LIVERPOOL, England, JUNE 13, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Here is the address Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the archbishop of Westminster, delivered June 4 at the opening of the Big Hope Conference at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool. The speech was titled, “Integrity, Complexity and the Common Good.”
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It is a pleasure to have been asked to address you at the beginning of a remarkable international gathering which is taking place in the European Capital of Culture for 2008.
This takes place in one of the buildings that is not only one of the best-known features of Liverpool’s skyline but also an eloquent symbol of the faith of many people who live in this part of Britain.
I cannot help recalling my first visit to Liverpool over forty years ago, on the day this cathedral was opened in the presence of the Pope’s delegate, Archbishop Heenan. As the procession left the building, there were local people cheering the papal delegate; and they cheered the bishops; and behind the bishops were a group of priests, one of whom was myself. I shall not forget how one of the women looked at us and said to her friends, “Ah, look at those poor priests; let’s given them a cheer as well.” That strikes me as typical of the Liverpool people who somehow manage to find humor in every situation and always give their visitors a warm-hearted welcome.
I also had to smile to myself when I discovered I was being asked to speak at a festival called The Big Hope, because — as some of you will know — the motto I took when I became a bishop over 30 years ago is “Gaudium et Spes,” Latin words that mean Joy and Hope. These are the first words of a document that was meant to weigh up how Christians should live in the modern world. These words exhort us to share the joys and hopes, as well as the problems and challenges, of the whole human race. Today I want to say something about the world in which our young people live and I want to identify a few pointers which will help them live lives of hope.
It is a fact that in our post-modern era everything is mixed up and the relatively clear outlines of society are complex and somewhat confused. The institutions which only a generation ago inspired almost unquestioning trust are now, perhaps properly, the subject of scrutiny and suspicion. Look at any contemporary institution and you will see that this is so from Royalty to the Church, to Parliament, to the Law to academic institutes. Old certainties are questioned and frequently undermined. You remember Pilate saying the famous words, Truth. What is truth? Truth, it is said, in our modern world is no longer received and need no longer be proved objectively because there is no such thing as “objective.” Your truth is yours, mine is mine. You are the product of your language and culture just as I am the product of mine. This is also true of many people’s attitudes to religion.
I once went into a shop and looked at men’s toiletries! I do assure you all I wanted was some toothpaste and some shampoo! But I was amazed by the titles of some of the toiletries, the ointments, and the language that is used. You find such products as “transcendence” — “vision” — “grace” — “salvation.” These are, of course, all religious words but how extraordinary that society would have taken the words of religion, which lead to an inner life and an after life, and made them a philosophy to achieve beauty and transcendence in this life! Religion can often be seen à la carte — in a selective and individualistic way. A bit of Buddhism, a bit of new age, a chapter from the New Testament and a course in oriental meditation!
Yet it also seems to me that within this complex and multi-faceted picture of our culture, that our young people are remarkably generous and self-giving. I see three basic pointers to hope among our young people — the search for community, the need for dialogue and the importance of a personal spirituality or interior life.
Firstly, there is the search for community. In Orthodox monasteries at the end of the day, after Night Prayer, the Abbot sits in his chair and, one by one, the monks go up and kneel before him and he kisses each one on the top of his head: a sign of acceptance, forgiveness and love. It is within a community, of course most notably the community of a family which is the building block of any society, that everyone first feels accepted and loved. It is the best place for profound human flourishing. Our young people need the experience of good community in order to thrive. We have to rediscover our faith in the humanising experience of community and our respect for the community as a place of healing.
A few years ago I was in Lourdes and went to visit a community called The Cenacolo. It was an extraordinary moving experience. It was a house of forty men, all of whom had been drug addicts. Many of them had been on drugs for years and had found that all efforts to get them off the drug addiction had come to nothing. But through the inspiration of a Sister Elvira, fifty of these homes had been founded. They were communities which relied totally on providence. There was a regular life of prayer and of work. Each one was given a guardian when they came to help them over the very difficult times when they were tempted to leave and go back to their addiction. Each, through the prayer, through the community, through their service to each other, had found not only that they were able to overcome their addiction but also had found a peace and meaning to their lives. In that community was a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, which is not won without effort and difficulty. It is like the pearl of great price which, having been found, brings great joy. I remember one of them saying to me, “We are taught to have a mind to the person beside us in whatever we are doing, whether it is making a meal, or painting a wall, or working in the field. It moves us beyond our self to look at the other.” And I think that is something of what young people crave. They need to know that they are loved, that someone is looking out for them. In community they can discover a place of healing, of forgiveness, and the opportunity of a fresh start.
