Pastoral Letter

To be read or made available on 13th March 2005,
the 5th Sunday of Lent, Year A

My dear People,

Quite soon the Season of Lent will be drawing to a close and in Holy Week we will be remembering once more the suffering, death and resurrection of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. I would like this year to turn our thoughts to Holy Thursday when we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist. This is the Year of the Eucharist and it is a time for pondering the meaning of this central mystery of our faith. There are two aspects of the Eucharist that I would like to propose for our reflection today.

In his Apostolic Letter for the Year of the Eucharist, Mane Nobiscum, the Pope explains the relationship between the Eucharist and the tragic divisions that scar our world. He describes the Eucharist as a "project of solidarity" and says: "In the celebration of the Eucharist the church constantly renews her awareness of being a 'sign and instrument' not only of intimate union with God but also of unity for the whole human race." (no. 27)

So the Eucharist is a sacrament of unity, celebrated in a divided world. It is a sign of hope in a fragmented and unjust society. Over recent months, the terrible shock of the tsunami has cast a shadow over our world. People within our own diocese have been personally affected by it. Many of the people in the countries that suffered most were people who already lived in poverty. The trauma endured by them has put into very clear focus the grave crisis of the world in which we live, namely the continuing and deepening divide between rich and poor. All of us who celebrate the Eucharist should do all we can to support the efforts being made to cancel the debt of the poorest countries and to enable them to develop a sound economic basis for the future.

The Pope says in his Letter that the celebration of the Eucharist gives each community the impulse and motivation for building a more just and fraternal society. Indeed, the very celebration of Mass confronts us with the injustice suffered by those who do not enjoy a fair share of the "fruit of the earth and work of human hands". The Pope goes on to say: "We cannot delude ourselves: by our mutual love and, in particular, by our concern for those in need we will be recognised as the followers of Christ… This will be the criteria by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebration is judged." (no. 28)

These are strong words which may challenge and stretch our understanding of what Christ did at the Last Supper. The Eucharist is a sacrament of unity and it speaks powerfully to all conflict and division. But there is another kind of division on which I would also like to reflect as we approach the celebration of Holy Week, 2005. I refer to the divisions which the Pope addressed in his great encyclical, Ut Unum Sint. In it he said: "The unity of all divided humanity is the will of God . . . on the eve of his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus himself prayed to the Father for his disciples and for all who believe in him, that they might be one, a living communion." (no. 6) The Pope goes on to urge Christians to strive for the unity for which Christ prayed. Just as we should never be satisfied celebrating this sacrament of unity in a world divided by poverty and war, so we should never be satisfied celebrating the Eucharist in a situation where Christians are divided from one another.

In recent years, I think there has grown up a spirit of resignation at the divided state of Christianity. Divisions seem to have been compounded. But the prayer of Christ "that they all may be one" should continue to be our prayer. The unity we seek will be the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not for us to know how and when that unity will be given. What we do know is that the ecumenical enterprise is an integral part of our Catholic identity. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council articulated an understanding of the Church that requires us to take a lead in the whole area of ecumenical engagement. The Pope himself has certainly done this and has spoken of his own primacy as a primacy in the search for unity. (cf. Ut Unum Sint, 4) This involves continuing to explore the deep cultural and doctrinal roots of our disunity. Most importantly, we should never be content with a shallow or bureaucratic type of ecumenism that is not true to our Catholic faith, especially our faith about the nature of the Church.

The Eucharist then is a celebration of hope: hope for justice and peace; hope for the full communion of all Christians. The two intentions are intimately connected. This hope may seem perverse given the long-standing divisions and injustices that have to be overcome. But we are a people of hope and that must be the spirit in which we continue our Lenten journey and in which we celebrate Holy Week. Today's Gospel, the story of the raising of Lazarus, is a challenge to live in hope: the hope of resurrection - the hope of a new life beyond all our imaginings and which is pure gift. May this hope sustain us as we follow Our Lord on his way of the Cross in Holy Week and as we celebrate Easter.

With my blessing and the assurance of my prayers,

Archbishop of Southwark

Given at St George's Cathedral, Southwark
on 2 February 2005
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord