29 March 2013

Light in the darkness

Today’s edition of The Irish Times [29 March 2013] carries the following full-length editorial on page 15:

Light in the

The snow that has blanketed Ireland and Britain for the past week gives the landscape an appearance that is more appropriate for scenes on Christmas cards than for contemplating the significance of Good Friday and Easter. It is just possible, in a moment of fantasy, to imagine congregations in churches across the land this weekend singing In the bleak mid-winter. Christina Rossetti’s poem, set to music by Gustav Holst and Harold Darke, was named some years ago in a poll of choir directors and choral experts as the best Christmas carol. But in this poem and carol, Christina Rossetti seeks to link the message of the incarnation at Christmas with the triumph and hope of Easter as she writes:

Our God, heav’n cannot hold him
nor earth sustain;
heav'n and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign …

In an unusual coincidence, last week saw the beginning of the reigns of a new pope and a new Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet both church leaders, with patterns of leadership that are marked by personal humility and effacement, would eschew words like “reign” that imply monarchical styles of leadership. Instead, both Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby appear to be keen to pattern their style of leadership on Christ as the Suffering Servant rather than on prelates from the past who ruled like reigning princes.

* * * * *

St John’s Gospel, in its account of Holy Week and Good Friday, puts love at the heart of Christian faith and hope. Pope Francis celebrated his Maundy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the chapel of Casal del Marmo, a juvenile prison in Rome where most of the inmates are foreign-born and Muslim, some have no religious beliefs, and until his visit many had probably not known of the pope.

All previous popes in living memory have said this Mass either in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican or in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. It was a humble act of love typical of those marking out this papacy as different from all others, and it rings true with Christ’s own words after he washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15: 16).

Archbishop Welby also arrived in humility at Canterbury Cathedral last week. He came as a pilgrim rather than in triumph, having spent the previous days on what was described as his “Journey in Prayer,” kneeling in prayer in a pilgrimage that brought him through the dioceses of the Church of England. Before he took up office, Pope-Emeritus Benedict wrote to the new archbishop reminding him that “the preacher’s task, as a messenger of hope, is to speak the truth with love, shedding the light of Christ into the darkness of people’s lives.”

This humility and servant-ministry from church leaders resonate throughout Europe this week, bringing light and hope into the darkness and the gloom that has been created not just by the weather, but by a financial crisis that seems to be biting even deeper, with everyone now feeling the consequences of the uncertainties created in Cyprus.

How many would pray this Good Friday that the humility of church leaders would be taken up as a moral course by our political leaders? Who can provide hope for the mother struggling to pay the mortgage and for childcare and who fears being told to give up her job? Who can bring hope to the family burdened by debt and without health insurance but facing mounting medical bills? Who can offer hope to the families of young suicide victims or of young graduates unable to find employment and forced to emigrate, perhaps never to return?

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Of course, politicians cannot offer immediate remedies; and the problems our economies face need to be solved on a European scale too. But both Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby - in following Christ’s example of leadership, marked by humility on the evening before his crucifixion - have shown a fresh and much-needed approach to leadership, that reaches out to the marginalised, those without hope, those living in darkness. It is hard to believe in this unusual wintery weather that the clocks go forward tomorrow night and that summer time officially begins on Sunday morning.

But both Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby have already shown that humility and compassion shine light in the darkness, offering real hope in the midst of despair and demonstrating true leadership that is often cruelly lacking. They offer gripping challenges to our politicians and their styles of leadership.

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