On 20 May 2020, Bishop John Arnold, Bishop of Salford and Chair of CAFOD celebrated a special Vigil Mass for Ascension Thursday during Laudato Si’ week. Here you will find his full homily.
It was very early in 2015 that the announcement first came that Pope Francis would be publishing an encyclical on the environment. Most of the speculation as far as I remember was that he would confirm what his predecessors St John Paul II and Pope Benedict had said about the environment, quite forceful declarations on their part about care for our environment.
But then the document was published and it sent shock waves because Pope Francis was talking about the environment, yes, but in his genius he was actually connecting the environment with everything else, with care for our brothers and sisters, with the building of our cities, with relationships, with the use of resources, with waste. It was an extraordinary document and there was no doubt it made an impact. It became the most published Papal document of all time, I gather, and it appealed way outside the Catholic community to governments, to NGOs, to environmentalists, to indigenous people. It spoke to so many people. It was really changing the whole approach to the sense of the environment making it a global issue and we are celebrating five years since it was published.
And where have we got to? Well we have certainly become so much more aware of climate change and its’ damage to the environment. The media have reported so much more thoroughly on so many really disturbing events in those five years, the dreadful fires in California, Australia and the Amazon that went on for weeks, even months. We’ve heard about the droughts in Africa, we’ve heard about the four trillion tonnes of ice lost on the icecaps. So many difficulties, so many appalling situations created by extreme weather conditions. And even locally in our own country, we’ve seen unseasonal extremes in weather both in heat and in rain which upsets our whole agricultural cycle. But we’ve been made much more aware of it and that’s a good thing.
We’ve also seen a change in attitudes among governments who want to talk together about a global issue. It’s rather been overtaken by the global issue facing us at the moment in the pandemic but that actually underlines the need to think globally in all things. We’ve seen how industry is beginning to look at new technologies to see how best they can have a healthy way of using the industry for our benefit. And that whole development of that circular economy which says that there will be no waste, everything will be recycled. We’ll get to it – will we? I hope so.
We’ve also seen an extraordinary move within parishes and school communities where the environment has become really important on a day by day basis and we recognise, as Pope Francis urged us to, our own individual importance and that even the small things we do day by day, thinking carefully how we may live, that sense of ecological conversion, being kinder to the environment in which we live, thinking about of our brothers and sisters, remembering those who are suffering most from Climate Change are the ones who have done least to deserve it.
But we also are celebrating this mass on the vigil of the Feast of the Ascension and I think that’s got something important to say to us. Let’s just spend a moment or two with the disciples. Apart from the three horrendous days when they thought it was all over and Jesus was dead and buried in the tomb, Jesus had been their constant companion for about three years, he’s their leader, guide, decision-maker, teacher. He’s had a plan he’s been unfolding, they hadn’t always understood what it’s about but they followed because they’re disciples all the more so since he’s risen from the dead, they’re in shock and listening even more carefully.
But we come to this moment of the Ascension when he turns round and says I’m going back to the Father now. “Oh and I have a mission for you. Go out to the whole world, proclaim the good news and baptise”. And the disciples must have thought, “How on earth can we begin to do that? We just don’t have the means, the experience. We just followed the Lord Jesus and done what he’s asked us to do but we should take on that mission, it’s extraordinary, can it possibly happen?” But they must have hung on his final words – “Remember I am with you always, until the end of time”. And he also says “I’ll give you an advocate who will remind you of everything I have said to you and lead you in all truth.”
They have yet to understand and experience who that advocate is and we arrive at Pentecost. But imagine those disciples, leaving the place of the Ascension and thinking “what do we do now, we’ve got to take decisions, we’ve got to take responsibility for building a community, first of all in Jerusalem but then taking out to the whole world.” This is an impossible task surely and I wonder if they talked among themselves about what Jesus had done and said in various episodes of his ministry and perhaps they will have remembered an incident that is recorded by Mark in Chapter 2 and the Gospel of Matthew in Chapter 22 when a Pharisee comes to Jesus and says “What is the most important commandment of the law?” and without hesitation Jesus says “You must love the Lord your God with heart and might and soul and strength. That’s the most important and the second resembles it. You must love your neighbour as yourself.” If that was on their minds, then it gave them the foundation to discern every decision they were making.
Is the decision that we are making today allowing for those basic principles – Love of God, Love of neighbour? And so it was that they did, with the help of the Holy Spirit, with the presence of Christ walking always with them, they begin to build what has become a global church.
We must return to those fundamental questions that everything we do must be done in love of God which means in love of his creation and care for it and love of our neighbour, our brothers and sisters throughout the world. So we come to CAFOD and the work CAFOD does today. Let’s be so grateful for the guidance given to CAFOD by Laudato Si, it directs all the work we are doing, all the work with partners around the world, All based, I believe, truly on the love of God and love of neighbour. But there are enormous challenges ahead and we have to allow each and every one of us to be challenged. That’s the purpose within Laudato Si that everybody is included and all of us can remember those basic principles in making our decisions each and every day.
Finally in the Diocese of Salford we have a little prayer. I’m so pleased, it seems to be everywhere in the Diocese, just seven words but I think it gives us confidence. And the prayer is simply this “Stay with us Lord on our journey” because if the Lord stays with us, we know we’re going in the right direction roughly at the right speed.
We have certainly got a lot of challenges laid down in front of us by Laudato Si because of the damage we’re doing to the environment and our failure to look after our brothers and sisters in our Common Home but we can change that. Pope Francis asked us not to plan for the future but to plan the future. We have the means to do that, the knowledge. They say we’re the first generation to understand the environment and maybe the last generation to be able to save it.
God bless you in your work, whoever you are and whatever part you play in CAFOD whether it’s praying or volunteering or fundraising. We’re all in this together, caring for our brothers and sisters and our Common Home and let’s thank God for the goodness of Pope Francis and the inspiration he gives us in that encyclical Laudato Si. May it continue to unfold its’ riches so we may become ever wise and ever more successful in responding to what he has asked us to do.
Bishop of Salford
Official website for the Diocese of Salford