The second “pointer” of hope for young people is the opportunity for dialogue. If we are to live out the search for real hope in pluralistic, democratic societies, we need to recognize that not all people share our views or even our deepest convictions. Some people could be tempted to describe this as relativism but that would not be correct. We can recognize people’s differences without saying that our differences are unimportant. This is precisely why we need to have space in our societies for proper dialogue where nobody is prevented from expressing his or her convictions simply to conform to somebody’s idea of political correctness. True dialogue respects everybody’s integrity. Genuinely strong people have no fear of other people’s views, so they feel able to allow people of radically different convictions to speak freely. They are happy to hear what others have to say.
Not like the story of the man giving a lecture in an auditorium where there was trouble with the sound system. He asked his audience “Can you all hear me.” A man put his hand up, “I can hear you but I’m very happy to change places with someone who can’t.”
When I speak about dialogue, I am not only thinking of dialogue between people of religion, but dialogue with people who do not believe or express any need for religion. For out of dialogue emerges a commitment to the common good. That common good by far transcends our private goals. I suppose my hope for tomorrow’s leaders, among whom are many of you today, is that you and others will be people of courage and compassion; people who can combine a passion for truth with the ability to see beyond ideas to the men, women and children who express them. I hope that you will be people who will let the clarity of reason be tempered by the wisdom of their hearts. This means a need, not only to express our views, but to listen and to be humble and to recognize that, as the poet John Donne put it:
“On a huge hill, cragged and steep, truth stands;
And he that will reach her, about must, and about must go.”
My last pointer to hope for our young people is the need for a personal spiritual life — a life of interiority. The first words of the Rule of St. Benedict are, “Listen, my son.” It is not easy for young men and women, in a world bombarded by noise and rapidly changing pictures, to be able to be silent. We have all heard of “information overload” and probably experienced it frequently. To stay sane we need to be able to decide what is worth ignoring and what is valuable. So silence is a discipline. It is not easy to learn but one which can help in the discernment of sense and non-sense, good and bad, what is peripheral and what is genuine. Four hundred years ago, Blaise Paschal pointed out, “all our problems come from the fact that we cannot cope with quiet and inactivity, even though we often complain that we have too much to do.”
I was very moved some time ago by a visit from the Archbishop of Prague, a certain Cardinal Vlk, who shared with me something of his experience of aloneness and silence curing the Communist occupation of his country. He was persecuted as a priest by the authorities and thrown out of his parish. He was told by the authorities he could not practice his faith and had to make his own way in the world. He became a window cleaner and worked for ten years in the City of Prague. One day he was cleaning windows on one of Prague’s busy streets and he could hear German tourists below him window-shopping and wondering what they were going to buy. He began to think to himself, “No one knows who I am. No one knows I’m a priest. No one cares about the Gospel that I try to live.” And then he went on to say, very beautifully: “It struck me very deeply, a voice within. On the cross God is present but hidden, and if Jesus could live and die in this way, then so could I.” It seemed to me that his silence, his pain, taught him a very deep wisdom and several years later the Berlin Wall fell and he was made Cardinal Archbishop of Prague.
So, in summing up three “hopes” for young people today, I do assure you that I realize there will be others but I do think that the experience of community, dialogue with other people and a personal spiritual life are quite crucial to human flourishing.
Finally, we should never, never forget that within all these hopes there is a greater one. Pope Benedict recently put it this way: We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great Hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God Who encompasses the whole of reality and Who can bestow upon us and what we by ourselves cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as gift is actually part of hope.
I came across an echo of this in a contemporary modern author recently. In his novel Life After God, the Canadian author, Douglas Coupland writes:
“Now — here is my secret; I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God — that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me to be kind as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love as I seem beyond being able to love.”
It is a privilege and a pleasure to express these few words in this great city of Liverpool, the City of Culture for 2008, and at this Congress so aptly entitled, The Big Hope.