A Pastoral Letter read in all churches and chapels of the Diocese of Shrewsbury on the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, 28th July 2013
My dear brothers and sisters,
Since the first missionaries sent by Pope Gregory arrived on the coast of England in the year 597 AD we could say that Christianity has formed the foundation of our common life and laws. This bedrock of Christian values has remained our nation’s mainstay, despite all the upheavals of the past millennium. However, in our life-times we have witnessed a seismic shift from these Christian foundations. Parliament’s decision to change the legal definition of marriage is the latest sign of this shift. We are facing together a completely new situation which invites us – with growing urgency – to engage in a “new evangelisation” and a courageous “lay apostolate,” always in the closest union with the Successor of the Apostle Peter, Francis our Pope, called to be “the rock” on which the Church is built. These have been the themes of my letters to you over this past year. It is surely when foundations are shaken, the ground taken from beneath our feet, that we need to give renewed attention to the sure basis on which our future can be built. As we prayed in the Mass today: without you, O God, “nothing has firm foundation” (Collect for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time).
I am conscious that I write to you when Pope Francis has travelled to Brazil to join millions of young pilgrims for World Youth Day. In recent debates we heard politicians express their hope that new generations might be so secularised in outlook that they will ask: Why was anyone concerned about this question? Blessed John Paul II often reminded us that our witness to the truth of the Gospel has a value not only for the present time, but for all generations to come. In his meeting with the new Archbishop of Canterbury Pope Francis spoke of the necessity of this Christian witness, “in a world which seems at times to call into question some of the foundations of society” the Holy Father said, “such as respect for the sacredness of human life or the importance of the institution of the family built on marriage” (14th June 2013).
Today I also wish to echo some important words of the Archbishop of Westminster in a message circulated to Catholics across the country. Archbishop Nichols declares that by this deconstruction of marriage, “our society has taken a significant step away from its Judeo-Christian foundations” (The Narrow Gate, A Reflection by the Archbishop of Westminster). The Government’s legislation does not, and cannot, change our understanding of marriage. In contrast to the new law, Archbishop Nichols reminds us, Christian teaching holds that marriage is a life-long faithful union of a man and a woman, ordained by God for the creation of the family and future generations. Marriage is the place where sexual relations find their proper place and God-given purpose. It would be hard to over-estimate in these respects the importance of marriage for human well-being and our ultimate good.
It might be easy to be carried along by the confusion in our country. “But this is not” the Archbishop of Westminster insists “the way of the Catholic as a follower of Christ.” We may be accused of an outmoded understanding of human relationships, or even of bigotry, when trying to live and present Catholic teaching as it has been given by God. Archbishop Nichols reflects that being out of step with society for the sake of the Gospel should be no cause for discouragement. “This is our calling,” he writes, and we are called to “live faithfully by the teaching we have received and to present it robustly and intelligently”- for “this teaching is no human construct but God’s gift for our happiness.” The re-definition of civil marriage certainly adds to a sense that people of faith are becoming, in Archbishop Nichols’s words, “strangers in their own land.” Nevertheless we must be ready, with genuine respect for every person, to give our witness as “energetic citizens and contributors to the common good of all.”
We look forward to the day when our society re-discovers its Christian roots and the authentic value of marriage as the foundation of the family. The Youth Catechism notes that nothing in the early Church fascinated people more about the “New Way” of the Christians than their homes and families. “In an unbelieving world, islands of living faith were formed,” the Catechism explains, and the great cities of antiquity which certainly did not share the Christian vision of morality “were soon permeated with domestic churches” – the Church in miniature, within the home and family. The Youth Catechism reflects that these “were like points of light. Even today families in which Christ is at home are the leaven that renews our society” (YouCat 271). I have no doubt that it is through such witness – your own witness – that the Christian foundations increasingly discarded by the leaders of our society, will be discovered anew.
United with you in prayer today together with the nine hundred pilgrims from the Diocese in Lourdes may we give this true and faithful witness for all generations to come,
Bishop of Shrewsbury