Dear Brothers and Sisters

Just over two months ago we were filled with awe at the impact of the visit of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to our Island. Without doubt it was a memorable occasion; uplifting and successful on many different levels. We have much to thank almighty God for, not least for the great legacy the Pope has left us in his speeches and homilies. They are inspiring, uplifting and challenging. They touch us all, young and old, Catholic, members of other denominations and those who do not profess a religious faith at all. Yet how different was the atmosphere and expectation months, weeks before and even right up to the moment the Holy Father’s plane landed in Edinburgh? The media-informed perception was that the visit would be at best a damp squib and more than likely a disaster. Pondering the eventual outcome in the light of such gloomy predictions turned my mind as to how easy it is to allow our attitudes, our outlook, indeed our values and our beliefs to be influenced, tainted and even weakened by popular cynical opinions. We hear them so often, repeated with the insistent self-justifying authority of the media or internet that we begin to think they are true.

As we approach the season of Advent our minds are turned to fresh beginnings, new life, the victory of light over darkness and the promise of eternal life in the birth of the Son of God as a human being in Jesus Christ. At the same time our Holy Father has asked us to thank the Lord for his total self-giving to the world and for his incarnation, which gave every human life its real worth and dignity. He wants us to invoke the Lord’s protection over every human being called into existence. It is good to take stock as we begin this blessed season. It is important that we look into our hearts, our minds and consciences to see how much we have been influenced by those popular cynical opinions about which I have just been speaking.

Just because the media speak about human life as if it were a commodity; just because the civil law allows human life to be destroyed as a result of the Abortion Act; just because some scientists speak of the embryo as if it were totally divorced from the mysterious developmental process of human life, this does not mean to say that it is true – no matter how many times it is said nor how stridently it is proclaimed.

In Cherishing Life a document of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales, it states: “Babies are human beings before they can walk and talk, even though many of their abilities have not yet become fully apparent. With the embryo we are considering the very earliest stages of human development, but the principle is the same. The humanity of the embryo shows itself as he or she grows and develops. What is hidden and mysterious unfolds and becomes evident with time. The human embryo should therefore be regarded as ‘not a potential human being, but a human being with potential.'” (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales Cherishing Life para 56 quoting CBCEW Abortion and the right to life para 12)

It is timely to be reminded of the Church’s teaching concerning the beginnings of human life. I quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2270: Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his/her existence, a human being must be recognised as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. On visiting St Peter’s Residential Home on the Saturday afternoon, 18 September, the Holy Father said: Life is a unique gift, at every stage from conception until natural death, and it is God’s alone to give and to take.

The Holy Father also reminded each one of us of our mission, our calling when he spoke to the crowds assembled at Hyde Park later on that same Saturday evening: No one who looks realistically at our world today could think that Christians can afford to go on with business as usual…. Each of us has a mission, each of us is called to change the world, to work for a culture of life, a culture forged by love and respect for the dignity of each human person.

The Gospel for this, the First Sunday of Advent, tells us to stay awake and stand ready. We need to stay awake and be on our guard lest the seductive voices of this world weaken our grasp of the divine truths that have been given to us through the ministry of the Church. We need to stand ready and be prepared to offer our witness when the opportunity arises in order to co-operate with the power of grace in bringing about that culture of life, which will change our world. As we try to do so, we begin to live out the prayer we pray so often: thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus and do not delay

+Terence Patrick

Bishop of Middlesbrough