Francis warns journalists against libel and fear-mongering

The Pope today, addressing journalists. (Photo: Osservatore Romano)

The Pope today, addressing journalists. (Photo: Osservatore Romano)

[Austen Ivereigh] Journalism should never stoke social fears over forced migration nor destroy people’s lives through defamatory claims, Pope Francis said today, as he suggested three points for media to reflect on.

“Few professions have as much influence on society as journalism,” Pope Francis told a delegation of Italy’s Order of Journalists this morning in the Clementine Hall. “In a way you write the ‘first draft of history’, creating the news agenda and interpreting events for people,” he said, adding that even at at time of change in the news media, professional journalism remains “a key element for the vitality of a free and pluralist society.”

He suggested three points for their reflection: love of truth, professionalism, and respect for human dignity.

First, love of truth means not just affirming truth but living it, being honest and coherent with oneself, while acknowledging that getting at the truth was not simple and that journalism was partly about discerning between shades of grey. But he said reporters “should never say or write anything they know in conscience to be untrue.”

Second, professionalism means going beyond codes and guidelines in order to “internalize the deep meaning of one’s own work”. It also means not surrendering journalism to particular economic and political interests. “The proper task of journalism, I dare to say its vocation, is therefore … to grow the social dimension of man, to encourage the creation of a true citizenship.” Which is why, the Pope added, dictatorships of all stripes have always sought to take over the media and restrict the activities of journalists.

Third, respect for human dignity, while important in every profession, is particularly necessary in journalism, because behind the reporting of events lie emotions and concrete lives. Recalling his description of gossip as terrorism  — because people can kill with their tongues — the Pope said this was even more true in journalism because it can reach many people, “and this is a powerful weapon”. An article published today or tomorrow will be immediately replaced, Francis went on, “but the life of a person unjustly defamed could be destroyed for ever”. Journalism can and must be critical, but never become a “weapon of destruction” against individuals or entire peoples — nor stoke fears over social changes or phenomena such as migration made necessary by hunger and war.

He went to call for journalism to be “a means of building up, an element of the common good, a driver of reconciliation, that rejects the temptation to encourage conflict with language that blows on the fire of divisions, but rather favours the culture of encounter”.

“You journalists every day can remind people that there is no conflict that cannot be resolved by men and women of goodwill,” he added.

[CV translation from the Italian]

Posted in migration/refugees, peace & reconciliation, Pope Francis, Pope Francis address

Pope gathers religious leaders to combat ‘paganism of indifference’

Pope Francis lights a candle during an interfaith peace gathering outside the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, Sept. 20. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis lights a candle during an interfaith peace gathering outside the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, Sept. 20. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

[Austen Ivereigh] The name of God cannot be used to justify violence, while “peace alone, and not war, is holy”, Pope Francis declared at the closing ceremony of yesterday’s gathering of religious leaders in Assisi, held on the 30th anniversary of the first such meeting called by St John Paul II [See Crux].

“Violence in all its forms does not represent the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction,” the Pope said, before calling on religious leaders to “free ourselves from the heavy burden of distrust, fundamentalism and hate” in order to be “artisans of peace” through prayer and action. Religious leaders, he said, are “duty bound to be strong bridges of dialogue, creative mediators of peace.”

Francis arrived in Assisi by helicopter yesterday morning to conclude a three-day meeting of religious leaders organized by the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio under the title “Thirst for Peace: Faiths and Cultures in Dialogue.”

After being embraced by Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the two greeted the other religious leaders present, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch and leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist communities.

After lunch with refugees (see RNS), leaders of other religions went to different areas for their own prayers, while Francis went with the Christian leaders to the lower Basilica for a prayer service with meditations offered by the different leaders. Francis’ reflection was on the thirst of Christ for love, and the indifference that meets the suffering of war.

In his “I thirst” we can hear the voice of the suffering, the hidden cry of the little innocent ones to whom the light of this world is denied, the sorrowful plea of the poor and those most in need of peace. The victims of war, which sullies people with hate and the earth with arms, plead for peace; our brothers and sisters, who live under the threat of bombs and are forced to leave their homes into the unknown, stripped of everything, plead for peace. They are all brothers and sisters of the Crucified One, the little ones of his Kingdom, the wounded and parched members of his body. They thirst. But they are frequently given, like Jesus, the bitter vinegar of rejection. Who listens to them? Who bothers responding to them? Far too often they encounter the deafening silence of indifference, the selfishness of those annoyed at being pestered, the coldness of those who silence their cry for help with the same ease with which television channels are changed.

The Christian and other religious leaders then gathered in the main piazza for the closing ceremony, where Francis took up the theme of what he called the “paganism of indifference”, which he described as “the great sickness of our time”,  “a virus that paralyzes, rendering us lethargic and insensitive, a disease that eats away at the very heart of religious fervour”.

He said that the differences between religions were not the cause of conflict. “Without syncretism or relativism, we have rather prayed side-by-side and for each other,” he said, quoting his predecessors that violence in the name of religion was the antithesis of true religion. “We never tire of repeating that the name of God cannot be used to justify violence,” Francis said, adding: “Peace alone, and not war, is holy!”

The Pope pointed to “prayer and concrete acts of cooperation” that  “help us to break free from the logic of conflict and to reject the rebellious attitudes of those who know only how to protest and be angry.”

“Prayer and the desire to work together are directed towards a true peace that is not illusory,” he said, adding that peace meant forgiveness, welcome, cooperation and education.

