Birmingham: archbishop hands over sacred scroll to Jewish community

 The Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham, handed over the Sacred Sepher Torah, that was in the possession of St Mary's College Oscott, the diocesan seminary, to Rabbi Tann, during a ceremony at Singer's Hill Synagogue in Birmingham last night. In his address Archbishop Nichols said: My brothers and sisters I am most grateful for this opportunity to address you this evening on an occasion which I can only describe as deeply moving and historic. I thank you with all my heart for the welcome which you give to me, and to those from St Mary's College, Oscott and the wider Catholic community who are here this evening. It is only my second visit to your beautiful and historic Synagogue. Yet, in a way I cannot quite explain, I feel quite at home. Indeed there is a real sense of homecoming about this evening, not just for the Sacred Sepher Torah, but I suspect, for all of us Catholics. Tonight we renew profound bonds and connections, links which have been obscured and lost for far too long. It is, then, with deep gratitude to Almighty God, who is a loving Father to us all, that I stand before you. The sequence of events which brings us together this evening has such poignancy. To some extent it begins behind the barbed wire of a prison camp: a setting which is so powerfully resonant of all the hatred and cruelty that were such a part of the last century in Europe. It has its origins in the refusal of one particular man to accept the dictates of the Third Reich. When the young Alfred Schilling was forced away from his studies for the priesthood and into the German war effort, he was a conscientious objector and so served as a member of the Red Cross. Subsequently, he was captured and imprisoned by the British Army. But a sensitive English General, noticing that there were a number of seminarians among the prisoners, arranged for them to be held together in a camp near Colchester for the rest of the war years. It is at this point that the second amazing character enters our story. At this time there was a young English theologian, of rare ability, teaching at St Mary's College Oscott. His name was Francis Davis. He is described by those who knew him well as a man of typically English spirituality, intelligent critical scholarship and generous pastoral concern, not unlike that of his hero, Cardinal John Henry Newman. Fr Davis readily responded to a request that he undertake the continued theological education of these German prisoner-seminarians, over one hundred of them. So every month Fr Davis went from Oscott to Colchester by the only means available to him: his bicycle. There he taught the young men, in their native German, and increased their love and understanding of the Holy Scriptures. Alfred Schilling was first among the pupils. He acted as his resident tutor for already he had advanced knowledge of Hebrew, as well as Greek and Latin. In that prison camp, then, like the Hebrew scholars of old in exile, he taught his companions the language and interpretation of the Torah. Because of the scholarship and dedication of these two men, Alfred Schilling and Francis Davis, the time spent in that prison camp was transformed. Dr Schilling recalled that the first thing he did was to tear the Nazi eagle from his uniform. Another inmate said: We were enemies of the German state, and we were given books, paper and blankets by the Christians and those of other denominations. All returned to Germany. Sixty became Catholic priests; two became bishops and two distinguished professors of theology. Links with St Mary s College Oscott were maintained. The group visited Colchester and Oscott in 1990. Then, on the death of Alfred Schilling, arrangements were made by my predecessor, Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville, for the Schilling library, a rare collection of scholarly books, to be transferred to St Mary's College Oscott. And in that library is this Sepher Torah. This evening, what we have received from his hands we gladly put into yours. As Catholics, we share with you an understanding of the sacredness of times, places and objects. The sacredness is not apart from the earthy: it is intertwined with our daily realities. Further still we know how particular objects, particular actions, particular lives are set aside and consecrated to the Lord. This Sepher Torah is one such sacred object. It came into Oscott College in the midst of a whole library, each book having its own particular value. I apologise to you, my Jewish brothers and sisters, that we did not immediately recognise the sacredness of the Scroll and treat it accordingly. I ask your forgiveness for our unintended lack of reverence for it. This Torah, now enshrined in this Ark, is a constant reminder to us that our faiths, Judaism and Christianity, are two sisters of the one Mother the gift of God's revelation. We draw our living sap from one source. Together we recognise the power and majesty of God in the wonder of creation (Genesis 1-2). We are called to live out the