Pastoral Letter

To be read at all Masses on the 7th Sunday of Year C
22 February 2004

My dear People,

Wednesday of this week is Ash Wednesday - the beginning of the season of Lent. It is a special time of grace and I wish to use my first pastoral letter in Southwark to offer some reflections and, I hope, some encouragement as we embark on this season together.

In the prologue to St John's Gospel we read: "No one has ever seen God; it is the only son, who is nearest to the Father's heart, who has made him known." (John 1, 18) The mystery of God is disclosed to us in Jesus Christ, who is "Word made flesh and splendour of the Father", and we grow in knowledge of God as we draw near to Christ in prayer. In prayer our faith is engaged and activated and becomes progressively more secure.

In Lent the Church proposes to us a particular form of prayer which takes us to the very heart of our faith, and cannot but make us more alive to God in Christ Jesus. I am speaking of the Stations of the Cross. In commending the Stations to you, I am motivated in part by Pope John Paul's call to us to "contemplate the face of Christ." In the Stations of the Cross this is precisely what we do as we follow Jesus in the sequence of events that lead up to his death on the cross. As we accompany him in faith we draw nearer to Christ who St Paul calls "our wisdom, our virtue and our holiness." (1 Cor. 1, 30) This wisdom is nourishment that we all need and the Stations provide us with a source of wisdom on which we can draw.

Let me give an illustration of our need for wisdom. There are a great many things that can disturb or pose questions to our faith. I think particularly of the mystery of evil - the devastating effects of natural disasters, the horrors of war and terrorism, greed and injustice, as well as the arrogance of unbelief. It is especially difficult to come to terms with innocent suffering, whether it be the victims of war or of abortion, or the victims of human greed and exploitation. People sometimes ask "why?" and there is no easy answer to that question. We can work to bring about justice and to promote a culture of life but the place where we find enlightenment and hope amidst the troubles of our world is at the foot of the cross. The beginnings of wisdom are there for us as we follow Our Lord in his suffering and death.

But, in making the Stations we not only follow Christ, we identify with him and so come to a true knowledge of ourselves. In the face of Christ we see the image of the unseen God (cf Col. 1, 15), the God in whose image and likeness we are made. In Christ we see what we are called to do and to be. We find direction and hope amidst the difficulties and troubles that we inevitably encounter in our journey through life. Indeed, any truly human life will at some level be a way of the cross, and following Christ can help us to make sense of our own history and of the sufferings of others.

There is, of course, suffering and evil which we are powerless to limit or contain. Take, for example, the material disasters that bring such devastation in their wake. But what we can do is seek to address the evil that finds its origin in the heart of men and women. Here again the Stations of the Cross have a lesson for us. Jesus falls three times, but each time he recovers from his fall and carries on. Meditating on the Stations of the Cross, the Church has always seen these falls as illuminating the mystery of sin and forgiveness. Our Lord was sinless but in his passion he plumbed the depths of our sinful condition.

All of us stand in need of forgiveness. Indeed, the Gospel in which we believe and which we preach is precisely a Gospel of forgiveness. One of the most serious consequences of the loss of faith that characterises so much of public life and, especially, of the media is the loss of a sense of sin and consequently of any felt need for forgiveness. Sometimes I think we live in a society that permits everything but forgives nothing. As Christians we accept our sinfulness and our need for forgiveness. In the Church it is the Sacrament of Reconciliation which offers us the possibility of forgiveness and of new life. The opportunity for personal confession and absolution is a gift we should treasure. It provides the context for us to articulate fully the areas of sin in our lives, to explain something of our personal situation, and to receive advice and encouragement. Lent is an ideal time to avail of this grace as we prepare to celebrate Christ's death to sin and seek to come alive in Christ Jesus.

Finally, let me mention the twelfth station: Jesus dies on the cross. In particular, I would focus on the figure of Mary standing at the foot of the cross. If we ponder the person of Our Lady watching as blood and water flow from the side of her son, we will gradually appreciate more fully what it means to belong to the Church. The blood and water flowing from the side of Christ are the source of the sacramental life of the Church, and continue to bring us new life. If we keep our station with Mary at the foot of the cross this Lent, then we will celebrate the triduum of Holy Week with great profit and we will become bearers of Good News to those around us.

I also wish to mention that in Lent I will be reflecting on the Stations of the Cross in two special services at the Cathedral which are being organised by the Diocesan Youth Service. These will take place on 14th and 28th March at 4 p.m. and publicity material will be made available. The arrival of the World Youth Day Cross at our Cathedral was a memorable occasion and I warmly invite everyone, but particularly our young people to join me in prayer on these two evenings.

I wish you every blessing in this Holy Season.

Archbishop of Southwark

Given at St George's Cathedral, Southwark
on 1 February 2004