He concluded with a call to religious leaders to be “strong bridges of dialogue, creative mediators of peace” and on their behalf appealed to political leaders that “they not remain deaf to God’s appeal to their consciences, to the cry of the poor for peace and to the healthy expectations of younger generations”.

The texts of Pope Francis’ two addresses follow. 

Text (1) Pope Francis’ meditation in presence of Christian leaders

Lower Basilica of St. Francis

Gathered before Jesus crucified, we hear his words ring out also for us: “I thirst” (Jn 19:28). Thirst, more than hunger, is the greatest need of humanity, and also its greatest suffering. Let us contemplate then the mystery of Almighty God, who in his mercy became poor among men.

What does the Lord thirst for? Certainly for water, that element essential for life. But above all for love, that element no less essential for living. He thirsts to give us the living waters of his love, but also to receive our love. The prophet Jeremiah expressed God’s appreciation of our love: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride” (Jer 2:2). But he also gave voice to divine suffering, when ungrateful man abandoned love – it seems as if the Lord is also speaking these words today – “they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (v.13). It is the tragedy of the “withered heart”, of love not requited, a tragedy that unfolds again in the Gospel, when in response to Jesus’ thirst man offers him vinegar, spoiled wine. As the psalmist prophetically lamented: “For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Ps 69:21).

“Love is not loved”: this reality, according to some accounts, is what upset Saint Francis of Assisi. For love of the suffering Lord, he was not ashamed to cry out and grieve loudly (cf. Fonti Francescane, no. 1413). This same reality must be in our hearts as we contemplate Christ Crucified, he who thirsts for love.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta desired that in the chapel of every community of her sisters the words “I thirst” would be written next to the crucifix. Her response was to quench Jesus’ thirst for love on the Cross through service to the poorest of the poor. The Lord’s thirst is indeed quenched by our compassionate love; he is consoled when, in his name, we bend down to another’s suffering. On the day of judgement they will be called “blessed” who gave drink to those who were thirsty, who offered true gestures of love to those in need: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).

Jesus’ words challenge us, they seek a place in our heart and a response that involves our whole life. In his “I thirst” we can hear the voice of the suffering, the hidden cry of the little innocent ones to whom the light of this world is denied, the sorrowful plea of the poor and those most in need of peace.

The victims of war, which sullies people with hate and the earth with arms, plead for peace; our brothers and sisters, who live under the threat of bombs and are forced to leave their homes into the unknown, stripped of everything, plead for peace. They are all brothers and sisters of the Crucified One, the little ones of his Kingdom, the wounded and parched members of his body. They thirst. But they are frequently given, like Jesus, the bitter vinegar of rejection. Who listens to them? Who bothers responding to them? Far too often they encounter the deafening silence of indifference, the selfishness of those annoyed at being pestered, the coldness of those who silence their cry for help with the same ease with which television channels are changed.

Before Christ Crucified, “the power and wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24), we Christians are called to contemplate the mystery of Love not loved and to pour out mercy upon the world. On the cross, the tree of life, evil was transformed into good; we too, as disciples of the Crucified One, are called to be “trees of life” that absorb the contamination of indifference and restore the pure air of love to the world. From the side of Christ on the Cross water flowed, that symbol of the Spirit who gives life (cf. Jn 19:34); so that from us, his faithful, compassion may flow forth for all who thirst today.

Like Mary by the Cross, may the Lord grant us to be united to him and close to those who suffer. Drawing near to those living as crucified, and strengthened by the love of Jesus Crucified and Risen, may our harmony and communion deepen even more. “For he is our peace” (Eph 2:14), he who came to preach peace to those near and far (cf. v. 17). May he keep us all in his love and unite us, so that we may be “one” (Jn 17:21) as he desires.

Text (2): Pope Francis’ address to religious leaders 

Piazza of Saint Francis

Your Holinesses,

Distinguished Representatives of Churches, Christian Communities, and Religions, Dear Brothers and Sisters, I greet you with great respect and affection, and I thank you for your presence here.

We have come to Assisi as pilgrims in search of peace. We carry within us and place before God the hopes and sorrows of many persons and peoples. We thirst for peace. We desire to witness to peace. And above all, we need to pray for peace, because peace is God’s gift, and it lies with us to plead for it, embrace it, and build it every day with God’s help.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt 5:9). Many of you have travelled a great distance to reach this holy place. You set out, and you come together in order to work for peace: these are not only physical movements, but most of all movements of the soul, concrete spiritual responses so as to overcome what is closed, and become open to God and to our brothers and sisters. God asks this of us, calling us to confront the great sickness of our time: indifference. It is a virus that paralyzes, rendering us lethargic and insensitive, a disease that eats away at the very heart of religious fervour, giving rise to a new and deeply sad paganism: the paganism of indifference.

We cannot remain indifferent. Today the world has a profound thirst for peace. In many countries, people are suffering due to wars which, though often forgotten, are always the cause of suffering and poverty. In Lesbos, my dear brother, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and I saw the sorrow of war in the eyes of the refugees, the anguish of peoples thirsting for peace. I am thinking of the families, whose lives have been shattered; of the children who have known only violence in their lives; of the elderly, forced to leave their homeland. All of them have a great thirst for peace. We do not want these tragedies to be forgotten. Rather together we want to give voice to all those who suffer, to all those who have no voice and are not heard. They know well, often better than the powerful, that there is no tomorrow in war, and that the violence of weapons destroys the joy of life.

