Rosary Sunday



Pastoral Letter

To be read or made available on 3 October 2004
Rosary Sunday and the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

My dear people,

Since coming to the diocese on the feast of the Immaculate Conception last year I have visited all the deaneries and had meetings with the priests and with the deanery pastoral councils. In the coming months I look forward to meetings with deacons and their wives, with religious, with chaplains and with other groups. I regard these meetings as important for getting to know the diocese that has been entrusted to my care. Listening has been the key to these meetings and it is in the context of that listening process that I would want to situate the meetings that have taken place throughout the diocese to hear people's hopes and concerns about marriage and family life.

All the dioceses of England and Wales have been asked to set up such a process and in that context to hold a day on "The Church and Family Life". Bishop John Hine has been involved in the organisation of these weeks at national level. Here in Southwark, Father Graham Preston has been responsible for organising our day and he will be inviting a cross-section of people from across the diocese to discuss the issues that have been coming up. A report will be prepared after this day which can be a resource for continuing reflection. This day, like the ones held in other dioceses, has several objectives. One is to enable the Bishops' Conference to form a picture of the situation in the Church today regarding marriage and family life: not a picture based on media reports or hearsay, but on the witness of Catholics in the Church today. It will also seek to gain an idea of what is being done to prepare people for marriage and to support people in marriage. Much is already being done, of course, but it is important that it be drawn together and that experience be shared.

A few points about this process need to be borne in mind.

A principal concern of the organisers has been to ensure that all voices are heard. We need to hear the positive witness of those for whom marriage has been the fundamental blessing of their adult lives. But there are other stories we need to hear as well: the stories of those for whom marriage has not proved to be the blessing it promised to be; the experience of those who have been through the pain of marriage breakdown; and of single parents who valiantly bring up a family on their own. In the Pope's great encyclical on marriage, Familiaris Consortio, he presented a positive vision of marriage and family life but out of that he speaks with deep pastoral concern to those whose marriages have broken down and to those who have married again (cf sections 83 and 84). Finally the Church must also hear the voices of those who for whatever reason are not married. Without their voices, the picture would simply not be complete.

Let me then share some reflections on marriage which I hope will be helpful and timely.

The birth of a child is a cause of great joy. It is an occasion of wonder and of gratitude. A new child elicits a response of love and care in parents, siblings, grandparents and, indeed, anyone who is close to the family. Likewise, the love that a mother instinctively gives to her child engenders a response of love and trust in the heart and mind of her baby. It is vitally important that this response be fostered and honoured in the early weeks and months of life if the child is to grow up secure and confident; able to give and to receive love.

When Christian parents have a child their first thoughts will be of the baptism of the child. It is not only the family that has a new member: the Church rejoices to welcome the new child into its embrace and this happens in baptism. Through the pouring of water and the invocation of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the child becomes a son or daughter of God and embarks on the process of Christian initiation. The crucial point here is that family life and life in the Church are inextricably connected. That connection is the context in which we speak of the family as the "domestic Church". The family is a cell within the Church where the grace of Christ is received and lived. What does this mean in practice?

St Paul, in a famous passage in the letter to the Ephesians compares the relationship between husband and wife to the relationship between Christ and his Church. The sacrificial death of Jesus Christ disclosed God's absolute love and commitment to the human family. Through faith we reciprocate this love: we do it explicitly at Easter when we renew our baptismal promises. When a man and woman celebrate the sacrament of matrimony they commit themselves to one another in total fidelity for the rest of their lives. It is in and through their love for one another that they reciprocate the love of God for each of them. This love is open and receptive. In particular, it is open to the gift of new life that God may bestow upon their union. Christian marriage never rejects or resists the gift of life but embraces it in love. Christian marriage is also exclusive. It presupposes that sexual intimacy finds appropriate expression precisely in the context of marriage: the life-long union that is open to procreation and is recognised by society and blessed by the Church. A married couple will be caught up in a wide range of relationships beyond their marriage but sexual relations are reserved for marriage. Outside marriage, sexual relations cannot take on their profound meaning and significance as a medium of other-centred love that is open to new life. We see, therefore, the inextricable connection of human love and divine love within the sacrament of matrimony.

When a couple bestow the sacrament of matrimony on one another, they are also responding to their vocation in life. All the baptised are called to a particular vocation in life and it is important that any programmes provided by schools on human development or human love should be presented in the context of Church teaching on vocation, on marriage and on sexuality. In other words we need to present young people with a positive view of the future as either involving commitment within marriage or else a single life in which their sexuality will find full expression but not in the form of physical intimacy. Experience has shown that when this is explained to young people positively - as an invitation to life - then it is understood and welcomed.

Some further indications must be made in relation to the Church's vision of human life and sexuality. The first is to acknowledge honestly that this view of human life and human love conflicts sharply with the "wisdom" and the habits of mind of the culture in which we live. But precisely because of this we must be faithful to the truth about marriage and sexuality that has been handed on within the sacramental life of the Church. I experienced a most powerful witness to this truth in the Mass celebrated in the Cathedral earlier this year for couples celebrating the 25th, 40th, 50th and even 60th anniversaries of their marriage. I was deeply moved by the witness of the couples I met and could see the pride in the eyes of their children and grandchildren as I greeted them after the Mass. The Church was acknowledging their fidelity to the grace of the sacrament of matrimony.

And we must acknowledge equally frankly that Church teaching in this area proposes high ideals and costly demands. The fact that we may struggle and falter in our response to the Church's teaching in these matters does not negate the truth of that teaching. Moreover, the Church fully acknowledges the social and psychological constraints operating in people's lives which militate against a full and perfect response to the demands of the Gospel in this area of life. In this context the sacrament of reconciliation should be seen as the great grace and opportunity that it is.

The Church in its wisdom has continued to stress the importance of personal confession as the framework in which the priest can address the unique circumstances of the Christian's life in a way that is true to the reality of their lives as well as being true to the demands of the Gospel. It is a context in which the priest can help people to discern what God is asking of them at this particular moment in their lives. We are called to love one another as Christ loved us in his suffering and death on the cross, and we are called to live this love within our own unique role and vocation in life.

Let us therefore pray for one another and pray for the success of this day of reflection on "The Church and Family Life". Let us ask God to bless us as we seek to respond to the call Christ continues to make to each one of us today: "Love one another as I have loved you." (John 13:34).

With my blessing and good wishes,

+ Kevin
Archbishop of Southwark


Given at St George's Cathedral, Southwark,
on 8 September 2004,
The Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary