Pastoral Letter

To be read, or made available, on Sunday, 26th June 2005,
the Sunday preceding the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

My dear People,

As we approach the Feast of SS Peter and Paul, it is perhaps a good time to reflect on the momentous events that took place in the Catholic Church in April of this year. I am referring, of course, to the final illness and death of Pope John Paul II and to the election and inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI.

The media coverage of both events was astonishing and quite without precedent. We witnessed amazing scenes following the death of Pope John Paul: a huge outpouring of grief that drew together people from all over the world and which reached well beyond the bounds of the Catholic Church. For people everywhere the death of the Pope was felt as a personal loss in a way that could not have been possible for any of his predecessors. We saw thousands of people file past the Pope; people from his native Poland and other people from the many countries that the Pope had visited. Because of air travel and modern means of communication, Pope John Paul was not a remote figure but a personal presence in the lives of millions.

Pope John Paul was also a key player on the world stage and exercised a key role in the fall of Communism. One of the most interesting aspects of the media commentaries on Pope John Paul was his evident significance for non-Catholics, non-Christians, and people of no faith at all. This, too, was something quite new: his moral and spiritual stature was recognised by a wide spectrum of people and his life and work were appreciated and interpreted in many different ways. The criticisms of the Pope were much more predictable than the positive appreciation. All this brought home the importance of the Catholic Church in today's world and particularly the importance of the papacy. This should be a source of gratitude and of confidence for the Catholic community. One example illustrates this very well. In 1986, Pope John Paul called together religious leaders from all over the world to pray for peace. It was a new and unique initiative. Archbishop Robert Runcie, who was then Archbishop of Canterbury, said that no other religious leader could have done that. Pope John Paul understood the potential of his office in the modern globalised world and he used it to the full. He leaves the world a great legacy of witness, of teaching and of reconciliation.

When Pope John Paul died it seemed difficult to imagine the Church without him. But very soon we had a new Pope who quickly captured the imagination of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Before the conclave there was the inevitable speculation about whether we would have a "liberal" or a "conservative" Pope. This was heightened by the fact that there was a General Election campaign going on in Britain at the time. In fact labels like "liberal" or "conservative" are of very limited usefulness for analysing a papal election. The Pope is the custodian of the faith of the Church. He cannot have his own agenda. He is called to hand on the faith that he has received. But the tradition of the Church is a living thing: it develops and grows but always in continuity with what has gone before. One of the first things that Pope Benedict did was to confirm the Catholic Church's commitment to ecumenism. That was not a policy decision, but an act of fidelity to the living tradition. Indeed, for those of us directly involved in ecumenical and inter-faith work, the election of Pope Benedict was very good news because in his previous writings he has always demonstrated the way in which these things are an organic and integral dimension of Catholicity. It quickly became clear that any labelling of Pope Benedict as a "conservative" was misplaced. What impressed immediately was the profundity and the clarity of his teaching. We can, I am sure, look forward to a teaching ministry that will be lucid, accessible and compelling. We can also feel proud that we have such a holy and gifted pastor to take the Church into the future.

Of course, the Church has many problems to address and the future will hold many challenges for the new Pope as indeed it does for us all. Here in the diocese we face new challenges which we must address together. But we must always see the current issues facing the Church in the long term view. Pope Benedict is the successor of St Peter and it was to him and the other apostles that the Risen Lord said: "And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time." (Mt. 28, 20) In that confidence and in the communion of the Church we can look to the future with hope and with courage.

Finally, I would like to commend next Sunday's "Day for Life", which will focus on the moral and spiritual issues surrounding death and dying. In our culture we need both wisdom and courage to uphold the value of life from conception until natural death. I also commend to you the Diocesan Eucharistic Day at Aylesford on 17th September. May I encourage everyone to make this summer a time of prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament. Among the intentions of our prayers I would particularly mention justice for the poor of the world, respect for life, and vocations.

With my blessing and the assurance of my prayers,

Archbishop of Southwark

Given at St George's Cathedral, Southwark
on On the Feast of Corpus et Sanguis Christi,
26th May 2005