We do not have weapons. We believe, however, in the meek and humble strength of prayer. On this day, the thirst for peace has become a prayer to God, that wars, terrorism and violence may end. The peace which we invoke from Assisi is not simply a protest against war, nor is it “a result of negotiations, political compromises or economic bargaining. It is the result of prayer” (John Paul II, Address, Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, 27 October 1986: Insegnamenti IX,2 [1986], 1252). We seek in God, who is the source of communion, the clear waters of peace for which humanity thirsts: these waters do not flow from the deserts of pride and personal interests, from the dry earth of profit at any cost and the arms trade.

Our religious traditions are diverse. But our differences are not the cause of conflict and provocation, or a cold distance between us. We have not prayed against one another today, as has unfortunately sometimes occurred in history. Without syncretism or relativism, we have rather prayed side-by-side and for each other. In this very place Saint John Paul II said: “More perhaps than ever before in history, the intrinsic link between an authentic religious attitude and the great good of peace has become evident to all” (Address, Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, 27 October 1986: Insegnamenti IX,2, 1268).

Continuing the journey which began thirty years ago in Assisi, where the memory of that man of God and of peace who was Saint Francis remains alive, “once again, gathered here together, we declare that whoever uses religion to foment violence contradicts religion’s deepest and truest inspiration” (Address to the Representatives of the World Religions, Assisi, 24 January 2002: Insegnamenti XXV,1 [2002], 104). We further declare that violence in all its forms does not represent “the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction” (Benedict XVI, Address at the Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World, Assisi, 27 October 2011: Insegnamenti VII,2 [2011], 512). We never tire of repeating that the name of God cannot be used to justify violence. Peace alone, and not war, is holy!

Today we have pleaded for the holy gift of peace. We have prayed that consciences will be mobilized to defend the sacredness of human life, to promote peace between peoples and to care for creation, our common home. Prayer and concrete acts of cooperation help us to break free from the logic of conflict and to reject the rebellious attitudes of those who know only how to protest and be angry. Prayer and the desire to work together are directed towards a true peace that is not illusory: not the calm of one who avoids difficulties and turns away, if his personal interests are not at risk; it is not the cynicism of one who washes his hands of any problem that is not his; it is not the virtual approach of one who judges everything and everyone using a computer keyboard, without opening his eyes to the needs of his brothers and sisters, and dirtying his hands for those in need. Our path leads us to immersing ourselves in situations and giving first place to those who suffer; to taking on conflicts and healing them from within; to following ways of goodness with consistency, rejecting the shortcuts offered by evil; to patiently engaging processes of peace, in good will and with God’s help.

Peace, a thread of hope that unites earth to heaven, a word so simple and difficult at the same time. Peace means Forgiveness, the fruit of conversion and prayer, that is born from within and that, in God’s name, makes it possible to heal old wounds. Peace means Welcome, openness to dialogue, the overcoming of closed-mindedness, which is not a strategy for safety, but rather a bridge over an empty space. Peace means Cooperation, a concrete and active exchange with another, who is a gift and not a problem, a brother or sister with whom to build a better world. Peace denotes Education, a call to learn every day the challenging art of communion, to acquire a culture of encounter, purifying the conscience of every temptation to violence and stubbornness which are contrary to the name of God and human dignity.

We who are here together and in peace believe and hope in a fraternal world. We desire that men and women of different religions may everywhere gather and promote harmony, especially where there is conflict. Our future consists in living together. For this reason we are called to free ourselves from the heavy burdens of distrust, fundamentalism and hate. Believers should be artisans of peace in their prayers to God and in their actions for humanity! As religious leaders, we are duty bound to be strong bridges of dialogue, creative mediators of peace. We turn to those who hold the greatest responsibility in the service of peoples, to the leaders of nations, so that they may not tire of seeking and promoting ways of peace, looking beyond their particular interests and those of the moment: may they not remain deaf to God’s appeal to their consciences, to the cry of the poor for peace and to the healthy expectations of younger generations. Here, thirty years ago, Pope John Paul II said: “Peace is a workshop, open to all and not just to specialists, savants and strategists. Peace is a universal responsibility (Address, Lower Piazza of the Basilica of Saint Francis, 27 October 1986: l.c., 1269). Let us assume this responsibility, reaffirming today our “yes” to being, together, builders of the peace that God wishes for us and for which humanity thirsts.


Posted in interreligious dialogue, Pope Francis address | Tagged , ,

Buenos Aires bishops’ guidelines on Amoris Laetitia: full text

Cardinal Schönborn holding up the exhortation next to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the synod.

Cardinal Schönborn holding up the exhortation next to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the synod.

Guidelines on implementing Amoris Laetitia written by the bishops of the pastoral area of the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, have made the news recently because of their strong endorsement by Pope Francis (See Crux).

The guidelines were written to help priests understand Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia in their pastoral practice, namely, the part of the Pope’s document on the family and marriage that refers to access to sacraments for the divorced and remarried.

After receiving the guidelines on September 5, Pope Francis wrote back approvingly. “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia,” he told them, adding: “There are no other intepretations.”

He added that he was sure that the guidelines “will do much good” and congratulated them on “this effort of pastoral charity”.

His letter said that while the path of “welcome, accompaniment, discernment and integration into the ecclesial community” could be “tiresome” because it involved face-to-face, patient meetings, it was also necessary.

Of the four “pastoral attitudes” the least practised and cultivated, he said, was discernment, and said formation in discernment in seminaries was necessary — a call he made in July to the Polish Jesuits (see CV Comment).

