My dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ,
Welcome to this week’s Bishop’s Blog!
Before I begin, just try to get your head round this: Imagine, getting sight of the exam paper answers before handing in your script! And it’s the examiner who’s handed it to you. That appears to be today’s Gospel.On this last Sunday of the Church’s year, it is the custom to focus prayer and attention on children and young people. This year we do so, conscious of the additional complications to their lives caused by pandemic. What is it like to be young now? To be just setting out on life’s journey and be hit by so many extra difficulties? Schools, colleges and particularly universities have been severely tested. Being able to ‘hang-out’ with friends has not always been possible. Families have had anxieties over job security. Young people seeking work are particularly affected as so many businesses struggle to survive, and in many instances young people who had employment were the first to be sacrificed and handed their notice. Tough times, so we are right to pray for the young.Jesus talks to His disciples about the end of it all, not just when there’s a vaccine, but the very end, what awaits us once life’s journey is completed. And for all of us, not only the young, this is key to life. If we look on life as setting out on a journey, it makes sense to decide our ultimate goal, and thus the direction we need to travel in to reach it.Of course, at the end of the journey it is not a ‘what’ that awaits us. Rather, it is a ‘Who’. The Last Judgement has been described in art and literature in some terrifying ways, aimed at putting the fear of God into us so that we double our efforts to do the right thing and get counted as sheep, not goats (poor goats!). But too much fear or indeed the wrong form of fear can produce the wrong response. We remember the tale of the man given one talent who hid it because he feared his master. That must not be our fear. A life lived out of fear is no life.Jesus made no secret of His Father’s desire that all His children might come to share His Divine life, what is described as the ‘fulness of life’. What stands out in the image of the Last Judgement is how relatively easy it should have been for us to secure a place in heaven. What He did here was the equivalent of showing us the exam answers before we sit the exam. Learn to see what needs doing, then decide to do it: simple. In fact it is so easy that some didn’t even know they were achieving it. The significance of their simple acts of charity was unknown to them throughout life. They decided to use any opportunity to do good.We must add next how tragically simple it is to lose our place in heaven. The words of the Act of Contrition ring so true as we confess ‘ . . . what I have done, and what I have failed to do . . . ‘ The other deadly trap we fall into is to assume we have time to make up lost ground, time for another chance. It’s a trap I constantly fall into; I’ll do it later. . . . . The time will come when we no longer have such an option. Now is the time to decide and to act. As has been said before, this is not a rehearsal.I remember once being asked by an old woman in Zambia to buy her a blanket next time I went to town. She even gave me the money for it. I did what she asked, but on the day was late getting back. I’ll take it to her in the morning I thought. But then, I thought a bit more. It’s night. This is when she wants the blanket. So, I set out along the dark paths to her village. I knew she would be there. I knew she would be frightened to hear someone calling late at night, but I thought it worthwhile. Sure enough, she’d gone to bed along with several of her grandchildren, AIDS orphans. I cannot describe her joy to be given her new blanket at that end of the night instead of in the morning.If this life is all there is, then for some it is desperately unfair. I say this not just because of some people suffering more than others as a result of the pandemic. It applies to less extraordinary times too. This life is unfair, although we tend not to complain when it is unfair to our advantage.‘Set your hearts first on God’s Kingdom, and all these other things will be given to you as well.’ What a deal that is! Better than any ‘buy one – get one free.’! How important it is in these times to share with young people the words of Our Lord, which carry such reassurance and hope, even as they offer a way of life so different from what this world can offer. This is the only justification we have for our schools and colleges, that they give pupils and staff the Gospel message in which our Catholic teaching is rooted. It is the work of our Youth Service too.As well as explaining to us the simple steps leading to the Kingdom, Jesus has promised to remain with us as guide and as food for the journey. How I hope our young people find their way back to Mass in our parishes. Jesus gives Himself to us as food to strengthen us for the journey to His Kingdom. To stay away from Mass and Holy Communion is the equivalent of having an eating disorder. It is so important that the Gospel is handed on to future generations. I am conscious of so many of our older parishioners saddened because their children and grandchildren don’t practice the Faith. Some are burdened by a sense of failure. It is not for us to judge who has failed or succeeded. We leave that to the Lord, and we have been told He is merciful. He has shown us the answers before we write the exam. We know what to do. We know what success looks like.There are young people choosing Our Lord. Some are making brave choices and decisions in their lives to keep the Faith. These are brave people, often swimming against the tide, choosing to differ from their contemporaries both in opinion and in life-style. They will become teachers and guides to their own families and friends. They will also become good news to complete strangers. We must recognise them and encourage them. If I were young in these times, I do not know if I would be able to stand up as a Catholic Christian. The demands are so great compared to when I was young. But Our Lord never ceases moving amongst us, talking to us, opening our hearts to receive His simple message of practical love, doing the Corporal works of Mercy, making His forgiveness and healing real rather than just words. He offers us what the world cannot give. And when the world has finished with us, the best is still to come. I pray that the young can take this to heart, live their lives based on Christ’s unselfish love, and become people of hope to those around them.Certain figures of the Gospel come closer to us as we prepare to begin Advent. Saint Elizabeth, Zechariah, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Joseph, each has their place. But it is always Mary who gives us the surest advice to heed. On one occasion, long after Jesus had grown up, she noticed people’s sorry state because they had exhausted this world’s wine and still were not satisfied. Mary simply instructed those standing ready to ‘do whatever He tells you’. What worked for them then is good for us now.
As ever in Christ,
Bishop of Lancaster