In this week’s Bishop’s BlogI wish to take this opportunity of wishing all readers a joyful Christmas and a peaceful New Year. This season is known traditionally as one of peace and goodwill, because as Catholics and Christians we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.
The greeting of the angels to the shepherds on that first Christmas night was: Peace on earth to people of goodwill. We cannot however but be aware through today’s social media that not all areas of our world enjoy peace and stability. We pray that one day it may be so!
Christmas time will, however, be different for so many families this year in Cumbria and Lancashire because of the devastating floods caused by Storm Desmondand the current horrendous weather and flooding.
They are our brothers and sisters and we feel for them. Some will not be able to celebrate Christmas in their own homes because of the widespread effects of water damage. Our thoughts and prayers will be with them at what is normally a special time for families.
What has been heartening, however, is to witness the outpouring of goodwill and practical assistance given from all sections of the community, believers and non-believers alike. This generosity and deep sense of human solidarity has been most impressive, and the goodwill so characteristic of the Christmas season has already been very evident in Lancashire and Cumbria.
The willingness to help one’s neighbour in their time of need is not only deeply human, but also brings to mind the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, spoken by Christ in answer to the question ‘who is my neighbour?’ There have been many Good Samaritans recently!
As we pass from one year into another new year, we draw great encouragement from the widespread response to the victims of Storm Desmond and the current storms.
While we may regret much that is wrong in parts of our world, with the violence and human upheaval of countless refugees, there is nevertheless a great deal of good in the human heart, and an awareness that all of us, whatever our race, creed or colour, form but a single human family.
I pray in the year ahead that we may never lose sight of this precious truth.
Season’s greetings to you all!
+Michael G Campbell OSA
Bishop of Lancaster
P.S. The Bishop’s Blog will pause posts now until into the New Year.
The liturgical opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy in the Diocese of Lancaster, postponed from Tuesday because of the adverse weather (‘Storm Desmond’), took place last Sunday evening when I officially opened the Holy Door of Mercy in St. Peter’s Cathedral, Lancaster and processed through it, followed by the clergy and a good number of the lay faithful.
In some very profound way I was actually throwing open the doors of God’s mercy! The idea of a jubilee holy door goes back to the twelfth century in Rome, and has a deeply symbolic significance, and suggests passing from one place to another, leaving the past behind and entering into a wholly new place.
Pope Francis intends the year has just started, and which ends next year on the feast of Christ the King, to be a true and far-reaching spiritual experience for every member of the Church, when we become ever more aware of just how much we are surrounded by God’s infinite mercy.
As human beings, ever conscious of our sins and shortcomings, we need to be convinced that the Lord sees further than these failings characteristic of us mortals and which can weigh us down. We find this difficult to grasp – because we are not God!
As we processed through Jubilee door we sang the litany of saints, appealing for God’s mercy through the intercession of those ‘friends of God’ who now form part of the Church Triumphant.
The final part of the rite was the sprinkling of the congregation with holy water, which was an obvious reminder of our Baptism, when we became members of Christ’s body, the Church, and were graced with God’s mercy. The words of the apostle Peter to those newly-baptised come to mind as I write this: “…..Once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy” (1Pet. 2:10).
The ceremony of water was intended to recall the ‘spiritual door’ of baptism when, through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, we passed over the threshold into the light of God’s loving mercy. Pope Francis, as the successor of Peter, now summons us in this Jubilee Year of Mercy to be aware of the grandeur and the warmth of God’s attitude to us, and to the whole of humanity.
The Year of Mercy then is a time of grace and opportunity, so let us play our part. I pray that all in the diocese of Lancaster and far beyond may come to discover afresh in the Church the truth of the ancient Patriarch Jacob’s words on awakening from his dream: “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16).
Here is my homily for the evening:
‘A Jubilee door is meant to be a door of hope, a threshold of entry through which we come into the place where God awaits us, where mercy is to be found, and where we are assured of a word of forgiveness and not of rebuke.
Today, in Catholic cathedrals in every part of the world, a Jubilee door will be opened by the bishop, a powerful symbol or sign that we have the opportunity to begin again, to make a fresh start whatever our situation, to allow ourselves to feel the warmth and tenderness of God’s loving mercy.
In St. Peter’s Basilica earlier this week Pope Francis opened the jubilee door, and here in the Diocese of Lancaster we are in union and in communion with him, as we open our own Jubilee door. The Church therefore invites us to pass over the threshold of this door and symbolically join countless other Catholics all over the world in a year-long personal and spiritual pilgrimage.
The Year of Mercy, just started, is a God-given opportunity to rediscover the wonder of God’s mercy. It may be described, as I say, as a kind of pilgrimage along the road marked out by Christ, on which we walk in his company, let him speak to us and lead us.
Pope Francis is a pains to stress that the Church is above all a place of mercy. She is the Good Samaritan who brings the balm of healing to wounded and stricken humanity. By saying this, the Holy Father is not implying that the teaching and laws of the Church are unimportant, they do of course have their proper and rightful place. He quotes St. Thomas Aquinas as follows: “It belongs to God to show mercy, and his almighty power is particularly manifested by this”. We human beings have limited resources of mercy; it is not so with God, his mercy is infinite and eternal.
To walk through the Jubilee door is to be welcomed and embraced by the Father’s mercy, and we in turn commit ourselves to be merciful towards others. The thought of a Jubilee Year can perhaps frighten us a little. We ask, does God expect more of us? Today’s gospel offers some useful guidelines for the Year of Mercy.
Having listened to John the Baptist’s fiery preaching the people asked John what they should be doing in view of the nearness of God’s Kingdom. His response appears rather ordinary, on the surface at least: those who have two coats should share with the person who has none, food is to be shared with those who are hungry.