A translation of the Argentine bishops’ Guidelines (5 September) follows:

Buenos Aires Pastoral Area

Basic criteria for the implementation of chapter VIII of Amoris laetitia

Dear priests,

We have received with joy the exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which calls us, above all, to encourage the growth of love between spouses and to motivate young people to opt for marriage and a family. These are important issues that should never be disregarded or overshadowed by other matters. Francis has opened several doors in pastoral care for families and we are called to take advantage of this time of mercy with a view to endorsing, as a pilgrim Church, the richness offered by the different chapters of this Apostolic Exhortation.

We will focus for now on chapter VIII, since it refers to the “guidelines of the bishop” (300) in order to discern the possibility of access to the sacraments of the “divorced who have entered a new union”. We deem it convenient, as Bishops of the same Pastoral Region, to agree on some minimal criteria. We present them without prejudice to the authority that each Bishop has in his own Diocese to clarify, complete or restrict them.

1) Firstly, we should remember that it is not right to speak of giving “permission” for access to the sacraments, but rather of a discernment  process under the guidance of a pastor. This is a “personal and pastoral discernment” (300).

2) In this journey, the pastor should emphasize the fundamental proclamation, the kerygma, so as to foster or renew a personal encounter with the living Christ (cf. 58).

3) Pastoral accompaniment is an exercise of the via caritatis. It is an invitation to follow “the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and integration” (296). This itinerary calls for the pastoral charity of the priest who welcomes the penitent, listens to them attentively and shows them the maternal face of the Church, at the same time as accepting their righteous intention and goodwill in placing their whole life under the light of the Gospel and in practising charity (cf. 306).

4) This path does not necessarily end with receiving the sacraments, but may lead to other ways of achieving further integration into the life of the Church: a more active presence in the community, participation in prayer or reflection groups, or giving time to church activities etc. (cf. 299).

5) Whenever feasible, and depending on the specific circumstances of a couple, and especially when both partners are Christians walking together on the path of faith, the priest may suggest a decision to live in continence. Amoris Laetitia does not ignore the difficulties arising from this option (cf. footnote 329) and offers the possibility of having access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation if the partners fail in this purpose (cf. footnote 364, recalling the teaching that Saint John Paul II sent to Cardinal W. Baum, dated 22 March, 1996).

6) In other, more complex cases, and when a declaration of nullity has not been obtained, the above mentioned option may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, a path of discernment is still possible. If it comes to be recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351). These sacraments, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace.

7) But we have to avoid understanding this possibility as an unlimited access to the sacraments, as if all situations warrant it. The idea is to properly discern each case. For example, special care is called for in “a new union arising from a recent divorce” or in “the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family” (298). Also, when there is a sort of justification or ostentation of the person’s situation “as if it were part of the Christian ideal” (297). In these difficult cases, we should be patient companions, looking for ways of integrating them (cf. 297, 299).

8) It is always important to guide people to stand before God with their conscience, and for this the “examination of con­science” proposed by Amoris laetitia 300 is very helpful, specifically in relation to “how did they act towards their children” or the abandoned partner. Where there are unresolved injustices, providing access to sacraments is particularly scandalous.

9) It may be right for eventual access to sacraments to take place privately, especially where situations of conflict might arise. But at the same time, we have to accompany our communities in their growing understanding and welcome, without this implying creating confusion about the teaching of the Church on the indissoluble marriage. The community is an instrument of mercy, which is “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” (297).

10) Discernment is not closed, because it “is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can ena­ble the ideal to be more fully realized” (303), according to the “law of gradualness” (295) and with confidence in the help of grace.

Above all, we are pastors. This is why we would like to welcome the following words of the Pope: “I also encourage the Church’s pastors to listen [to the faithful] with sensitivity and seren­ity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the Church” (312).

With love in Christ,

The Bishops of the Area

Posted in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis

Francis declares martyred priest a ‘blessed’, calls Islamist murder ‘satanic’

hamel-requiem[Austen Ivereigh] Pope Francis this morning declared that the elderly French priest murdered at the altar by young men claiming allegiance to the Islamic State was a martyr who had undergone a “satanic” persecution. He also said that Father Jacques Hamel’s picture can be displayed in churches because he is “blessed”.

Fr Hamel, who was 85, died when two men stormed a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen on 26 July. After taking several hostages, the attackers slit Father Hamel’s throat at the altar while reading passages from the Koran. The priest’s last words were: “Get away, Satan!”

The men were later killed by police following a standoff.  Fr Hamel’s funeral was on 3 August (See CV Comment here and here).

Pope Francis today celebrated a special Requiem Mass this morning on the Feast of the Holy Cross that was attended by Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen and Fr Hamel’s sister Roselyne together with 80 pilgrims from the diocese.

Describing Jesus Christ as the “first martyr”, Francis said that today there were more martyred Christians today than in the early Church.

“In this history, we get to our Father Jacques: he is part of this chain of martyrs,” Francis said.

“Christians who today suffer in prison, with death, torture, for not denying Jesus Christ, show precisely the cruelty of this persecution. This cruelty that asks for apostasy is – let’s say the word – satanic.”

He added: “How much I would like all religions to say: to kill in the name of God is satanic.”

Francis described Fr Hamel as “a good, meek man, a man of brotherhood, who always was trying to make peace, who was assassinated like a criminal.”

But in the midst of what was happening to him, the Pope added, “he did not lose the clarity to accuse and identify the name of his murderer. And he clearly said: ‘Go away, Satan!'”

“This man accepted his martyrdom next to the martyrdom of Christ, on the altar,” Francis said. “He was beheaded on the Cross, as he was celebrating the sacrifice of Christ’s cross.”

Celebrating the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the Pope was vested in a red chasuble to symbolize martyrdom. After entering the chapel, he bowed before the altar where a picture of Fr Hamel had been placed.

