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Westminster Diocese: Learning from the Pandemic

  • Ellen Teague

Homeless queue for food outside National Gallery  in Trafalgar Square during first Covid lockdown

Homeless queue for food outside National Gallery in Trafalgar Square during first Covid lockdown

What is the pandemic teaching us about the call to Justice and Peace? That was the question posed by Bishop Nicholas Hudson last Saturday at the start of an online meeting of the Westminster Justice and Peace Forum on the theme 'Learning from the Pandemic'. Bishop Paul McAleenan was on the zoom too, along with around 60 clergy, religious and laity. It was great to see such a spread of interest across the diocese - Hertfordshire as well as London - and a few joined in from other dioceses - Southwark, Northampton and Brentwood were the ones I spotted. British Sign Language interpretation was provided throughout by Caritas Deaf Service.

Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, based at Farm Street church and the Chair of Westminster Justice and Peace Commission, led us through the morning event, helping us "to look back at what we have been learning and look at what we can do to rebuild."

Anna Gavurin, of the Westminster Caritas Food Collective, was the first speaker. She highlighted that soon after pandemic restrictions came in more than 100 projects sprang up immediately. Catholic parishes and schools were well placed to recognise the hardship in their communities. She reported head teachers driving around with food parcels, supermarket vouchers being distributed by at least 120 parishes and schools, and Church foodbanks seeing a fourfold increase in demand. As well as the humanitarian response, she felt the pandemic shone a light on the causes of food poverty - especially people with no recourse to public funds and no access to, or delays to, benefits. Caritas organised training, helping parishes and schools to see what they could do in their local area. The issue of Justice came more and more to the fore in discussions, "challenging us to think why this is happening." She learnt the extent to which the Church is a vibrant network, ready to respond in a crisis. Also, that the Church has a voice to influence and is using it. Into the future, Caritas Westminster has developed its Road to Resilience programme: www.caritasfoodcollective.org.uk/road-to-resilience-63.php.

Dr Pat Jones, of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University, talked about one of her brothers teaching in a deprived area of the North-West, and his experience of lessons being disrupted because of a "toast trolley" moving along the corridor outside to feed hungry children. She felt disturbed by that toast trolley and asked, "what has happened to the social safety net?". Our social and economic systems are broken, she said, and "the pandemic prompts a radical reset for we must not forget what we have seen and heard and must not settle for the old normality." She highlighted Pope Francis' call for structural change, with a new emphasis on 'Social Peace' "which is built from below". Pat deplored rising levels of domestic violence during the pandemic and the reduced number of refuges available for women fleeing partners. It was mentioned that the National Board of Catholic Women has responded with its recent publication, 'Raising Awareness of Domestic Abuse' and see the work of the Bishops' Conference at www.cbcew.org.uk/home/our-work/domestic-abuse/.

Fr Richard Nesbitt, parish priest of Our Lady of Fatima Parish at White City, highlighted the issue of racial justice and reported having his eyes opened by listening to the multicultural community in his parish. His parishioners spoke of the lack of black people in leadership roles in the Church; racial imagery in artwork in Church and in cards in the repository; little diversity of musical styles. It was pointed out to him that even in the Church's charity work there was the danger of 'white saviour' syndrome. "Most shocking of all" he said "was where some black parishioners regularly experience rejection by white parishioners" at the Sign of Peace in the Mass. He quoted from US priest, Fr Bryan N Massingale, that, "Catholic Teaching on race suffers from a lack of passion". He clarified what he meant by saying, "no one can doubt what the position is on Abortion - a major marker of Catholic identity - but Racism is marked by low institutional commitment, being tepid, lukewarm and half-hearted - and so not seen as a core component of Catholic identity." Fr Richard reflected, "this has been a journey of conversion for me."

Marcelle Smith, gave a Catholic Schools perspective from her experience as a teacher in Colchester. She has been horrified by some materials used in classes which reinforce systemic racism. She called for more teachers from ethnic minorities and better Racial literacy teacher training. When asked about her hopes for the year ahead, she said, "Justice".

At a break in the meeting two short videos were played which had won a Season of Creation 2020 diocesan video competition. One was from St Patrick's Catholic Church in Neasden and the other from St Vincent's Primary school in Ealing. In both of them participants saw the planting of seeds, bulbs and saplings. In the second a young child hoped, "that our work inspires other children to look after our ecosystem". WOW! I didn't even know that word 'ecosystem' when I was at school! See: https://westminsterjp.wordpress.com/season-of-creation-video-competition/

Colette Joyce, the Justice and Peace Coordinator for Westminster, reported that the four London dioceses - Arundel & Brighton, Brentwood, Southwark and Westminster - are planning to work together and with CAFOD next year on Climate Justice in preparation for COP26 in November at Glasgow. A Columban sister suggested that the question should be examined, 'Is Climate Change racist?'

Feedback from groups suggested that the pandemic has highlighted for them the sheer scale of poverty and inequality in Britain; public budget priorities which would put military spending ahead of aid; Racism in society and in the Church; and a new awareness of who keyworkers are and their contribution to the common good of society. "So many people are close to the edge and our society's fragility has been revealed" said one participant. There was a commitment to greater solidarity with vulnerable people and communities and making use of new technology for advocacy work. "How we connect digitally is really important" said another. Very specifically, there was a call to revisit the relationship between the Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ) and the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. Perhaps Racial Justice Sunday should be reconnected directly with CARJ.

Liam Allmark, of the Bishops' Conference summed up the learning from the pandemic. Quoting Pope Francis, he said, "this is a moment to dream big, act differently and a time to heal". In his thanks, Bishop Paul McAleenan referred to the latest publication from Pope Francis 'Let Us Dream' where the three chapters take the titles - SEE, JUDGE, ACT. This process - sometimes called the Pastoral Cycle - is a key process for Justice and Peace work. The final prayer came from Laudato Si'. Exuberant hymns topped and tailed the meeting, led by Mary Pierre-Harvey, the Director of Parish Youth and the Caribbean Choir at St Michael and St Martin Parish, Hounslow. The gathering aimed to provide some direction for the year ahead. It certainly did!

Read more about Westminster Justice and Peace - https://westminsterjp.wordpress.com/




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