Pastoral Letter to be read in all churches and chapels of the Archdiocese of Liverpool on the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, 29 July 2012.
My dear people,
Today it is right and fitting to remember a man born about the same time as Our Lord and, like Our Lord, born in the Roman Empire. The first time we meet him he is a Roman Legionary and has risen to the rank of Centurion. He is stationed in one of the explosive outposts of the Empire: the North of Lake Galilee; in those days one of the crossroads of the great trade routes. And the Jews, who acclaimed the mighty David and Solomon as Kings, were a proud, stubborn, rebellious people. They bitterly resented the Roman occupation.
But this centurion, this agent of the occupying power, was not quite like the general run of the military in those days. It was not unusual for commanders like him to have servants, more truthfully, slaves. Slaves were possessions, bought and sold like cattle, sheep, chariots, jewellery. But this centurion had a deep concern for his slave. When he was desperately ill, he sent Jewish people to plead with the man he had heard about who could heal the sick: Jesus. When Jesus offered to come to his house he replied: ‘Lord, I am not worthy, that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant, my soul, shall be healed.’
The centurion was different in another respect. Somehow he had been touched by the fidelity of the Jewish people to the Sabbath Rest, to the Word of God and the Prayer of the Psalms. He had even built a synagogue for them in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. It is probably worth noting this simple fact because of the possibilities it might open up. Still today you can visit ruins of a Synagogue in Capernaum. It is not the one that the centurion built, but a later one; modelled perhaps on the original. Carved into its stones you can see wheat, from which bread is made, and grapes, from which wine is made.
I wonder where the centurion was that day when, as we will recall on the Sundays of August, Jesus came to the synagogue he had built; a building perhaps similarly adorned with carvings of wheat and vines? There Our Lord revealed himself as the Living Bread: his Blood as the only wine of gladness. And every time we draw near to receive his Body and Blood we make that centurion’s prayer our own.
Today we keep Life Sunday: the Olympics are a celebration of vitality, of strength. But we know that the only Bread that gives authentic vitality is a Body given, broken for us in selflessness; our energising drink is his Blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Life for us is selfless vitality and the strength of compassion and mercy. As many rejoice in athletic achievements we dared, in Lourdes and at home in the last few days, to anoint and honour and respect the weary, tired frail limbs of the sick and old; and we even have Bread which is unashamedly the food to nourish us as we die, Viaticum, the word which means: ‘With You on your Final Journey’. Please be generous in today’s Life collection: this year it is to assist the work of those who scrutinise new medical possibilities to make sure that what is possible is also ultimately for the wholesome well-being of all.
Whatever happens in terms of gold medals and this wet summer, receive now week by week: the sermon of Our Lord in the Centurion’s Synagogue in Capernaum: be lifted up, be gladdened, and rejoice from the heart. Let it be the first step as we look forward in coming months to play our part in enabling parents to accompany their children on the journey to their confirmation and first communion early next summer.
And perhaps, in compassion especially for those for whom the word Afghanistan conjures up fear, wounded memories, when we make the soldier's prayer our own let the Lord widen our heart at least as far as Afghanistan: ‘Lord, I am not worthy, that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant, my soul, shall be healed.’ At that most personal moment of communion with him, Our Lord will graciously open our heart in compassion to plead for peace and, for the armed services, safe home.
Yours devotedly in Christ,
Archbishop of Liverpool