The photo was brought by Archbishop Lebrun who asked Pope Francis to sign it with a note for three sisters who care for the sick in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray who had been with Fr Hamel at Mass that day.

But rather than sign the photo before Mass, the pope “immediately told me to put it on the altar,” the archbishop later told journalists.

“At the end of Mass, when he was greeting everyone, he signed it and said to me, ‘You can put this photo in the church because he is “blessed” now, and if anyone says you aren’t allowed, tell them the pope gave you permission.'”

To be declared ‘blessed’ is the stage prior to canonization, suggesting that a declaration of Fr Hamel’s sainthood is likely to follow soon.

Fr Hamel’s sister Roselyne said neither her brother nor Pope Francis blamed Islam for the murders.

“God is love,” Roselyn said, adding that the men who “killed my brother did so in the name of a god who is neither the God of Islam nor the God of Christianity.”

“The assassins, I think, acted under the influence of the devil, of Satan,” Archbishop Lebrun said. “When Father Hamel said, “‘Be gone, Satan,’ he had already been stabbed and was on the floor.”

But “his sister immediately gave me a correct interpretation,” the archbishop added, before quoting her as saying, “Father Jacques did not believe these young men were the origin of this evil.”

The archbishop said that since the murder there has been an obvious increase in fear among the people of the region and priests have reported receiving dozens of phone calls asking if it is safe to go to church.

“But there are more people at Mass now,” he said.

“Jesus never said it was stupid to be afraid,” Archbishop Lebrun told reporters. “When he tells his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid’, he is telling them to acknowledge their fear and overcome it with the strength of faith.”

[See reports in CNS and Crux, plus reflections by Cardinal Vincent Nichols on Fr Hamel’s final words]

Text of Pope Francis homily

Today, the Church celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross of Jesus Christ. We understand that it is a mystery.

This mystery of annihilation, of closeness to us. Being in the condition of God, Paul says, [Jesus] does not hold on to a privilege of being like God, but emptied Himself, taking on the condition of servant, becoming similar to human beings. He humbled himself, and was obedient unto death, even until death on a Cross.

This is the mystery of Christ. This is a mystery. That is martyrdom for the salvation of men.

Jesus Christ is the first martyr, the first One Who gives his life for us. And from this mystery of Christ, begins the whole history of Christian martyrdom, from the early centuries until today.

The early Christians confessed Christ by paying with their lives. The early Christians who were asked to confess other gods, to say that ‘our god is true and not yours,’ when they refused to do this, were crucified. This story is repeated through today. Today, in the Church, there are more martyrs than martyred Christians in the past.

Today, there are Christians martyred, tortured, slaughtered, because they do not deny Jesus Christ.

In this history, we get to our Father Jacques: he is part of this chain of martyrs. Christians who today suffer in prison, with death, torture, for not denying Jesus Christ, show precisely the cruelty of this persecution. This cruelty that asks for apostasy is – let’s say the word – satanic.

How much I would like that all the confessions would say: to kill in the name of God is satanic.

Father Jacques Hamel was slaughtered on the cross, just as he was celebrating the Sacrifice of Christ. A good, meek man, of brotherhood, who always was trying to make peace, was assassinated, as if he were a criminal. This is the thread of satanic persecution, but there is one thing of this man who has accepted his martyrdom there, that makes me think so much about the martyrdom of Christ on the altar. One thing that makes me think so much …

In the midst of the difficult time that he lived in the midst of this tragedy he saw coming, he did not lose the clarity of accusing and say the name of the assassination. And he clearly said: “Go away, Satan!”

He gave his life to not deny Jesus, gave his life in the same way Jesus [does] on the altar. And from there, he accused the author of persecution: “Go away, Satan!”.

May this example of courage, along with the martyrdom of his life to empty himself to help others, help us to move forward without fear. We must pray, eh! He is a martyr, the martyrs are blessed … We must pray he gives us brotherhood, meekness, peace, and even the courage to tell the truth: to kill in the name of God is satanic.

[Translated from Italian by Deborah Castellano Lubov, Zenit]

Posted in canonisations/beatifications, martyrs, terrorist attacks, Uncategorized

Why allowing Catholic schools to expand is good for us all

Academically excellent, socially & ethnically diverse, and in demand ... The Duchess of Cambridge waves to children from Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in London, July 1, 2014.

The Duchess of Cambridge meets children at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in London, July 1, 2014. Catholic schools are academically excellent, socially & ethnically diverse, and in demand from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. 

In her speech yesterday, the prime minister, Theresa May, said the government will seek to allow all schools in England to select pupils by ability, under plans that also allow grammar schools to expand. Among the announcements was a commitment to allow Catholic schools that are oversubscribed and want to expand to be able to choose up to 100 per cent of new pupils on faith grounds, not 50 per cent, as under the current rules. In a statement, the Catholic Education Service (CES) warmly welcomed the proposal. Here, a teacher and governor at a Catholic school explains why the announcement is such good news.

[John McAleer] There are two essential points to be grasped in understanding the prime minister’s remarkable announcement yesterday that her government intends to remove the cap on faith-based admissions for free schools and new academies, allowing new publicly funded Catholic schools to be built across Britain wherever there is demand.

The first is that new schools desperately need to be built to accommodate the 900,000 new school places needed in England by 2024. The second is that a large number of parents — both Catholic and non-Catholic — will want to send their children to Catholic state schools.

