Launch of CARITAS Southwark
18 March 2023
St George’s Cathedral, Southwark.
(Hos. 5:15-6:6; 1 Cor. 12:31-13:13; Lk.18:9-14)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
I was blessed to spend part of my priestly ministry at St Joseph’s Parish in Bradford. The large, beautiful church was close to the city centre and had a vibrant and diverse congregation. Some of the people living locally faced enormous social challenges, not least real poverty through a lack of food, clothing, and friendship, and the struggle to pay for basic necessities like heating and lighting.
One feature of presbytery life at St Joseph’s was regular callers to the door. Throughout the day and evening, people would seek help and, with the parishioners, we did our best to respond.
One particular Sunday, after celebrating the morning Masses and baptisms, I settled down for lunch and a quiet afternoon before the evening Mass. Not unusually, the doorbell began to ring; and it continued to ring every ten minutes. Each time there was someone in need of a sandwich and a cup of tea; or the bus fare to Leeds; or money to top up the electricity; or food for their family; or clothing, toiletries or baby food. In one sense it was just a normal day, but I was tired and after a couple of hours my patience began to wear thin.
About half-past four the doorbell rang yet again. I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t in the best of moods. I opened the door grumpily, and before the man standing there had the chance to say anything, I said ‘And what do you want?’ I never actually found out. The man, who was clearly poor, just looked at me and replied ‘Nothing from you,’ and he turned around and walked away. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me up. There was I, a Pharisee, standing in judgement. I certainly didn’t despise the man in front of me, but I did fail to see Christ in him. Faith, hope and love were tested that day and found wanting. In fact, I felt so guilty that when the next man rang the doorbell, I gave him my coat, even though he didn’t really want it. It was more about salving my conscience.
Today, dear friends, something wonderful is happening in our Archdiocese. Today we launch formally CARITAS Southwark, a network across our parish and school communities, a network which seeks to be ambitious for the higher gifts in caring for others. Today we make a commitment to serve people in need by putting our faith into action and making the love of Christ real, tangible and practical. Difficult though it might sometimes be, our love is to be patient and kind, not envious, boastful or proud; never dishonouring others, not self-seeking, not easily angered or recording wrongs. It is challenging to see Christ in every person we meet, but the commandment to love others as Christ loves is not an optional extra. Our discipleship demands we must keep practising, trying to get it right for each person.
It is caritas, the Latin word for love, which sums up the whole teaching of Christ. It is caritas from which we get the English word charity, referring originally to the specifically Christian kind of love to be shown to those in need. It is caritas which never delights in evil, but rejoices with the truth, that always protects and trusts, that always hopes and perseveres. Pope Francis reminds us what this means: ‘Each individual Christian and every community,’ he says ‘is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands,’ says Pope Francis ‘that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid.’ (EG 187) Serving those in need dear friends, and working for their rights and dignity, brings together the essential Christian virtues of love and justice in order that they might flourish for everyone.
Cartias Christi urget nos – the love of Christ compels us wrote St Paul to the early Church in Corinth (2 Cor 5:14). This is why we are here today. This is why CARITAS Southwark is being launched. The love of Christ compels us to break down barriers and welcome the stranger in need, whoever they are, wherever they are from. The love of Christ guides us to see his face in every person we meet and to look at them through his eyes. The love of Christ urges us to reach out with hearts and hands of service and compassion. The love of Christ requires that we build genuine relationships of care and concern with the poorest and the weakest.
From her first beginnings the Church has sought to put into practice the teaching of the Lords Jesus that whatever we do to the least we do to him. (cf Mt 25:40) This continues in our day through our parishes and schools, and through charitable activities inspired by our Catholic faith. Our CARITAS Southwark network will help to build up our common bond of Christian service, supporting and learning from good practice and inspiring new initiatives that give flesh to the Gospel through our generosity.
I ask every parish and school in our Archdiocese to consider the question: What are we doing to serve those most in need in our community? I ask every parish and school in our Archdiocese to take up a new outreach to people who face poverty, homelessness, isolation, and rejection. From small seeds, mighty trees can grow to provide shelter from the burning heat of pain and suffering. So, let us plant seeds of practical love. Let us do something for our community, for those beyond the walls of our churches. Let us build partnerships and work collaboratively. Let us create opportunities to call forth the gifts and talents of the people of our Archdiocese, especially young people in our parishes and schools, in loving and humble service of others.
Dear friends, none of us is perfect. As my experience at St Joseph’s shows, it is not always easy to love others, to overcome our indifference and selfishness, and to make time to put love into practice. But the more we try to love others, the easier it gets. If we wait until we are perfect to put our faith into action, we will wait forever. If we wait for a perfect time in our life to put our faith into action, we will wait forever. If we wait until everything is sorted in our own life before we consider someone else, we will wait forever. Now is the time. Now is our time. The love of Christ urges us to put his love into practice, to feed Christ in the hungry, to give him a drink in the thirsty, to welcome him in the stranger, to cloth him in the naked, to visit him in the sick, to care for him in the refugee, the prisoner, the pregnant mother and unborn child, those with disabilities, the elderly, people with addictions, the abandoned, the lonely and the suffering.
Can we do this? Can we do this when our loving effort seems such a small seed, a mere drop in the ocean of need? Mother Teresa, St Teresa of Calcutta, said beautifully, ‘If you can’t feed a hundred people, just feed one.’
Will we do this? Will we do this when the need is so great and we cannot do everything? Preaching just a few minutes before his assassination on 24 March 1980, St Oscar Romero reminded us that even a small seed brings a harvest through Christ: ‘We know,’ he said ‘that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us.’
Dear friends let us be encouraged to find new ways forward, not reasons for judgement and indifference, ways which keep the person in need always at the centre of our concern. In our streets and towns and cities, through our parishes and schools, people are waiting for us to show them the love of Christ. The Lord Jesus is looking to you and me to be his hands and feet, his ears and mouth, his mind and heart.
Now is the time to say ‘yes’ to the Lord Jesus. Yes Lord, we see you in the poverty and need and weakness of our brothers and sisters. Yes Lord, in loving and serving them, we will love and serve you. Amen.