Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 64(3) August 2014

Proclaiming the Gospel in England.
A pro-life task

Bishop John Sherrington

On 27 May 2014, the Feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, the Right Rev John Sherrington, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, celebrated Mass for those who campaign to uphold the right to life. This is his sermon from  that  Mass

Bishop John SherringtonOn the Feast of Saint Augustine of Canterbury we celebrate the mission to these islands of St. Augustine and the desire of Pope Gregory that the message of Jesus Christ would be proclaimed in a new way in the south of England and from there spread northwards. We know that missionaries from the south encountered the Christian churches in the north of the country which had foundations dating back to the holy monks Columba, Aidan and Cuthbert. The different traditions that were encountered about the date of Easter and other matters were brought eventually brought together and resolved at the Synod of Whitby for the sake of unity through dialogue and meeting.

The celebration of the Mass on this feast day reminds us that Pope Francis has called for a new proclamation of the Gospel. Speaking to pro-life activists on April 11th, he said “It is necessary to reassert the strongest opposition to every direct attack on life, especially the innocent and defenceless life, (and) the unborn child in the womb is the definition of innocence. Every Christian is responsible for this evangelical witness to protect life in all its stages with courage and love.” Recently Chris Whitehouse writing in The Universe reminds us that in England and Wales we have reached the appalling reality of the death of eight million unborn children by abortion since 1968 (since 1968, more than 7,841,900 – 2012 figures) [1].

In his address to pro-life activists on April 11th 2014 [2] Pope Francis then praised the various initiatives which assist pregnant mothers in difficulty and facilitate the protection of their children rather than abortion, he reminded the participants that life should always be defended, “with a style of neighbourliness, of closeness, so that every woman may feel treated like a person, listened to, welcomed, accompanied.” Neighbourliness and closeness, in spite of circumstances, communicate the love which is at the heart of the Gospel and invite a conversion of heart for the good of life. I thank those of you who practically help in this way.

It is necessary to reassert the strongest opposition to every direct attack on life, especially the innocent and defenceless life, (and) the unborn child in the womb is the definition of innocence. Every Christian is responsible for this evangelical witness to protect life in all its stages with courage and love.
Pope Francis

The Apostolic Nuncio reminded the bishops at their May meeting[3] that Pope Francis combines a message of God’s mercy with clear teaching about the dignity and good of each and every human person. He said, “In his message to the participants in the General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, last February, the Holy Father used very strong words denouncing the “tyrannical dominion of an economic logic that excludes and sometimes kills, and of which so many today are victims, beginning with our elderly”, typical of the societies that Francis calls - in His Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium - “‘thrown away’ culture” in which the “excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ’leftovers’” (n. 53). In this context, - continues the Pope in his Message to the Pontifical Academy for Life - we “clearly” find in our societies the “exclusion of the elderly, especially when he or she is ill, disabled or vulnerable for any reason.” He then urged us to work with people at the end of their lives and to clarify the ‘sense and nonsense’ of the proposed assisted dying bill.

The task is colossal and so we rely on the help of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The building of a culture in which we recognise that every human life, from conception to natural death, is a gift of God, must surely be the point of departure. As Pope Benedict XVI emphasised in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate we are called to develop a deeper awareness of the gratuitousness of creation. Each and every person is a gift. Only when we respect the logic of the gift, rather than the logic of the self or logic of the market, will we live as God wills. This has implications for our stewardship of creation and the way in which we structure life according to justice and truth. Giftedness – that we may recognise and celebrate the gift we have been given - is the heart of Eucharist and the celebration of Mass. To recognise and celebrate the gifts of each and every person through love and solidarity will communicate strongly to others, though they may disagree.

The poverty of mental health care in Britain has recently been highlighted by the BMA Board of Science report Recognising the Importance of Physical Health in Mental Health and Intellectual Disability - Achieving Parity of Outcomes. Its Chair, Baroness Sheila Hollins says in the introduction, “For too long there has been an acceptance in society, and even in the medical profession, that people with mental health problems and intellectual disability will live shorter lives and will suffer because of unmet health needs. In the vast majority of cases, there is no good reason for this. But the voice of these vulnerable groups often goes unheard, and the status quo remains unchallenged. It is distressing that in the 21st Century someone with a mental health condition will typically die between 15 and 20 years earlier than someone without, and that people with intellectual disabilities continue to suffer unnecessarily with untreated, or poorly managed, conditions. These vulnerable groups deserve the same rights as everyone else, to live healthier and longer lives. The medical profession has a vital role in helping to achieve this. Not only do we need to set the standard in raising aspirations for these groups and in challenging discrimination, but we also need to make sure our healthcare services deliver the best possible care.”[4]

I thank you for the many ways in which you as members of diverse organisations, some specifically religious, others not, some charities, some political organisations, seek to protect the good of each and every human life since the Gospel of life challenges us to promote in every legitimate way we can: “each human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death; the rights of the family and of marriage as an institution and, in this area, the child’s right to be conceived, brought into the world and brought up by their parents”[5]

The celebration of this Mass with members of so many different groups committed to the protection and good of human life is encouraging. The Mass is always an invitation to deeper communion within the Church and the overcoming of difference and conflicts that may at times complicate work for the same common cause. The Gospel is an invitation to life and love. The Gospel of love demands we care for life; the Gospel of life has to be animated and inspired by love. To treat one another with charity and kindness witnesses itself to the good of life.

Recently in a tweet, Pope Francis asked, “What does ‘evangelise’ mean? The answer: To give witness with joy and simplicity to what we are and what we believe in.” Certainly to give witness in our contemporary situation to the truth of the Gospel and the protection of human life from conception to natural death will need courage and perseverance, rigorous argument and clarity of analysis, political engagement and prudent lobbying. At the same time, to communicate the message of the good of each and every human life will need a foundation in joy and simplicity which speaks to the hearts and well as the minds of people.

Another constant theme of the Pope has been the invitation to dialogue and encounter with those who do not agree with us. This pathway is difficult to walk especially when strident passionate voices seem to find it difficult to enter into a reasoned and clear argument. Yet this path of dialogue must be followed in order to discern well through listening and to communicate to others the truths which we profess. It may often be a rocky path as many of you well know. Respect for the other, kindliness and charity must characterise our approach so that we do not fall into the trap which has ensnared others whose voices may be shrill and lacking charity. We sometimes seem to fail yet the logic of the Gospel is the mystery of the cross by which God brings about his plan, especially through the suffering and martyrdom. 

We commend to Him our prayers for the protection of human life at all stages from conception to natural death.
Bishop John Sherrington

The power of the witness of generous love will communicate profoundly by the way in which in practical action we demonstrate the commitments to love of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. Above all what we do carries more power than what we say. We rely on the help of the Lord and we commend to Him our prayers for the protection of human life at all stages from conception to natural death.

Bishop John Sherrington. 26th May 2014