Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor's homily at NCP

 (given on 3 September) Last year, speaking at this Conference, I uttered some 'off the cuff' remarks about 'Christianity being vanquished in this country'. The interesting thing about the reporting of that remark, which was taken from a review of a book, is that it touched a nerve. The subsequent media interest was evidence of that. The reaction of the media to Church affairs and, in particular, to the Catholic Church, is that often, and in some cases rightly, they will pick on the weaknesses and sins of Church people. In that way they also wish to attack and diminish the Catholic Church's teachings and its claims. The fact is, of course, that Christianity and the teaching of the Church, make incredible claims. We recite the Apostles' Creed: we affirm our belief in the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Redemption which was brought about in Jesus Christ; we claim faith in the Judgement of God, in the Holy Catholic Church, the resurrection of the body, life hereafter in heaven. The importance of what we claim is huge. So the manner of our lives, of everyone's life, is important, because our life is a preparation for death and entry into everlasting life. Thus the really important thing for each person is the fact that each of us has an ultimate destiny in God: what I suppose my generation would call the condition of one's immortal soul. The Catholic Church teaches that two thousand years ago God became man in Jesus Christ, that He died on the cross for our sins and lives with us, teaching and shepherding, until the end of time. This claim has been reflected upon and developed by the most brilliant minds over the past two thousand years. Its truth, we believe, is sustained by the Spirit of God. On this feast of St Gregory we are given one such mind. The Office of Readings is not always the most exciting of spiritual nourishment. But sometimes, there comes a reading that hits you in the eye - such as today in the reading from a passage of St. Gregory the Great. He talks of himself as a 'watchman', a priest, a bishop, a pope. He says that a watchman must be somebody who stands on the heights so as to see from a distance whatever is happening, whatever is approaching. He says that anybody who is a watchman, a priest, or a bishop should live a life on the heights so that he can have a wide survey. He then goes on about his weaknesses and his distractions, conscious as he is of his own weakness. He ends with this wonderful passage: Who am I - what kind of watchman am I? I do not stand on the pinnacle of achievement; I languish rather in the depths of my weakness. And yet the creator and redeemer of mankind can give me, unworthy though I be, the grace to see life whole and power to speak effectively of it. It is for love of him that I do not spare myself in preaching him. I think that is a marvellous description of what we are about, even in the face of criticism and the awareness of our weakness and failure. Because the truth of Christ, the truth of the Catholic Church, is ultimately what enables us to see life whole. It is what enables us to give ourselves totally in preaching Christ's truth and in endeavouring to live it. In contrast to this is the world of contemporary liberalism - a pretty thin affair. It makes feeble claims about the relativity of values and makes ridiculous, indeed sometimes highly shameful programmes, for social and moral living. The ace up its sleeve is of course that it is easy to believe but Catholicism is not. So we should not be surprised if the attack on the Church today is a subtle one. And we are not to be too discouraged by our weaknesses, our shame or the changes which the media think are obvious for the Church of the future. For Catholicism and the witness it displays, at its heart, is the force that confronts contemporary liberalism. To attack the development of our present civilisation as so much of modern society seeks to do is to attack something deep in ourselves. For such an attack is aimed ultimately at the reason why we are here, the way we should live and the hope of eternal life. If the teachers of the Church, those who are the watchmen, are diminished or disheartened, if their dogmatic teaching about God and Christ can be rendered harmless, then they themselves will be reduced to social workers or political advocates. Of course, what happens is that when people's faith in God vanishes and the consequences of the presence of God in Christ, something very strange occurs: people don't believe in humankind either, they either exalt or degrade humanity itself. It has often been said that when we lose our sense of God, then we lose our sense of what it is to be human too. So we should beware of only thinking and bemoaning our weaknesses, our sins and our shame - yes, we must do that - ecclesia semper reformanda. Nevertheless, I believe that the Catholic Church, with our fellow-Christians, should today be brave and swim against the stream. Because we are doing something that is God-given, something that is good, something that is ultimately true. As St. Paul reminds us: Since we have by an act of mercy been entrusted with this work of administration to impart, it is not ourselves that we are preaching but Christ Jesus is the Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus's sake. That is the good news. Today, St. Gregory the Great, conscious of his weakness, but conscious of himself as a 'watchman', takes up his position on the heights so that he can look at the distance, at whatever approaches. From the mystical heart, the praying heart of the Church, he sees things 'whole'. The same is true for us. We priests, though we are conscious of our weakness, know that the Redeemer of Mankind, weak though we are, gives us the grace to see life whole and the power to speak effectively of it - to be watchmen taking a position on the heights and being able to see the distance. It is for love of Him that we do not spare ourselves in preaching Him. This is what we have to do now, as watchmen, in warning, in leading and in preaching the good news, to make sure it is lived in the communities and parishes of our dioceses. The Lord is with us and it is He who is the antidote to the despair of our age, and our sense of our own inadequacy. Through our faith and hope in Him evangelisation takes root; it assumes power in weakness. When we are weak, St. Paul says, then we are strong. So I do not think we have anything to fear as we face the future. Let us be encouraged and re-assured by the words of Jesus from the Gospel: You are the men who have stood by me faithfully in my trials and now I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father conferred one on me. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor Archbishop of Westminster

Share this story