In a sermon delivered at the special pilgrimage held on Sunday, September 2, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Papal Visit to Scotland, Archbishop Mario Conti urged Scots Catholics to stay loyal to their faith in the face of increasing pressures from society.
“What you have come to is Mount Zion, and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival with the whole Church in which every one is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven. You have come to God himself, the supreme judge, and been placed with spirits of the saints who have been made perfect; and to Jesus the mediator who brings a new covenant.” (Hebrews 12, 22-24)
If, as pilgrims, we come with this vision of faith to every Mass we celebrate there are occasions like this when we have a heightened sense that we gather in the arena of all creation, conscious of the universality of the Church, and recognising that we worship the God of creation through Christ with all the saints and the joyful choirs ofangels.
It is to the angelic chorus that we join our voices, saying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
It is with the “saints who have been made perfect” that we form what the epistle earlier called a “great cloud of witnesses on every side of us.” Among them we remember today in a special way St John Ogilvie, a Jesuit priest, a native of Banffshire, who, in 1615 gave supreme witness to his faith through his martyrdom at Glasgow Cross.
In that same city, we recall, that 25 years ago, the Supreme Pontiff, Pope John Paul II, gave us the encouragement, again in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, that, “we too should throw off everything that hinders us, especially the sin that clings so easily, and keep running steadily in the race we have started.”
“Let us not lose sight of Jesus who leads us in our faith, and brings it to perfection.” (Hebrews 12, 1)
Those who “gathered (that day) for the festival, of the whole Church” will not forget that other day, with its hundreds of thousands corralled in Bellahouston Park, below a great altar set up for the occasion and all drenched in sunshine. Nor will we forget the resounding words of the Holy Father as he challenged us to remember our past: “You are the heirs to a sacred heritage. Your forefathers have handed on to you the only inheritance they really prized, our holy Catholic faith! From heaven their heartfelt appeal to you would be this: ‘Set your hearts on his Kingdom’ (Luke.12, 31).”
It was as if he were referring to the great cloud of witnesses of which the writer to the Hebrews spoke. But these witnesses are not only in the past but in the present and we ourselves are, in our generation, to be such witnesses.
In the words of Pope John Paul: “You originate in a glorious past, but you do not live in the past. You belong to the present and your generation must not be content simply to rest on the laurels won by your grandparents and great-grandparents. You must give your response to Christ’s call to follow him and enter with him as co-heirs into his Father’s heavenly Kingdom.”
With these words the Pope reiterated the message he had given the day before to the crowds of young people from all over Scotland who came to Murrayfield to meet him. To them he said: “Do not let the sight of the world in turmoil shake your confidence in Jesus. Not even the threat of nuclear war. Remember his words: ‘Be brave: I have conquered the world’. Let no temptation discourage you. Let no failure hold you down. There is nothing that you cannot master with the help of the One who gives you strength.”
Those young people, now in their 40s and 50s, will have learned by bitter experience how necessary it has been to rely on Jesus in facing the challenges of the age.
What the Holy Father said is as true today as it was then: “We find it harder to follow Christ today than appears to have been the case before. Witnessing to him in modern life means a daily contest. As believers we are constantly exposed to pressures by modern society, which would compel us to conform to the standards of this secular age, substitute new priorities, restrict our aspirations at the risk of compromising our Christian conscience.”
And surely the words which followed were truly prophetic: “The spirit of this world would have us capitulate on the most fundamental principles of our Christian life. Today as never before, the basic doctrines of the Faith are questioned and the value of Christian morality challenged and ridiculed. Things abhorred a generation ago are now inscribed in the statute books of society! These are issues of the utmost gravity to which a simple answer cannot be given; neither are they answered by being ignored. Matters of such magnitude demand the fullest attention of our Christian conscience.”
In the Pastoral Letter published to mark this occasions, we bishops remark: “Today, at a distance of 25 years, we need to reflect on those words. In so many areas of life ‘the most fundamental principles of our Christian life’ are not only questioned, but ridiculed and threatened with sanction.”
Individualism has come to predominate; the growth in the quest for individual rights has taken precedence over what is right. These trends bring many challenges. They include:
* The Sacredness of Life: Here we refer to the ever increasing incidence of abortion and the creeping acceptance of euthanasia.
* The Family: What we have in view here is not only the natural union of man and woman in marriage being questioned as to its uniqueness, but also to the very institution being downgraded by legislation which has accorded equal rights to unmarried and same sex unions.
* Education: Our reference in this case is to the repeated attacks made on our Catholic schools, unjustly accusing them of fostering sectarianism.
* Freedom of conscience: Our concern is about equality legislation which could impact on the right of Catholic agencies to work with a coherent Christian ethic in many fields, including that of adoption, as if everyone had an equal right to adopt a child, treating it as if it were a commodity, rather than considering as paramount the child’s needs.
Where the language of “rights” predominates, the wisdom of scriptural injunction becomes obscured.
Listen for a moment to the following injunctions which, in the epistle to the Hebrews, follow on the passage just read at Mass:
“Continue to love each other like brothers, and remember always to welcome strangers. Keep in mind those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them; and those who are being badly treated, since you too are in the one body. Marriage is to be honoured by all, and marriages are to be kept undefliled, because fornicators and adulterers will come under God’s judgement. Put greed out of your lives and be content with whatever you have. We can say with confidence: ‘With the Lord to help me I fear nothing: what can man do to me?'” (ibid 13:
The sentence which follows brings us back to Pope John Paul II and indeed to St John Ogilvie: “Remember your leaders who preached the word of God to you, and as you reflect on the outcome of their lives, imitate their faith.” (ibid 13: 7)
“Your commitment to the sure ways of Christian living could well be decisive in bringing salvation to many,” said the late Holy Father, for “the world still recognizes genuine goodness for what it is!”
As we say in our pastoral letter: “The late Holy Father encouraged us to draw inspiration from the past and embrace again the fundamental practices of the faith in facing today’s challenges. That call we make our own today: “Be loyal to the memory of those valiant forerunners in the Faith. Be diligent in handing on intact the spiritual heritage committed to you. Be faithful to your daily prayers, to the Holy Mass and the Sacrament of Penance, meeting regularly with Jesus as a loving and merciful Saviour. Defend the sacredness of Life and the holiness of Matrimony. Understand your holy Catholic faith and live by its teaching. Face up to the difficult challenges of modern life with Christian fortitude and patience.”
And we, the Bishops of Scotland, invite our Christian brothers and sisters once again to join us confidently in preaching the Gospel to the non-believers and the un-churched of our land. In so doing we are re-iterating the Holy Father’s words to the rest of the Christian community in Scotland: “We are only pilgrims on this earth, making our way towards that heavenly Kingdom promised to us as God’s children. Beloved brethren in Christ, for the future, can we not make that pilgrimage together hand-in-hand, ‘bearing with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience,’ doing all we can ‘to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds us together’? (Eph. 4, 2-3) This would surely bring down upon us the blessing of God our Father on our pilgrim way.”
Allow me to conclude with the words with which we, your bishops, conclude our pastoral letter, a letter to which we have added all our signatures, and to which we attach our fondest hopes. “Dear brothers and sisters of the Catholic community. In recalling these words of the Pope, we wish to do more than evoke feelings of nostalgia, or recall with pride one of the greatest days in the history of the Church in Scotland. “Rather we wish to draw inspiration and encouragement from the experience which we lived through, and recognize again the insight and wisdom in the words spoken to us by Christ’s Vicar on earth.”
And may St John Ogilvie, whose fortitude and fidelity to Christ impressed those of his own day, give encouragement to us, his fellow Scots, in these our days.