The author of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews wrote simply, but directly, about the spiritual truth of the city: ‘For here on earth,’ he says ‘we do not have a lasting city; no, we are seeking that city which is to come.’(13:14) Implicitly, the writer recognises two cities: the earthly and the heavenly. One is passing, the other eternal. One, as it were, looks to the other for completion. We could, perhaps, go even further and ask: is not the vocation of the earthly city, with its schools and hospitals, to anticipate, as far as possible, the enduring goods of the heavenly city, so that, here and now, we might live securely in truth and justice, with charity and peace? The obvious answer would seem to be yes. Religiously minded or not, we all want to live in peace with justice. But the earthly city is a fragile city.
I remember, as a child, watching the television series The World at War. It chronicled the events of World War II, depicting the devastating carnage of war and its consequences for millions of ordinary people. I never imagined, in my lifetime, I would witness war in Europe as we see it in Ukraine. Images from seventy and eighty years ago, which should have been consigned to history, have appeared again in all their heart-breaking horror. Sadly, this is neither old news nor good news. It is today’s terrible news of war.
The despotic invasion of Ukraine has shattered the peace of the earthy city; and heaven cries out for justice. Death and destruction reign. A homeland is literally being pulverised. Refugees are being forced abroad; the sick and elderly, mothers and children, scramble for safety. At the centre of the conflict is a battle for cities; because whoever controls the city determines the future.
History testifies that the power of the city can be harnessed for good or it can be harnessed for bad. It can serve selflessness or it can serve self-interest. It can work for maximum social benefit or for premium personal profit. No city, of course, is, de facto, good or bad in and of itself. Pope Francis speaks of a transcendent love, a love that goes beyond borders, as the basis for every city, to be realised in social friendship. It is enemies who make war, not friends.
It is helpful here to recall the importance of virtue. The concept of virtue in Ancient Greece was related to function. Something’s virtue was its quality of excellence, that which enabled it to perform its purpose with brilliance and distinction. Virtues are expressed in Christian life through faith, hope and charity. They are also universally accessible through key dispositions bequeathed by Plato and Aristotle, such as fortitude (or courage), justice (or fairness), prudence (or wisdom) and temperance (or moderation).
What we might call the ‘virtue of the city’ depends upon the operation of these qualities embodied in its inhabitants. The virtuous city is moulded by the virtues of its people, of its leadership and its governance. It is, after all, and wonderfully so, people who make up institutions and corporations, often with remarkable generosity of spirit. These, and every other instrument of commerce, act virtuously when the values according to which they were established are enfleshed today.
Pope Francis writes: ‘Genuine social friendship within a society makes true universal openness possible.’ What is virtuous in society is also virtuous in the city, and vice versa. Social friendship and universal fraternity remain the sure foundation for collaboration towards the common good which promotes the inherent dignity of every human being. It almost sounds too simple, too obvious to say, that before they are about anything else, cities are to serve the well-being of their people. They serve the people who live and work within their boundaries. But they also serve everyone subject to their influence, which, in many cases today, has international reach and significance. Every modern city exists in a globalised network, ideally, one of universal social friendship.
Towards the beginning of his ministry, the Lord Jesus ascended a Galilean hillside to teach the crowds. He delivered a perennial blueprint for beatitude, a roadmap for blessedness, for deep and genuine happiness. What we know as the Beatitudes can also be called Gospel virtues; the ways of God’s kingdom, the ways, we might say, of God’s city. They announce a radically inverted vision of reality. The great Bible translator, St Jerome, commented that the Lord Jesus ascended the mountain to ‘bring the crowds with him to higher things.’ And so he taught: Blessed are the poor, those mourning, and the meek; Blessed are those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, and the pure of heart; Blessed are the peacemakers, those persecuted in the cause of right, and on account of their faith. (Mt 5: 3-12)
The virtuous city, the blessed city, lives according to higher standards. Like the city on a hilltop, its goodness radiates, its light shines out. As an agent of peace, the blessed city of virtue has an impact beyond its boundaries, an effect beyond its walls. In Christian expression, it is a holy city. It embodies the great commandment to love one’s neighbour, without exception, and especially when that neighbour is weak, poor, or suffering.
But when a city loses its commitment to blessedness and compromises its conversion to virtue, its light fades. The same is true for the Church. The fading city, and the fading Church, becomes darkened, no longer a beacon of peace or justice. Ultimately it can degenerate into a vengeful city, a city that can only maintain itself, and its influence, through violence. Much of history is the tale of these two cities, these two worldviews writ large, for good and for bad.
How vital for civilisation is the blessed city of virtue, the city which exerts its power and influence for good, the city which is the nation, indeed the world, in microcosm.
Today, in Ukraine, cites that, until very recently, were places of commerce, education, and healthcare, just like ours; cities that were centres of culture, hubs of business, and seats of democratic governance, just like ours; cities that provided homes, jobs, and safety, just like ours, are now, abhorrently, strategic targets as a sovereign nation is bombed without remorse. The terror of war’s ruin of cities is being repeated in our lifetime; and the innocent are being killed daily. A rightly proud and courageous independent nation is fighting for its life, city by city.
The Letter to the Hebrews recalls the spiritual truth that our true home, our destiny, is the heavenly city. But we each, and together, also belong to the earthly city as a rite of passage. Day by day, our brothers and sisters in Ukraine are experiencing the unacceptable reality that they have no lasting city on earth. It is being destroyed before their eyes. Please God, and in God’s name, this must and will stop.
This Spital sermon takes its name, through Middle English, from the Medieval Latin word hospitāle. As the name suggests, it is connected with hospitality, in the original sense of hospital care for the sick, especially for the infirm poor and destitute. The biblical view of hospitality is fundamentally orientated towards the stranger, to the foreigner, who is to be welcomed as a friend. Perhaps the power of the city is to be seen at its most virtuous and blessed when it puts itself at the service of the stranger fleeing for their life. In itself, or through its agency, the city can support the need for refuge for the displaced and the dispossessed. It was the medieval monasteries of many cities, including this great City of London, which helped shape the tradition of hospitality towards those in need, each to be welcomed as if they were Christ himself.
Today we give thanks for the ways in which the people of this city continue the noble tradition of hospitality. At a time of international crisis, the virtuous and blessed city has a light to shine and a door to open. It has its own unique part to play in working for peace and supporting the victims of war. And this City, this incredible City, is more than able to rise and meet this invitation.
Let us pray and work for peace.
 Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter on Fraternity and Social Friendship – Fratelli Tutti, 2020, n. 99.
 See: Fratelli Tutti, n. 106.
 St Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, 1.5.1.
 See Rule of St Benedict, Rule 53:1.