BY THE MOST REVEREND PETER SMITH, ARCHBISHOP OF SOUTHWARK
PASTORAL LETTER TO BE READ ON THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME; SUNDAY, 10th FEBRUARY 2013
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we will begin the season of Lent. The scripture readings at Mass will speak to us of fasting, weeping and mourning; the need for prayer, and almsgiving. At a purely human level, we might be forgiven for feeling a little daunted and despondent at the prospect, first of a day of fasting and abstinence, and then six weeks of penance to come! Yet there is also a message of great hope from the prophet Joel: “Let your heart be broken not your garments torn, turn to the Lord your God again, for he is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness and ready to relent.” In the first reading today, we have listened to the call of the prophet Isaiah whilst he was at prayer in the Temple, and having an overwhelming experience of the majesty of God. Very conscious of his unworthiness and sinfulness, he nonetheless accepts the prophetic vocation God calls him to: “Here I am, send me.” In the gospel, Peter’s reaction to the miraculous catch of fish is to want to distance himself from Christ as he realises his own sinfulness and unworthiness: ” Leave me Lord, I am a sinful man.” He is conscious of his weakness, his inadequacy and frailty, yet Jesus calls him to become a fisher of men nonetheless. In time, Peter will discover that in union with Christ, he too will be empowered to perform miracles well beyond his own human resources.
Reflecting especially on the gospel reading today, I was reminded of the words of Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter to the Church at the beginning of this new millennium in which he said that all of us who are disciples of Christ ‘must gain a new impetus in Christian living, making it the force which inspires our journey of faith. Conscious of the Risen Lord’s presence among us, we ask ourselves today the same question put to Peter in Jerusalem immediately after his Pentecost speech: “What must we do?” (Acts 2:37). We put the question with trusting optimism, but without underestimating the problems we face. We are certainly not seduced by the naïve expectation that, faced with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!
It is not therefore a matter of inventing a “new programme”. The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a programme which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication.’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte n.29)
He goes on to say, ‘There is a temptation which perennially besets every spiritual journey and pastoral work: that of thinking that the results depend on our ability to act and to plan. God of course asks us really to cooperate with his grace, and therefore invites us to invest all our resources of intelligence and energy in serving the cause of the Kingdom. But it is fatal to forget that “without Christ we can do nothing” (cf. Jn 15:5). It is prayer which roots us in this truth. It constantly reminds us of the primacy of Christ and, in union with him, the primacy of the interior life and holiness. When this principle is not respected, is it any wonder that pastoral plans come to nothing and leave us with a disheartening sense of frustration? We then share the experience of the disciples in the Gospel story of the miraculous catch of fish: “We have toiled all night and caught nothing” (Lk 5:5). This is the moment of faith, of prayer, of conversation with God, in order to open our hearts to the tide of grace and allow the word of Christ to pass through us in all its power: Duc in altum! [Plunge into the deep!] On that occasion, it was Peter who spoke the word of faith: “At your word I will let down the nets.” (ibid.)’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte n.38)
So as we begin Lent, we should all be asking the question, “What shall we do?” Lent is a time when we are called to repentance, and to put God more consciously at the very centre of our lives once again. The traditional ways of repentance are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. And in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, tells us how to go about it. “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice…when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.” And again in respect of our prayer, Jesus says: “Do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them… But when you pray, go to your private room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret, will reward you.” Likewise, when it comes to fasting he says, “When you fast, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do; they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know that you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”
In order to do as the Lord asks of us, our hearts must be united with his heart; we must come to know him, and abide with him ever more deeply and with ever greater commitment, day by day. Lent is a “favourable time” for me to ask myself some pertinent questions about where I stand with God, and how I am responding to the commission he has given us. I cannot do that fruitfully unless I become more attentive to the word of God in the scriptures and through spending some time each day in quiet prayer. I cannot, from my own resources, produce the fruit that will last, unless I allow the living word of God to nurture my faith and trust in God who loves me unconditionally and with a steadfast love, and who looks on me in my weakness with great mercy and compassion. That living word of God not only informs my mind and heart, so that I come to know him, but is also able to transform my life so that I can indeed become “the light of the world”, “salt of the earth.”
Wishing you a fruitful Lent and let’s pray for each other,
Archbishop of Southwark
Given at Southwark, 4th February 2013