My dear brothers and sisters,
St Luke tells us in the Gospel: “The people stayed before the cross watching Jesus” (Lk 23:35). St Luke is careful to describe for us the reaction of people around the Cross on the first Good Friday: leaders jeer, soldiers mock, a dying man derides Our Lord. We notice in the Gospel that this is something more than ignorance or doubt; there is a real antagonism: “He saved others,” they say “let him save himself” (Lk 23:35). This was the scene on Calvary two thousand years ago and it is a drama which continues today wherever the claims of Christ are now rejected and derided. It is the hour for our faith to be proved amid the continuing uproar around the Cross of the Lord.
I write to you at the end of the Year of Faith called by Pope Benedict and continued by our Holy Father, Pope Francis. During this Year we have had several reminders of how Christians in many parts of the world face increasing threats of violence and intimidation in order to stand by Christ’s Cross (‘Persecuted & Forgotten’ www.acnuk.org/persecution). We are aware that during these same months, Christians have suffered violent deaths rather than renounce the name and the love of Christ. All this gives to our celebration of the Year of Faith a new perspective. It also gives perspective to the antagonism we can experience to the claims of Christ and to the witness of Christians in the life of our own society. This situation may at times tempt us to avoid speaking the name of Christ if it makes our contemporaries uneasy, to remove His Cross from view or to understate His claim of Kingship.
On Calvary, there was one voice which made a profession of faith. St Luke tells us of a dying criminal who cut through all the fear and intimidation around him to say: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:41). This man receives the promise: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:42). This is the faith which leads to the eternal promise St Paul describes in the Mass today: “(The Father) has taken us out of the power of darkness and created a place for us in the kingdom of the Son that he loves, and in him, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins” (Col 1:13). The celebration of this Year of Faith has surely invited us all to raise our own voices calmly and clearly in a renewed profession of our faith.
The first message of Pope Francis was that we can work as much as we want and construct many things, “but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, things go wrong”. Pope Francis insists: “We may become a charitable Non-Governmental Organisation but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord … When we do not confess Jesus Christ, we confess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness” (Pro Ecclesia Mass, 14th March 2013). You might have noticed a few words inscribed beneath the coat of arms of our Diocese. Every Bishop is asked to choose three or four words from Sacred Scripture to sum-up his hope and purpose. My motto for the years I will serve as bishop is simply this: “Nihil sine Christo” – “nothing without Christ”. This is a three-word summary of the words of Our Lord found in St John’s Gospel where He tells us: “Without me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15: 5). It is surely the lesson we must constantly re-learn in our own lives. It is the lesson which leads us back to the means of grace entrusted to the Church, above all to Christ Himself truly present in the Holy Eucharist.
I have no doubt that the future of our Diocese will be decided by the courage and constancy of such faith. In my first letter to the Diocese three years ago I echoed the prayer of the first apostles who said to the Lord: “Increase our faith!” (Lk17:5). At the end of this Year of Faith I ask you to renew with me this same prayer in the Mass today where “the sacrifice of Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present” (CCC 1364). Before Christ our Lord, truly present in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, let us say: “Lord, increase our faith!” Increase our faith so that we may go from Mass every Sunday to give our own courageous and constant witness to Christ the King.
Wishing you the joy of the approaching Season of Advent and a truly blessed celebration of Christmas,
Bishop of Shrewsbury
(Photo by Simon Caldwell)