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Papal visit joy in special jubilee year

— As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ CARDINAL KEITH O’BRIEN reflects on the past year for the Church and, in particular, the message Pope Benedict XVI brought to the UK in September

AS 2010 draws to a close it is common for us to review events in our personal lives and in the life of our nation in the year gone by. 2010 has been an eventful one in the life of the Church and in many of our own lives. In my own apostolate as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh I have thanked God for 25 years of service, which I have been able to give as archbishop since 1985.

I have been very moved by the many messages of congratulations coming to me from near and far on the occasion of my silver jubilee as a bishop and am thankful for them all. In a special way I thank Alex Salmond, our First Minister, for his presentation to me of a beautiful reproduction of the St Ninian window at St Margaret’s Chapel in Edinburgh Castle with the inscription: “To celebrate the Silver Jubilee of his Eminence Keith Patrick Cardinal O’Brien and in appreciation of his contribution to the life of Scotland.”

Soon after that celebration it was my privilege as Cardinal Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh to welcome Pope Benedict XVI to Scotland on Thursday September 16, the feast of St Ninian. This indeed was a wonderful occasion of great joy for everyone in Scotland and in turn I thank all those who were responsible in any way for bringing such a tremendous event to a very successful conclusion. Some few weeks after that I was in Rome with a great contingent of Scots for the Canonisation of the first Australian Saint, St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, both of whose parents came from Lochaber and who was Canonised by Pope Benedict in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, on Sunday October 17.

These wonderful celebrations, whether personal or national do however pale in comparison to the one we now prepare for as we get ready to commemorate the greatest event in human history—the birth of Jesus Christ the Son of God and Son of Mary in a stable at Bethlehem. There was no pomp and ceremony in connection with the birth of Jesus—rather the opposite. It took place in simplicity and in poverty. After a simple upbringing and largely private adulthood, it was only when He was approximately 30 years of age that the public ministry of Jesus began, quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah that he too had been ‘sent to bring the good news to the poor.’ He continued to preach that same message through the simplicity of His own lifestyle leading up to His cruxifiction and resurrection—always reminding us that what matters most in life is the love of God and a love of our neighbours.

That same message has been handed on to us in a special way through the visit of Pope Benedict to our country. And that is the same message which should inspire each one of us in our own Christian living—difficult though it might be to follow. I am sure you have taken to heart those words which the Pope used when preaching to the great crowd gathered in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow on the feast of St Ninian. He said then: “Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility. Do not be afraid to take up this service to your brothers and sisters and to the future of your beloved nation.” And he went on to add: “St Ninian, whose feast we celebrate today, was himself unafraid to be a lone voice. In the footsteps of the Disciples whom our Lord sent forth before Him, Ninian was one of the very first Catholic missionaries to bring his fellow Britons the good news of Jesus Christ.” Those words of comfort must reach out to each one of us wherever we are called upon to preach—whether from a pulpit, from our office desk, from a work-bench, at school or in a retirement home—‘Do not be afraid!’

In what I found to be one of the most moving speeches from our Holy Father—in Westminster Hall in London—the Pope again indicated the importance of religion in our lives at this present time, saying: “Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue—paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination, that Christians in public places should be required at times to act against their conscience.”  I hope we will consider and ponder these words as the New Year approaches.

However, the Pope remained positive when he indicated that the invitation to him to visit the United Kingdom and especially to speak in Westminster Hall indicated an openness to and a readiness for ongoing dialogue. He went on to mention some areas in which there was increasing dialogue between the United Kingdom Government and the Holy See. There had been exchanges regarding the elaboration of an international arms trade treaty; there was common policy with regard to human rights; in the field of development there had been collaboration on debt relief, fair trade, and financing for development, particularly through the international finance facility, the international immunisation bond, and the advances market commitment; and he indicated that there would be further ways of common work in seeking new ways to promote environmental responsibility to the benefit of all.

As we look ahead toward this year before us perhaps we realise more and more the difficulty of preaching by word and consequently should support those who do speak out in our name in every way possible. For the great majority of our Christian people perhaps it is more necessary to teach by example especially in these times of economic difficulty. It is at a time of increasing austerity in our country that we might realise that we are being called to a more simple form of lifestyle and that things could indeed be even more difficult in the years which lie ahead. Our greatest example in all of this is that lesson of the simplicity of the birth of Jesus Christ—that is the event which should continue to inspire us now and in the years which lie ahead.

The celebration of the feast of Christmas, if possible in our own family circles, should indeed bring us much joy but it should also remind us of the reality of the comfortable world in which we live, a world in which so many others live in indescribable poverty on a scale we simply cannot imagine.

May the simplicity of that nativity scene with Jesus, Mary and Joseph remind us of the bonds of love which brought those three people together—that love which should continue to inspire us in our own lives, now and in the future.

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