The Catholic Church in England is the largest provider of secondary schools and the second largest provider of primary schools (Catholic schools and academies make up 10 per cent of state-funded education) simply because they are beacons of academic excellence and oases of diversity and tolerance. Parents want to send their children to them — Catholic schools are currently educating more than 800,000 students  — because they are some of the best in Britain.

The Prime Minister has acknowledged this in her speech laying out her vision of Britain as “a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege”. Key to that vision is a good school place for every child. Hence, she says, “it’s right to encourage faith communities – especially those with a proven record of success, like the Catholics – to play their full part in building the capacity of our schools.”

Under current rules, new faith-based free schools or academies must admit at least 50 per cent of their children from different religious backgrounds if they are over-subscribed. The intention behind this rule was to improve the diversity of school intake; in practice, however, it has had little impact on many Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools because their schools are not popular with parents of other faiths.

But it has had a very marked negative impact on Catholic schools, because they are popular with parents of other faiths, yet the Church insists — with good reason — that its schools must have a majority Catholic intake (typically 70-75 per cent) in order to preserve the very ethos that makes them attractive.

Nor did the cap make sense for Catholic schools because the data shows they are among the most socially and ethnically diverse schools in Britain. Pupils at Catholic schools are more likely to be from ethnic minority backgrounds than other schools (27 per cent compared with 22.5 per cent in other schools.)

As the Prime Minister puts it, the current cap “is especially frustrating because existing Catholic schools are more ethnically diverse than other faith schools, more likely to be located in deprived communities, more likely to be rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, and there is growing demand for them.”

The cap has prevented new Catholic schools opening in Britain because it inhibits the willingness of Catholics to sponsor a new academy or free school. They are unwilling because they do not want to be forced, by law, to turn away the very people Catholic schools are designed to serve. As the Chairman of the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales (CES), Bishop Malcolm McMahon OP, puts it, “the 50 per cent quota policy undermines the Government’s own aim of increasing parental choice, since, in the case of an oversubscribed Catholic free school, Catholic pupils whose parents wanted to send them to a Catholic school would have to be turned away because they were Catholic.”

As a result, everyone loses. Catholics are not being educated in Catholic schools; non-Catholics wanting their children to go to a Catholic school have even fewer places to apply for; and there is greater burden on the taxpayers. (The Church contributes  £20 million a year towards the capital costs of schools, a figure that would significantly increase should the Catholic Church build more of them.)

But what about religious diversity? Isn’t it important that students at school mix with students of other religious backgrounds? Absolutely it is. According to the 2015 Catholic school census, some 31.2 per cent of pupils at its state-funded schools are not Catholic, a figure that increases to 62.9 per cent at its private schools. As the CES put it in its statement yesterday: “One third of our pupils are from non-Catholic families. Our schools are particular popular with parents from the Muslim community, other Christian communities and with high proportions of those who have no faith.”

Yet you still find campaigners at the National Secular Society writing in the Huffington Post that “it’s hard to think of a more retrograde policy than the facilitation of greater religious segregation of children and young people in our education system”. What he doesn’t tell you is that Ofsted inspectors consistently applaud the strong ethos in Catholic schools and the sense of identity and belonging which leads to broad-minded, engaged citizens.

The secularist critique of faith schools is based on prejudice. The assumption is that religion divides, while secular rationalism somehow draws people together. There is no evidence for either, and plenty of independent evidence that Catholic schools produce young people who are tolerant, understanding and concerned for others.

Evans claims that the Catholic Church “insists that the public money it receives to run schools should be spent on providing schools to serve only people of the Catholic faith”. This is untrue: Catholic schools serve people of different faiths. But in any case, are not Catholics taxpayers too? Do they not have the right to expect education like anyone else?

The Prime Minister gets it. She sees that removing the cap will allow the growth in capacity that Catholic schools can offer, for the benefit not just of Catholics but of Britain as a whole.

The Catholic Education Service has published Performance Data of Catholic Schools, which speaks for itself:

  • 83 per cent of Catholic secondary schools have Ofsted grades of good or outstanding (74 per cent nationally).
  • At age 11, Catholic schools outperform the national average English and Math SATs scores by 6 per cent points.
  • At GCSE, Catholic schools outperform the national average by 5 per cent.
  • In Catholic schools, 64 per cent of pupils for whom English is an additional language achieve grades A*-C in both English and mathematics GCSEs (59 per cent nationally).
  • Catholic schools outperforms the national average by 4 per cent points for disadvantaged pupils achieving the English Baccalaureate.

Many Catholic schools over the next few weeks will be holding opening evenings for prospective parents who are interested in sending their child to the school next September. Parents keen to send their children to a school with a strong ethos and an outstanding academic record will be looking at their local Catholic school. After yesterday’s announcement, the prospect that there will be a place for them is considerably greater — and that’s good news for everyone.

[John McAleer is a Catholic Voice speaker who teaches Religious Education and is a governor at two Catholic schools.] 

Posted in education/schools, UK Church

In his ‘final’ interview, Benedict XVI reveals enthusiasm for Francis

Pope Benedict[Austen Ivereigh] “My weak point perhaps is a lack of resolve in governing and decision-making,” Benedict XVI says in a book-length interview out today in Italian and German.

“Here, in reality, I am more a professor, one who reflects and meditates on spiritual questions,” the pope emeritus tells his longstanding interviewer, Peter Sewald. “Practical governance was not my forte and this certainly was a weakness.”

Pope Francis, by contrast, “is a man of practical reform” whose personality and experience as a Jesuit provincial and archbishop have enabled him to take practical organizational steps, Benedict says in a book which will bear the English title Last Testament when it is published on 3 November.

