Pastoral Letter to be read in all churches and chapels of the Archdiocese of Liverpool on the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sunday 19 February 2012.
My dear people,
50 years ago at this time I was ordained a priest. The ordination was celebrated in the Chapel of the English College, Rome, by Cardinal Godfrey. He had been Archbishop of Liverpool. The Master of Ceremonies was his secretary, the then Monsignor Derek Worlock, who would become Archbishop of Liverpool. In those days we were permitted to choose the readings for our first Mass: I chose the readings for the feast of Christ the King. We could also choose a hymn when we first gave Benediction: I chose: ‘Hail, Redeemer King Divine’. I later discovered it was composed for our Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. It looks as if I was bound to be your Archbishop one day.
I think it is also right to share this with you. When I last visited Archbishop Worlock in the Lourdes Hospital, as I knelt by his bed he said: ‘Patrick, we go back a long way.’ I know he meant: within weeks of that ordination both Cardinal Godfrey and my sister Mary needed treatment for cancer. He died not long before she did, just over a year later. And over the years both of us accompanied many on that same journey.
Accompany: that word will help us now to ponder the words of God we receive today. They invite me to reflect on the meaning of being a priest, but also encourage our generous participation in lent which begins on Wednesday.
How would you answer the question of Our Lord: ‘”Which of these is easier: to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven” or to say, “Get up, pick up you stretcher and walk?”’ I usually answered: your sins are forgiven is easier than making someone walk again; but I had my doubts. Now I am certain: the harder, more laborious, more burdensome, more demanding is to say: ‘Your sins are forgiven’.
This conviction was confirmed when in January I visited for the second time the place across the Jordan, called: Elijah’s spring. Saint John’s Gospel makes it clear: Our Lord was baptised there by John the Baptist. And what Jesus did then and there was this: he refused to stand safe on the bank, aloof from sinners. He refused, in serene safety, just to reach out a hand to haul them up from the surging, terrifying waters; he did not speak a powerful word of absolution. But he descended into the waters to be utterly Emmanuel, God with them. He accompanies them into the depths of their sin and shame and guilt and fear and made it his very own. As Saint Paul will teach us when we come to Mass on Wednesday: ‘For our sake God made the sinless one into sin.’ Or as we acclaim in the Apostles’ Creed, which I hope we will pray on the Sundays of Lent and Eastertide: ‘he descended into hell.’ When we, his younger sisters and brothers had wandered far from home he did not wait for our return; as Pope Benedict taught us; he leapt to his feet and found his way into whatever distant country our sin has taken us to accompany us home. And so:
We give you thanks redeeming Christ,
Who bore our weight of sin and shame
In dark defeat you conquered sin
And death by dying overcame.
I realise more clearly every day: a priest must be utterly one with this deed of our Lord; no standing safe on the bank; no cold, aloof voice demanding repentance; a harsh voice shouting: get you home: no distant power. But accompany: listen: learn: suffer: feel. Accompany as Archbishop Worlock accompanied Cardinal Godfrey and I accompanied my sister in my first year as a priest.
And this is the whole purpose of Lent: yes, it is good to be generous in these weeks to those in need, to our sisters and brothers in the Holy Land through the Friends of the Holy Land, Good Shepherd, Nugent Care and Cafod.
But above all Lent brings us to:
A Thursday evening when we allow Our Lord and Master to kneel down and wash our feet: Maundy Thursday when we enter into that night when he first revealed ‘my body given up for you…the blood of the new and eternal covenant which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sin.’
Lent brings us to 3.00 on Good Friday to contemplate the wonder of the loving wisdom of our God, the wisest love, the generous love
‘that he who smote
in man for man the foe
the double agony in man
for man should undergo.’
Good Friday, when all we can do is kiss his cross in silence and awesome wonder.
Best of all Lent brings us to the Easter vigil when we witness a deed that is utterly new, unexpected, impossible for armies and silver and gold and power; an event which is the fruit of patience and mercy and forgiveness: a stone rolled away; an empty tomb for the Lord is risen; and revealed still in a candle’s gentle ray. For he has conquered force, domination, manipulation; his victory is over the ways of proud celebrity and dazzling selfishness; he has won the victory over every temptation to be anything, anyone but a servile God. For such he was and is and always will be. And the new life of baptism we celebrate and renew together at the Vigil is to be set free from the fascination of force and domination and control and din and live by patience and compassion, mercy and forgiveness, silence and song.
Visit the website of the Archdiocese of Liverpool to discover opportunities during Lent to enter into the loving wisdom, the wisest, generous love of our God.
Blessed John Henry Newman was so right:
‘Praise to the Holiest in the height
and in the depth be praise,
in all his words most wonderful
most sure in all his ways.’
Or in words from Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which have so strangely been read as part of the Mass or Office on every day I have been asked to be and serve as a priest in a new way:
‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations for ever and ever. Amen.’
Archbishop of Liverpool