Cardinal Vincent Nichols visited Gaza on Sunday to offer support to the small Christian community living there.
There are now around 1,200 Christians, of whom 170 are Catholic, in a total population of 1.8 million. In addition to the Holy Family Parish where Cardinal Nichols celebrated Mass, the Catholic Church runs two schools where over 90% of the pupils are Muslim, an orphanage for disabled children and other charities offering support to the population as a whole.
Cardinal Nichols said: “Christians have been in Gaza since the Holy Family fled to Egypt, as depicted on the wall behind the altar in the Holy Family Church. Their numbers are small, but I believe their faith is strong.”
Cardinal Nichols then met with parishioners, listening to their stories and concerns, as well as religious sisters working in Gaza. This was followed by a meeting with young beneficiaries of university sponsorship and job creation schemes provided by the Pontifical Mission Society and Friends of the Holy Land, the charity set up in the UK to support Christians across the Holy Land. With youth unemployment running as high as 60% and over half of the population under the age of 15, providing jobs and income is essential to supporting the remaining Christian population.
Here is the text of his homily:
My dear brothers and sisters, thank you for your very warm welcome and for this opportunity to be with you here in the Parish of the Holy Family today.
My journey from London has been very easy and I have come here to bring you the love and the affection of Christians in England to encourage and support you in your life in Gaza. The difficulties that you face and the problems that surround you – the hardship that you carry – is well known and understood at home.
Three months ago, my younger brother died. His name was John. The people who came to his funeral wanted to pay a tribute to him and they had a small collection and said to me “you take this to the people of Gaza – take it to the family of the parish in Gaza and give it to them from a small group of people from Liverpool”. So as I give this gift to you, please could I ask you to pray for my brother John?
Now, today you see that our vestments are green and it’s important to understand the meaning of this colour. This is the colour that we wear, week by week, in Ordinary Time.
We wear white when we are full of joy – because white stands for joy and happiness. We wear red when we celebrate the courageous love of the martyrs; but green is the colour of hope. So day by day, week by week, in the ordinary rhythm of our daily lives we wear green to strengthen our hope. This is the sign of Christian hope and Christian hope has something very special about it.
Ordinary hope means that we are very secure in the present and we look from this security to an uncertain future. Christian hope is different. Christian hope knows the present is unsure but that the future is very certain.
So we wear green when we come to the altar to celebrate the source of hope for our eternal future.
Today we pray as we celebrate this Mass that our hope in Jesus as Our Lord – our hope in his promise to be with us always, even in our greatest difficulty – will be strong in our hearts.
That was the message of the readings we heard today – especially the first reading where the sons were challenged on what was most important, their life of their faith? One by one they said their faith. In many places today in the Middle East – in Iraq, Syria and here – they say “my faith is the most important thing. Everything else is second. My faith is first.”
So together we pray for that firm faith and strong hope.
I hope in some small way that my coming here strengthens your faith and hope. I want you to know that your strength and hope strengthens me. I thank you for that witness and strength that you show in this church here in Gaza.
Now, as I finish, I wish to talk about the mother of this holy family, Mary, who we see at the foot of the Cross. We are children of Mary but she conceived us not below her heart but in her heart. When she accepted us from Jesus her son, she gave us a place immediately in her heart.
So when we see the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows with the seven swords piercing her heart, we know that the sorrows that pierce ourhearts pierce hers too. She is always our mother – in our joys and in our sorrows – and we pray to her that she will protect and gather her family here in Gaza.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster
President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales