Speech by the Archbishop of Westminster at Launch of Catholic Voices Academy

Address by the Archbishop of Westminster, Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, at the launch of the Catholic Voices Academy, University of Notre Dame in London, 23 September 2011

The first thing I’d like to do is echo I’m sure on everyone’s behalf the grateful and very sincere thanks we all feel for those who started, sustained, developed and brought to very considerable fruition the initiative of Catholic Voices. The evidence was there during the papal visit; the learning has been well sifted; and this is a wonderful moment when we can see a development taking place that is clearly for the moment, is clearly right for this moment, not just in church history but, as Austen has said, in our cultural history. And we can rejoice in that, and, I hope, give it a great deal of support.

Obviously, in this week particularly, there has been a great deal of reflection on the visit of Pope Benedict. For various reasons I was in Rome yesterday; and there, on one of the desks in one of the Vatican offices, is the volume describing and giving its account of the the activities of the Holy See for the year 2010. What’s the picture on the cover? This picture [indicates slide behind him of Pope Benedict in Westminster Hall]. So clearly the importance of the Holy Father’s visit is well recognised there -- and quite rightly too.

But in the course of these reflections obviously we have been looking at the year of Catholic education and that has had quite a helpful stimulus across the education sector that’ll be brought to conclusion in a little while in a Mass in the Cathedral from which will be launched an effort directed at the London Olympics. And interestingly, trying to give to the schools of the three dioceses of the south east a short but significant syllabus, inviting the children, while the athletes train for competition, that the children train for peace, reflecting the ancient tradition of an Olympic peace which came before and after the Olympic Games themselves – and trying to put that into the mix of the work of our schools.

Some of you might have heard or read a little about the lecture given by the Chief Rabbi last week, the first Pope Benedict Memorial Lecture, in which he explained the affinity between his thinking and that of the Holy Father about the role of faith, about the dangers facing our civilisation very much as Austen has spoken of them. In Rome yesterday I found myself saying to the group of people I was with, “You do realise that our seminaries are full?” Oscott, because of the closure of Ushaw, is bursting at the seams; Allen Hall is full; the Beda College is full; the Venerabile in Rome has 11 in its first year, which is probably the biggest first year for quite a long time. And that was a real sense of hope.

But of course, what this initiative does is emphasise that the picture of the Church that we need and the picture of the Church that we’ve always wanted to develop in the public eye, must not be that of the cleric. Now you know as well as I do that when it comes to the media they always want a bishop, and if they can’t have a bishop then maybe a monsignor. But I think Catholic Voices have trumped that by offering attractive young people. And now we know that attractive young people, men and women, are far more marketable than crotchety old bishops [laughter]. Anyone who has been watching the Pope’s visit to Germany on the television will see how unattractive elderly bishops, badly dressed in their cassocks, wearing headphones, can really look. So in terms of getting a Catholic voice on the media, there is a great deal of advantages that the organisation called Catholic Voices – just from an aesthetic point of view, let alone any other point of view – offers.

When I’ve been reflecting on Catholic Voices, my mind goes back to the ad limina visit that the bishops’ conference made to the Holy See -- we make it every five years -- in February [2010]. In his address to the bishops of England and Wales, the Pope spoke of the need to develop and encourage the clearly enunciated voice of lay people in the media putting forward the teaching and the experience of the Church. And that, I think, began to certainly form my enthusiasm for this venture as it began to emerge, as we’ve heard this evening.

But what is also just as important is the spirit in which Catholic Voices are formed and with which they express themselves. What is not needed is a contentious spirit in those Voices; what is needed is a spirit that quite evidently springs from a love of the Church. In one of the reflections from World Youth Day that Fr Christopher [Jamison] wrote in The Tablet, he had posed the question to a youngster, “what was it about that great gathering of young people in Madrid that gave it its joy, its hopefulness?” And his young – woman, I think – answered the question by saying, “But don’t you understand? Is there something the matter with you? The answer is this: Catholic is what we are, not something we belong to.” And I think it’s that deeply rooted spirit that is crucially important and central to the inspiration of Catholic Voices.

I think the anniversary has for me highlighted a number of challenges that we face: all of them have a relationship to that link between faith and reason and the way they are presented in the public forum. Going back again to this brief visit I made to Rome, I was given a lovely medallion. It was struck a few years ago to mark the 400th anniversary of the Pontifical Academy of Science. And on the front of the medallion there is a lovely image of Pope John Paul II, his hands extended in a clear gesture of welcome and reconciliation towards Galileo. It’s a little bit of imaginative thinking; but the president of the Pontifical Academy told me that were voices in Rome who did not want that medallion struck, because they weren’t sure quite what image it gave the papacy. But John Paul said: “no, do it.” And it’s a lovely image of faith reaching out in misunderstanding to science and seeking a new partnership. And on the back of the medallion, with a lovely Latin quotation around the outside, it says: “Faith and reason – both arise from the light of God.” And there’s a lovely image of God the Father holding a fiery brand from which the two figures of faith and reason both take their light.