Covenant of the Lord with Noah and all creatures for all generations (Genesis 9.1-17). We are descendants, in different ways, from Abraham our Father in faith (Gen 12-24) and the holy Patriarchs and Matriarchs (Genesis 25-50). We are both, in different ways, freed from slavery by the Exodus (Ex 1-15). We are led, on our journey by the pillar of fire and the cloud (Exodus 14.21-22), fed by manna from heaven (Ex 16.9-36) and living water from the rock (Ex 17.1-7). We both receive the Law from God at Sinai through Moses (Dt 5.1-22) and that Law teaches us the immense compassion and forgiveness of God (Ex 34.6-7) to whom we must turn when we offend him by our sin and division (Ex 32.1-6). Yes, we embrace the Law. Yes, we live it in different ways and we try to respect and honour our differences. Yes, we share the same goal, the same central teaching of the Torah, summarised in the great Shema, beloved in both our traditions: Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Dt 6.4-6) Together we seek the love of neighbour as the second great commandment, expressed at the very heart of the Torah: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord. (Lev. 19.18) Today, we respect and honour the Torah, clothed, crowned and placed in the Holy Ark, and we will remember that throughout all our days we are summoned to learn more deeply how to respect God and one another. As Rabbi Phineas says, to all of us: If you seek after the words of the Torah as for hidden treasure, God will not withhold from you your reward. If a man looses some money or even a small coin in his house, how many lamps and wicks does he not kindle till he finds it! If for that which gives the life of an hour in this world a man kindles all these lamps and wicks, how much more should you search, as for hidden treasure, after the word of the Torah which give life in this world and life in the world to come. (Canticle Rabbah1.1-9) Our ceremony this evening is an encouragement to do all we can to deepen our understanding of one another as the Jewish and Catholic people in our city and in our lives. We resolve again to promote that understanding, and the peace that is God's gift to all people. It must surely be in the Providence of God that He has led us to this moment of profound affinity in faith, and in mutual respect and affection, just at a time when, in secular eyes, faith is under such suspicion. How important it is that we show together to our world all that is best, all that is good, all that is noble and precise at the moment when so many wish to portray religious faith as, above all else, a source of division and conflict. This must not be so. Indeed, we affirm together that without the Sacred Gifts of God life becomes dull, coarsened, rough and dangerous, especially to the most vulnerable. Yet we know our record is not clean. So this evening we too ask forgiveness of our All-Compassionate God. May I recall at this solemn and joyful moment the words of the prayer of Pope John Paul II which he placed in the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem on 26 March 2000: God of our Father, You chose Abraham and his descendants To bring your name to the nations: We are deeply saddened By the behaviour of those Who in the course of history Have caused these children of yours to suffer, And asking your forgiveness We wish to commit ourselves To genuine brotherhood With the people of the Covenant. This Torah reached our hands here this evening through hands, both Jewish and Christian, which lovingly cared for it, studied it, drew life from it. Indeed the study of the Torah takes us to the root and source of the life we have received from God. It instructs our spirit. It opens before us our true, Royal Road, the road of genuine brotherhood. It raises in our hearts the song of prayer, the song of the psalms that have enriched our ceremony this evening, psalms which I pray every day, psalms which Jesus prayed, psalms which are the song of our brotherhood. As we stand together in humility before the Providence of God, who has so touched our lives, let us remember that with that gift comes a task. It is we, people of faith, who must constantly call on Almighty God not to forget or forsake our human family in our waywardness. This evening we ask God s blessing on all who do not know Him, on all who fear that only emptiness is to be found at the heart of life, and for all who are mourning the loss of a loved one, especially in Spain were the evil of terrorism has again caused mayhem and death to innocent people. Such acts are crimes before God and this evening we ask not only for His forgiveness but also for the blessing of His peace on all who suffer. I will bless the Lord at all times His praise is always on my lips. Glorify the Lord with me Together let us praise his name These words of Psalm 34 echo again and again in our hearts this night. For yours O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the splendour and the majesty, for all that is in heaven and in earth is yours. Amen . (1 Chron 29.11)

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