- Do you think that the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Southwark will emerge stronger or weaker from the coronavirus crisis?
This is a difficult question to answer, partly because we don’t know, as yet, how things will unfold. It also depends on what criteria are used. I think the Church in our Archdiocese will definitely be different because of the pandemic. For many Catholics, not being able to attend Mass, or pray in church, or participate in any parish activities, has awakened and heightened the importance of their Catholic faith and practice. It’s true that sometimes we only realise the value of what we have when it’s taken away. Hopefully, we will all be strengthened to cherish what matters most about the life of faith, both individually and together.
For some Catholics, the pandemic will have challenged their sense of Catholic identity and belonging. Absence does indeed often make the heart grow fonder; but it depends on what was there beforehand, on what really touched our hearts and motivated our discipleship. Sadly, some may not return to practising their faith as they did before the pandemic. My encouragement, and my hope, is for everyone to please return. We must do everything we can, now and in the future, to reach out to people in our parishes and local communities.
There are certainly things to be learned from our experience of online prayer, worship, catechesis, and fellowship. While there is no substitute for being present in person at the celebration of the Mass, the use of technology in the service of evangelisation and spirituality offers all kinds of possibilities. We need to harness the best of this and carry it forward.
We have to be realistic about the economic impact of the pandemic. This has two dimensions. Our parishes rely on the generosity of their parishioners. We will need to see how parish income is affected by any economic downturn. There are also likely to be more people in need post-pandemic. We will need to continue to support those facing increased poverty and hardship. There are people who have been bereaved during the pandemic who were not able to mark their loss as they would have wished. There will be people who have suffered in their mental health, and others who have faced difficulties with relationships or addictions. There will also be people who have encountered the Catholic faith, via the internet during the pandemic, perhaps for the first time, who want to know more. The need for pastoral care, and the opportunities for evangelisation, will be there for the Church to meet.
In reviewing the post-coronavirus landscape of our Archdiocese and our parishes, we will look with eyes of faith, through a missionary, evangelising lens, to see what possibilities arise to renew our proclamation of the Gospel in word and service. Whatever the consequences of the pandemic, our commitment to Christ remains undimmed. The search for meaning is alive in the world today. We need to be open to how the Lord calls us, in new circumstances, to be salt to the earth and light to the world.
- You wrote to the Prime Minster last May about the importance of reopening churches. What prompted you to do this and were you happy with the response?
When I wrote to the Prime Minister in May 2020 our churches were still closed. There was no access, even for personal prayer. As the regulations began be relaxed, allowing non-essential shops to open, I felt it important that churches too should be opened, as a matter of equity. I believed that, with supervision and hygiene regimes in place, our churches could be just as Covid secure as supermarkets and other shops. I know this was the view held by the other bishops too.
Sacred space matters for Catholics. We can and should pray anywhere and everywhere. But our faith is powerfully sacramental. It centres on Christ’s Eucharistic presence from which we draw the strength to live in holiness and serve others. Even while the public celebration of the Mass was not permitted, I felt that opening our churches and allowing people to pray before the Lord, in the tabernacle and the monstrance, was an important step forward. A parishioner wrote to me to say the first day she was able to enter the church again for adoration, she sat and wept with joy before the Lord.
I am grateful that the Government permitted places of worship to open again for personal prayer, and then for communal worship. Thankfully, during the most recent lockdown, our churches have largely remained open, with all Covid safety measures in place. I thank those within Parliament who spoke in favour of this, acknowledging the important place that religious belief, and the charitable service that flows from it, continue to play in the lives of many people and our society as a whole.
- What would you say is the biggest challenge facing you, as Archbishop of Southwark, in 2021?
The biggest challenge facing me is the same one facing the Church Universal: the challenge of announcing Christ and proposing the truth He reveals about who He is and who we are.
The fundamental call to each of us is the call to holiness of life, to enter into personal friendship with Christ, in and through His Church, so that we can renew the face of the earth. This begins with each of us and our own discipleship.
There are many other challenges in the Archdiocese: to evangelise; to promote vocations to marriage, priesthood and religious life; to put faith in action in the service of justice and charity; to promote the dignity of the human person and the apostolate of the family; to sustain the life of our parishes and schools. All of this, however, depends on the way we each live for Christ, with all our faults and failings, trusting that He is with us until the end of the age. This is the great challenge: to accept, each day, the invitation to an ever deepening faith in Christ and conformity to His love.
- Have you personally had ups and downs during the pandemic? If so, what has helped you through them?
Like many people I’ve had good days and bad days during the pandemic. I’ve missed seeing family and friends in person, and being out and about in the Archdiocese in our parishes and schools. I’ve not had as much contact with the clergy as I would have liked, even though I’ve kept in touch with them each week during the lockdowns. My ministry has been far more tied to the desk than I would want. This lacks the balance of personal interaction.
What’s helped me most is trying to keep my inner life alive, trying my best to pray and spend time with the Lord. When this has been difficult, I’ve focused even more on the three staples of my spiritual life: the Jesus Prayer, the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I have a string rosary beside my bed. If I wake up in the night, I use it to pray. I am blessed with my family and friends who help keep me sane. Chocolate ice cream also helps!
- You appear to have a devotion to Jacques Fesch. How did you discover him and would you like to see him beatified?
I came across Jacques Fesch a few years ago when someone gave me a copy of his letters from prison. I found his conversion story remarkable, a modern day Saul turned St Paul. I served in prison chaplaincy in Leeds for a few years and would often share the story of Jacques. He is evidence that no one is beyond faith or mercy. If he were beatified, I think he would be an inspiration to very many people. He did some terrible things; but his life bears testimony to the triumph of grace and the truth that God always works for the good with those who love Him. I think Jacques’ life speaks to anyone searching, anyone dissatisfied, anyone who wants to flee responsibility, anyone who has made serious mistakes, anyone with regrets, anyone who wants to believe in Christ; he encourages me to trust that no one is beyond God’s forgiveness.