He told tax collectors to demand only what is their due, while his advice to soldiers was not to throw their weight around and be content with their lot. In a word, God is to be found in the daily routine of Christian living, in being courteous to others and respecting their dignity. We are to show mercy because we ourselves have been given mercy.
The Holy Father by calling a Year of Mercy wants the whole Church to have a real and profound experience of God’s abiding mercy. We have known the gentle touch of that mercy through the call of Christ into his Church. Let us grow in its awareness in the year ahead and extend it to others. In the wonderful words of the Book of Lamentations: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:21-23).’
At times we are confronted with situations when words fail us, or at least seem utterly inadequate in the circumstances. As I visited some of areas in Carlisle yesterday which, together with parts of the Lake District, bore the brunt of ‘Storm Desmond’I felt helpless, and very humbled at the fury of nature.
The heaps of discarded furniture and kitchen equipment outside so many homes told its own story, as a major clean-up operation was taking place. I wondered too at the many human dramas which must have unfolded as the rapidly, and dangerous, rising waters gave so little advance warning.
With some of the local priests, I offered the midday Mass in the church of Our Lady and St. Joseph (the parish of Our Lady of Eden) which includes most of the affected area, though thankfully the church itself escaped damage.
While we may feel powerless at such times, the prayer we know and love as the Mass has its own unique power and consolation.
Just to be there as Bishop and bringing all that had happened to the altar, making it part of Christ’s own sacrifice to the Father, brought the peace of God to what has been for so many such a fraught week.
As I walked around the streets, however, I was so struck by the cheerfulness and greeting of all who were helping in the necessary clean-up operation.
There was an evident spirit of generosity and a willingness to help anyone affected, an example of which was an impromptu table set up on a street providing warm drinks and snacks to anyone passing. The couple behind the table self-effacingly remarked that it was the least they could do. A humbling moment for me!
I was able to see the damage within a few homes and it was widespread. It’s hard to comprehend the impact on families as they see all their belongings, often precious family mementos, sodden and destroyed, and inevitably there were tears and a sense of shock as they recounted their own personal story to me.
What has make it all so difficult was that for some of them this was the second flood they have lived through in the space of a few years.
They will need time to adjust and begin the process of rebuilding their homes.
Newman School, yet again, took a major hit from Storm Desmond, and a quick visit showed a bleak site which was overwhelmed by the flood waters.
Yet in the hall attached to Our Lady and St. Joseph’s church the staff had gathered and were working to ensure that the life of the school and the pupils’ work went on as best as possible.
The spirit of the staff, their resilience to carry on and start again, would undoubtedly have impressed their distinguished patron, Blessed John Henry Newman. Underlying the staff’s determination was surely that ‘kindly light’ of which Blessed John wrote, and Christ will indeed accompany them as they face the future with hope.
I urge you to keep Carlisle, and those other parts of the Lake District so sorely affected, in your prayers.
What I did learn yesterday was just how much people appreciated the promise of prayers and thoughts at this most difficult of times. So many were touched by the Letter here from the Apostolic Nuncio, writing on behalf of Pope Francis, assuring these beleaguered communities of his thoughts and prayers.
Our prayers too (My own Message in the Storm’s aftermath is here) will make a difference and there is always hope. Let us reach out to our brothers and sisters, especially as we prepare for the birth of Our Saviour.
Central to the Season of Advent is the figure of John the Baptist, the child of Zachary and Elisabeth, born to them in their later years. John was a man of destiny appointed by God and would be described by Christ himself as ‘the last and the greatest of the prophets.’
We are to see John therefore as a hinge, the link between all those great figures of the Old Testament, such as Abraham, Moses, David and Isaiah, and Jesus Christ who fulfilled all the promises of that first Testament and ushered in the New.
The Church has always treasured and revered John the Baptist. He was a fiery and no-nonsense preacher, lived an ascetic life reminiscent of the great prophet Elijah, and called the people of his time to depart from their sinful ways and return to the Lord. John proclaimed his uncompromising message close to the river Jordan, and administered a form of baptism, symbolising their new state of purification in readiness for the arrival of someone infinitely greater than himself.
John’s greatness and divine prophetic mission consisted in his role of witness, both in his life and in his death. We are very familiar from the liturgy with John’s declaration: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’, which sums up the essential purpose of his life – to point out and bear witness to the Son of God.
Once John had given his testimony to Jesus he withdrew from the scene. The gospels relate how Herod Antipas had him imprisoned for speaking out against his unlawful union with his brother’s wife, and he was executed at the behest of Herod’s enraged partner. A dismal end for such a distinguished prophet, but a death which the liturgy calls his last and greatest act of witness.
What can we believers learn from John today so as to nourish and strengthen our faith? The first lesson would be to accept the Baptist’s summon to conversion as we await the coming of Christ at Christmas.
The Jubilee Year of Mercy is just beginning, and highly recommended by the Holy Father is a good sacramental Confession. What a marvellous preparation that would be for the Lord’s birthday! Also, there was no place for pride and ambition in John’s preaching. Many took him to be the Messiah, but he declared in the most emphatic terms that he was but a herald or forerunner, and not worthy even to undo the sandals of the One who was coming.
Christ for John had to come first. He had got his priorities right. We, likewise, must keep our gaze firmly fixed on Christ, as Pope Francis keeps repeating, then we shall know peace of mind as we go about our daily lives.
By his preaching, his life, and his death, John was a witness to Christ to the world of his day. That precisely is the vocation of each one of us wherever we are and in whatever situation we find ourselves. This Christmas Christ desires to be born again into the world – but it will be primarily through the goodness and witness of our lives. We pray that Saint John the Baptist may assist us by his prayers to courageously point out once more this Christmas time the Lamb of God, the saviour of the world. Saint John the Baptist, pray for us!
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