So I think this attempt and challenge to bring faith and reason together in the public forum is very crucial for us. And as I reflected on Sunday, one way of thinking how we can meet this challenge is inspired by Pope Gregory the Great, when he prayed, and I quote, “for the grace to see life whole and the power to speak effectively of it for the love of the Lord.”

I said on Sunday: “Our Catholic faith, illuminated by reason, gives us that gift. We see life whole when we recognise the true nature of the unborn child. We see life whole when we see in every pupil not just a future contributor to our economic prosperity, not only a future parent or leader, but also a spiritual being whose deepest needs and surest happiness can be answered only in the mystery of God and in a personal relationship with God. We see life whole when we recognise the limited value of our personal experience as the criterion of moral truth. We see life whole when we recognise that the wellbeing of every human person has to be at the centre of our economic life -- the ultimate purpose of our striving and the measure by which we are to judge success. We see life whole when in sickness and terminal illness we both treasure life as it is and do not fear death when it comes; so that we neither deny the dignity of life at its endings nor fail to welcome our journey to God when He calls.” I think that pattern, that prayer, of Pope Gregory the Great can help us to give an additional thrust to the challenge that the present Holy Father has given us.

I think a particular application of that challenge in the last few months has already been mentioned – and that is, how do we present in the public forum our belief and understanding about the distinctive nature of marriage as being between a man and woman for the procreation of children and their mutual partnership? Going back to the ad limina visit, the Holy Father at that point made reference to natural law in his discourse to us. Immediately the media was onto it. And I remember giving quite a – from my point of view – rather aggressive interview with [BBC Radio 4 Today presenter] John Humphrys from a doorway in one of the side-streets of Rome trying to impress upon him that natural law was not some concoction of the Catholic Church in the past few years.

“Reframing the approach” – that was the phrase that Austen used. I would like to give you, as Austen did, a quote from the Holy Father’s speech yesterday [to the Bundestag]. “How can nature reassert itself in its true depth, with all its demands, with all its directives?” he asked. “I would like to recall one of the developments in recent political history, hoping that I will neither be misunderstood, nor provoke too many one-sided polemics. I would say that the emergence of the ecological movement in German politics since the 1970s, while it has not exactly flung open the windows, nevertheless was and continues to be a cry for fresh air which must not be ignored or pushed aside, just because too much of it is seen to be irrational. Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives. In saying this,” the Pope added, in what almost became a papal joke, “I am clearly not promoting any particular political party; nothing could be further from my mind. If something is wrong in our relationship with reality, then we must all reflect seriously on the whole situation and we are all prompted to question the very foundations of our culture. Allow me to dwell a little longer on this point. The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a further point that is still largely disregarded, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he listens to his nature, respects it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”

And there, I suggest, is the beginning of a reframing of the issues, of an approach – that marriage first belongs of course to nature, not to the Church.

And the third point I would like to make, and the last one, is also difficult for us, but I think the challenge that lies ahead to those who are going to speak and to be Catholic Voices in the future. And it’s a bit to do with the nature of the social action of the Church. The social teaching of the Church is a teaching directed to society, a teaching that we hope society will understand. But it needs to find its fullness by being, if you like, drawn back into its rootedness in the life and mystery of the Church. We – our bishops’ conference – use the phrase, “A deeper social engagement”. We chose that phrase because we didn’t want to talk about the ‘Big Society’. But actually, the point we’ve got to try and get to is to reveal and speak about, is that this deeper social engagement is actually about the love of God – the love God has for us and the love we give in return.

That, of course, is the central message of the Pope’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. And one of our tasks, as Catholic Voices, is to emphasise this distinctive quality of Catholic social action – its quality of caritas, its manner, its rootedness, its fruitfulness, which displays the love which is God. I sometimes toy with the image of a plant. Catholic social action is like a plant which has its deep roots in Catholic faith, in the mystery of God and our exploration of that mystery. Its stem has to be thoroughly professional; it has to be examined from every rigour from a professional point of view. And its fruit, we hope, will be evangelical. Its fruit will bear the beauty of the love of God in a way that people can recognise it as that; and in that picture, then, we have, I think, the full truth of why the Church so much wants to be involved in responding to social problems and in serving our fellow human being.

There are lots of challenges before us. I am immensely grateful to those who have taken this initiative and I assure them of my prayers and goodwill as it seeks to develop into a whole new strength in the life of the Church in England and Wales. Thank you all very much indeed.


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