(Catholic Voices have add access to an advance copy in Italian. The quotes here are my translations.)

Benedict XVI described how, although he was surprised by Francis’s election — “I did not think he was among the restricted group of candidates” — he knew him well from Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s visits to Rome and from correspondence with him. “I knew him as a very decisive man, one who in Argentina said with great resolve, ‘do this, don’t do that.'”

The retired pope  — who is 89, can no longer see out of his left eye, and uses a pacemaker — says he was also struck by Cardinal Bergoglio’s great “cordiality” and his “attentiveness in his dealings with people”.

But he says his election was a surprise, because following the 2005 conclave — when a number of cardinals had sought his election — “people no longer spoke of him.”

“When I first heard his name, I was unsure,” he said, referring to the 2013 conclave. “But when I saw how he spoke with God and with people, I truly was content. And happy.”

In electing the first Jesuit and Latin American as pope, the College of Cardinals showed that “the Church is moving, dynamic, open, with the prospect of new developments before it,” he said, adding: “What is beautiful and encouraging is that even in our day things happen that no one expected that show that the church is alive and brimming with new possibilities.”

Benedict also notes that it was “expected” that, as the world’s largest Catholic continent, with “a Church rich in dynamism” and having “great bishops”, Latin America would assume a greater role in the universal Church.

“In this sense, Latin America’s hour had arrived,” he says.

Despite his characteristic humility and acknowledgement of his weaknesses, Benedict defends his record.

“I don’t see myself as a failure. For eight years I did my service,” he said, noting that many people found their way to faith during his papacy.

He defends, for example, his 2011 decision to replace Ettore Gotti Tedeschi as head of the so-called Vatican Bank, the IOR. He said it was necessary to move the “the previous management” of the bank and not to appoint another Italian, and that it had been his idea to appoint Baron Von Freyberg.

He also describes his dissolution of a so-called “gay lobby” — or network of gay priests who used blackmail to promote and protect each other — in 2012.

“Indeed a group was pointed out to me, in the meantime we have dissolved it,” Benedict said. “This was mentioned in the report by the commission (of three cardinals), who were able to nail down a small group of four or five people maybe, which we dissolved. I don’t know whether something new will form again. In any case, it’s not like there are things like this all over the place.”

In general, however, Benedict does not take the time to list the successes of his pontificate — resolutely tackling the sex-abuse crisis and initiating financial reform, for example (see Crux) — preferring to share reflections on the past and present of the Church.

He dismisses any notion that his 2012 decision to stand down in early 2013 was anything other than a free decision made after careful discernment for the good of the Church.

When he resigned he had the “peace of someone who had overcome difficulty” and “could calmly pass the helm to the one who would come after.”

His admiration and affection for Pope Francis shine out constantly from the text, giving no  quarter to traditionalists who have attacked his successor in his name.

Asked specifically if he saw Francis as a “rupture” with his pontificate, Benedict XVI roundly rejects the idea, saying that if in a number of areas Francis did things very differently, when considered in the round “there is no contraposition” between the two pontificates.

The retired pope also talks in the book about his preparations for his death.

“The important thing isn’t imagining it, but living with the knowledge that all our lives are headed toward this encounter,” he said.

Posted in pope benedict xvi

Cardinal Nichols: employers should not ask about job applicants’ prison convictions

Cardinal-Vincent-Nichols-1[Austen Ivereigh] Employers should not ask job applicants if they have served prison sentences in order to avoid prejudicing their bids for employment, the Archbishop of Westminster has suggested.

Abolishing the tick box requiring information about convictions would give ex-offenders the chance to “put their past in context and show who they really are”, before disclosing their conviction at a later stage in the recruitment process.

“Of course convictions have to be disclosed and where necessary DBS [safeguarding] checks undertaken,” he told a conference of prison chaplains at St Mary’s University in south-west London. “But people should not be “written off without a hearing for actions in the past which may no longer have a bearing on their future.”

Citing the case of a former offender at Feltham who had turned his life around and got re-educated but who had been drawn back into a gang only to be killed, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said building a good prison system “must involve courageous reforms and a genuine shift in how we view individuals who have committed crimes.”

“When people who have left prison are stigmatised and rejected, is it any wonder that they return to the gangs and drug dens of their past?” he asked.

The cardinal expressed hope that in this Year of Mercy Catholics would “reach out a hand of friendship and offer practical assistance to those leaving prison”, and that parishes would be places of welcome for them. “We have a duty to support them, not segregate them,” he said.

The cardinal said he would be looking at the Church itself amending its employment practices to eliminate the tick box enquiring about convictions, and to follow the lead of some employers in giving preference to ex-offenders.

The cardinal made the call in a speech detailing the need for rehabilitation as a key part of prison reform.

He said prison reform was “often misconstrued and rarely popular”, adding: “But this is not about being soft on prisoners or crime. It is about being civilised. It is about recognising just punishment, reducing reoffending, genuinely helping victims, and getting people’s lives back on track so that they are a benefit not a burden on our communities.”

Full text of the speech follows. 

‘Confinement is not the same thing as exclusion’. Talk by Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster at the Conference of Prison Chaplains, given at St Mary’s University, Tuesday 6 September 2016

The title of this talk – ‘Confinement is not the same thing as exclusion’ –  is taken from words of Pope Francis spoken in the Penitentiary in Philadelphia in September last year. It reminds us that prisoners are never to be forgotten, written off. Rather it affirms the crucial principle that meeting the needs of prisoners is an important part of any civilised society. As Dostoyevsky wrote: ‘The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.’

