Canon Pat Browne
Spirit in the City - a three-day festival organised by London's West End Catholic churches began on Thursday afternoon with Mass at St Patrick's in Soho Square, followed by a talk by Canon Pat Browne. The text follows:
Some weeks ago there was a one day conference in Holy Apostles, Pimlico. People came from all over the country. It was about how to reach out to those Catholics who no longer join us in Church and have lapsed from their faith. There were some very interesting discussions and points raised. But one speaker asked. If we are inviting them back, what are we inviting them back to? He went on to say that if you go into many a Pentecostal Church now in our country you will find a sizeable proportion of the congregation are lapsed Catholics.
Why? They often say things like: “I went to Mass for years but it was not till I came here that I discovered Jesus to be the living loving Lord. I was only going through the motions there.” Here I have developed a personal relationship with Christ. Here there is such joy .
I went for years to my Catholic parish and no one ever even greeted me. It was so cold. Here I have friendship, fellowship in faith with others.”
In his book No Future without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about something called Ubuntu.
It's a word describing an African worldview, which translates as "I am because you are," and which means that individuals need one other people to be fulfilled.
In his definition, Tutu says it means that there is a common bond between people - and when one person's circumstances improve, everyone gains and if one person is tortured or oppressed, everyone is diminished.
I am talking about Ubuntu because our world – this wonderful world we live in, does not operate like this. Our world at the moment is:
Unequal - wouldn’t it be so much cheaper to feed, house and educate people than to go to war with them.
Unstable - so many people have cut themselves off into groups. I am Moslem. I am Christian. I am white. I am black. Not talking to each other. Blaming each other for the problems we encounter.
The only way through is to have shared responsibility for the world and work together to eliminate war and disease and poverty.
You cannot get a divorce from the rest of the world. You are part of it with others and you either play your part or you tear it apart. The way through is to form community in our local areas and globally.
Unsustainable - The life styles we are employing at the moment sees us, ravaging the rain forests. polluting the waters of the rivers and oceans, globally warming the atmosphere around our earth – we have to listen to a call to live simpler lives or we won’t have an earth to live on in the future.
So, we must be people who are in the future business. We are to be agents of change and change for the better.
Do you like what I am saying so far? Does it ring through with you?
It was said by someone else. No, not the Pope. Not the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Dalia Lama.
It was Bill Clinton years ago at a Labour Party Conference just around the time when the papers were full of scandal about his private life. One of the most disgraced public sinners at the time speaking Divine and human truths.
This is what our Scriptures tell us – that none of us has a monopoly on Truth or on God. His Spirit blows where he wills and works through who he wills.
Jesus tells us that 'Anyone who is not against us is for us'
He is reminding us that there are many people who do the work of God, without realising it. Just as we, in our own lives, may do the right and good thing in God's eyes, sometimes unaware that what we do is in keeping with the will of God.
God, who is generous, works with all of us us, works even with our faults and frailties.
So, do not be naïve and think the world is divided into good people and bad people. There is no such thing. The ‘good’ are always battling against a streak of selfishness, sinfulness and too often arrogance - sometimes they fail. They have their Demons. The so-called ‘bad’ are capable and often show wonderful compassion and insight that would many of the so-called “good” people to shame.
St Gregory the Great talks about this. He says “Consider the nature of the dawn. Dawn or first light proclaims the night is over but does not yet manifest the the full brightness of the day. It dispels night; it give a beginning to the day but still it a mixture of light and darkness…some of the things we are truly works of the light but others are not entiorely free of the remnant of darkness. And so the Psalmist say: ’No man is virtuous before you O Lord’.” (see Office of readings Thursday week 9)
We are complex people and God can work and does work through all of us inside and outside of his Church. But we believe that God’s Spirit desires that to build us into a strong faith community and knit us together in love.
And so there is a place for everyone in our church and in our parishes. That is why we need those people who have gone away to come back and join us again in this endevour. When they come back may they find us as people who do know the Lord Jesus, that each one of us has a lively living relationship with him personally that brings us joy even in hard and difficult times. May they find too that we care about others – inside our parish and outside of it.
So, what are we doing in our parishes? You could answer that in many ways. One important answer is to remember what we are told to do when Mass is ended. “Go now and glorify God with your life!” Don’t stay here in Church. Get out there into the world and put it into action. We are called to be Prophets.
What is a prophet? The common view is, that a prophet is someone who can foretell the future! That may be so. But a prophet is not a fortune teller. They are people who can read the signs of the times and so see what is going to happen if we pursue this or that line of activity or what will happen if we do not change direction. The prophet has an in built SatNav and sees more clearly than the rest of us what direction we should be taking and where we are going wrong. They are uncomfortable people to have around. They tell us the truth about ourselves - a truth many of us do not want to hear. Jesus was such a prophet. We are told in the gospels that he taught them with authority. A prophet is someone set apart.
Do I hear you say; I don’t want to be set apart. I don’t want to stand out. I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I just want to blend in!
Take that to its logical conclusion it would mean you want to conform to the standards of the world around you – to the spirit of the age - But to conform in such a way is to betray Christ and the Gospel. The Apostle tells us “ you are not to conform to the standards of this world…..”
Our Lord himself tells us
"You are to be the Salt of the earth……The Light of the World".
Neither Salt nor Light conform. They both give of what they are and affect what is around them.
