blessed John Henry Newman states so eloquently: “Heart speaks unto heart.” The search for inner peace and stillness actually underlies and determines the success of all our best endeavours. We have much to learn and offer about how that peace is to be found. Every family, every group, every parish can strive to be a school of prayer, an oasis of peace, as we turn our faces to the one who gives those gifts.
The message also addresses how we build our lives together, offering insight into the innate bonds between us, stressing priorities that make for social trust, for building a better business, for fashioning practical and effective solidarity within our society.
Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin, each in his own way, embody these dimensions of the Christian venture. So do thousands of others, unsung heroes and heroines of faith, silent contemplatives, active, passionate workers for those in need, protagonists in so much that is splendid in our society today. They are to be found in every community.
Each day they fashion a fresh entry for love, tenderness and mercy into the streets of the city. Every day they put in place, through random acts of kindness, another stone in the precious stability of our lives. Today they are renewed in the entry of Christ into Jerusalem and will follow him through every suffering to the resurrection promise of new life to come.
The Most Rev Vincent Nichols is the Archbishop of Westminster