Salt does it invisibly – you don’t see the salt in the stew but you know it is there. It lifts the whole thing to a new level. Without it the Stew is Bland
Light is very different – it is very visible. It is set apart. You cannot have light and darkness in the same space. They are at war with each other and light seeks to drive out the darkness. It confronts the dark.
As Christians we will sometimes be called to act like Salt – quietly, invisibly.
At other times like the Light – very visible and confronting what is wrong and unacceptable. But whether as Salt or Light – in each case making our presence felt.
This is the prophetic role that every baptised person is called to exercise – to make a difference. If our involvement in society is bland perhaps it is because we have blended in too well. We have blended in so well sometimes, we are indistinguishable from the unbeliever.
Things seem to have taken a turn very rapidly in our country. I am sure they were there under the surface all the time but it feels that suddenly there are forces that have become very openly inimical to faith and people of faith. There is an aggressive secularist agenda among many politicians today of all parties. It started with Alastair Cambell’s remark from Downing St when he said: “We don’t do God here”. That has almost becoming a religion in itself. A religion of unbelief and is now ready to take on anyone that stands in its way.
An example of this is what started as a relatively minor debate - about whether Catholic adoption agencies should be entitled to opt out of offering children to homosexual couples – Presently it is about redefining what marriage means. It has now blown up into a much wider controversy about the whole role of religion in public life.
There is now a real fear that the Government is not simply trying to outlaw discrimination – we all agree with that - but trying to impose a whole new version of morality on Britain. And people of faith, if they want to take part actively in partnership with Government in the life of society, have to leave their faith, their beliefs, their morals outside at the door.
We see examples of this in other areas as well – the assisted Dying Bill, elements of the Religious hatred Bill. And more recently we see the rise of a humanist groups set up with the specific aim of doing away with faith Schools.
For people of faith – these are steps too far.
In order to have a wise and intelligent debate we need members of the Church in all walks of life – men and women – to know the implications of what is being introduced, to be able to see the implications for society as a whole, to inform themselves and speak out and offer an alternative way, and showing why that way makes sense, in a reasoned, logical and respectful way. A Prophetic Role is called for.
But we must be careful not to get caught up in a reactionary fundamentalist response.
The killing of doctors who have performed abortions in the Us because we are prolife is one example. And recently I heard of two instances where someone said to parishioners; 'I don’t have much time for your Church but I agree completely with its attitudes towards Gays'.
God forbid that our Church gets associated with homophobic bigots. The Catholic church is catholic because here is a place for everyone. Indeed if there is no place for gay people in our church then it is not the Church of Christ!
Cardinal Hume used always say “Faith is always very personal but it should never be private”. He used to urge lay people whenever he got the chance to have a personal relationship with God through prayer and good works - that is the private bit. But also to take part in politics with a small p and a large P. Why? Because it is our task to shape society according to the values of the Gospel. That is the public bit.
Most times we do it quietly by the goodness and example of our lives. As Pope Paul V1 said:
“Modern man listens more readily to witnesses than to teachers
And if he listens to teachers it is because they are witnesses”
In other words our efforts are as unseen but are as effective in society as the salt is in the casserole.
But at other times we must be as light and be seen for what we are.
That means involving ourselves in the politics of society. So we must always vote in elections. Sometimes it will mean having to speak out, go against the mainstream and swim against the tide. Get out there and lobby. Put our views in a rational reasonable, loving and persuasive way to tohers tro change minds and hearts. Some of us too must go into Politics as a vocation – as a calling from God and be Legislators. Or are we going to leave the making of our laws and the shaping of our society completely to Unbelievers!
Our young people are growing up in a world today that is telling them they are inadequate if they are not sexually experienced by the age of 16 or younger; that they must try whatever drugs and alcohol is available. They see their parents moving from one partner to another with no real thought about the needs or rights of the children. And yet we wonder why there is so much sexually transmitted disease in society. Why alcoholism and addiction is so rife. Why family life is in such a mess. Why so many people young and older are depressed and often suicidal. Why people do not like themselves. How could they, when they behave like this. A life of Hedonism - pleasure seeking leads only to self-loathing and depression.
The writing is on the wall.
Where does that expression come from? In the Old Testament in the book of Daniel, the pagan King and his court have given themselves over to unbridled promiscuity and self-indulgence. At one of their banquest a hand appears on the wall behind where the King is sitting, and begins to write. Who can interpret what has been written? Daniel steps out and odes so telling the King the hand has written that and his civilization are going to be crushed as a result of the choices they have made and the life-style they have pursued.
The writing is on the wall too for our society today.
At our Baptism, you and I were anointed to be prophets – people who would speak up in society to say, there is another way, God’s way. Not to go along with things as they are because it is easier to do so.
So, rooted in deep love to Our Lord and within the community of Faith – a community that believes in Ubuntu – that the betterment of one person is the betterment of all, and so in friendship with one another we involve ourselves in what is God’s project. That is the task of Christians everywhere.
When the writing is on the wall, the fool ignores it. The prophet on the other hand reads it, puts his or her life in order in the light of it, and equally important, has the courage to speak out and tell other people what it is saying, so they can do the same.
If we don’t, our silence will condemn us and all that we value will be lost.
Let us, led by and with the help of the Holy Spirit rise to this challenge and do so with courage and generosity.
For more information on Spirit in the City see: http://www.spiritinthecity.org/