This is the theme I would like to explore this afternoon as you begin this important Conference. We think of ourselves as a civilised society, yet we know that in practice our treatment of prisoners often falls short of acceptable standards. Further, it is clear that a society which meets the varied needs of prisoners, while insisting that they face the consequences of their criminal actions, uses its resources, both human and material, prudently and well. The care of prisoners, therefore, is a measure of the maturity of a society.

The Catholic Church has a vital part to play in this work, not only because we wish to contribute wholeheartedly to the well-being of society but also because, through the eyes of faith, we have a particular perspective on those who are in prison and a clear mandate from Our Lord and Master that we should care for them. He said to us ‘I was in prison and you came to visit me’ (Mt 25.36), thereby identifying himself with those behind bars.

Today, then, I offer profound thanks to each and every Catholic prison chaplain in England and Wales who act in these matters on behalf of us all. Through your vocation you enrich the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society in work that has been given a fresh highlight in this Year of Mercy. I readily underline the importance of your unfailing commitment to that work and the considerable challenges that you overcome on a daily basis in order to show compassion to those whose actions have alienated them from the rest of society. I know that your work entails stress, hardship and risk, but it also brings true satisfaction.

The recent Report of the Bishops’ Conference, Belief and Belonging, covers many important themes. Among them it clearly highlights the importance given by Catholics in prison to their being able to take part in the celebration of the Mass. They testify that doing so brings them closer to God, helps them to cope during this intensely testing period of their lives, and strengthens their connections with the Catholic community, both inside and outside the prison walls. An overwhelming majority of Catholics in our prisons are very clear that chaplains play a vital role in helping them to deepen understanding of their faith. So I thank all chaplains present here today and those of your colleagues who are not able to be here. The importance and effectiveness of your work is widely acknowledged by those men, women and young people who rely upon your presence for this most important aspects of their lives.

Your ministry extends beyond this presence and spiritual role. You help people to stay in touch with their families, care for staff, and guide prisoners through particularly difficult times such as bereavement. Many of you also play an important role in the management of prisons, provide education and arrange for volunteers from our parishes to carry out their excellent work.

A distinct feature of prison chaplaincy today is that so much of your service is undertaken within multi-faith teams, which at their best are shining examples of the enormous practical contribution that different faith groups can make by working together. The cooperation between the different Christian churches and between Catholic and Muslim chaplains in many prisons is one of the most inspiring demonstrations of partnership between the faith communities in our land, a cooperation which is of increasing significance and urgency.

Christmas in Feltham

Visiting prisons is of course a central aspect of every bishop’s ministry. At Christmas time in particular I believe it is extremely important to be with those Catholics inside the prison walls, to remind them that they are valued members of our Church.

During Advent a few years ago I was celebrating Mass in HMP Feltham. The small chapel was packed full with young men and prison staff. Our reader that day, who was serving a sentence for drug offences, spoke beautifully and with conviction. I was inspired to find that he entered prison struggling to read and write, but had been working hard with volunteers and chaplains to improve his literacy.  Those efforts paid off and being chosen to read at Mass clearly meant a great deal; his sense of achievement and newfound self-confidence were strikingly visible to everyone gathered there.

Those skills also meant he had a better chance of getting a job after being released in the new year. It was truly a time of hope and promise for that young man. But this hope and promise were never realised. I learnt that within months of walking out the prison gates he was drawn back into the gang he had left and shortly afterwards was stabbed to death in a pointless feud.

This tragedy underscored for me that despite the efforts of all those working in our prisons and the difference that you make in many cases, the challenges to be confronted are many and complex. For as long as any prisoner finishing their sentence returns to a life of gangs, crime, homelessness, addiction, unemployment, violence or alienation, our society is failing and, it has to be added, our prisons are not working as they should.

This is the challenge about which I want to speak, recognizing the shared responsibility of government, individuals, and communities, including our own parishes, to help create system that truly benefits the well-being of our society and the fundamental good of even the most difficult  of individuals.

Failings in the prison system

It has been more than a decade since the Bishops’ Conference published a Report entitled  A Place of Redemption.  It expressed our vision for a system where time in prison is time well spent, rather than a process of warehousing people at best and, at worst, inflicting further damage on. Hearing of your experiences and the mounting difficulties you encounter, it feels that the recognition of this aspiration may be further away than ever. The consequences of this failure, it must be said, reach far beyond the lives of prisoners themselves. In particular, we must always keep in mind the wellbeing of every victim of crime and state clearly that shortcomings in rehabilitation result in reoffending with more innocent people damaged by further crime.

One of the most painfully clear failings in our system is the growing number of prisoners coming to harm while in prison – self-inflicted or otherwise. We all strive for a day when every prisoner walks out the gates as a reformed individual. Yet each year more people walk out bearing new physical and emotional scars. And far too many never walk back out at all. The figures in the 2015/16 Report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons are shocking: 100 suicides; over 32,000 incidents of self-harm; over 20,000 assaults and six apparent murders. But the figures do not convey the human cost, the pain, the damage, or the grieving families. Every one of these is a tragedy. Each one is a measure of a failure by society to care adequately for those we imprison.

People in prison have done wrong. In many cases they have caused great suffering. Yet they still have the same dignity as every other man, woman or child. Tackling this crisis of harm within prisons must be a priority: better mental health support and safer staffing levels are not desirable additions but urgent necessities.

However, building a good prison system that will help people to turn their lives around must go far deeper than addressing crucial matters of safety. It must involve courageous reforms and a genuine shift in how we view individuals who have committed crimes.

Depriving someone of their liberty is a legitimate punishment. Yet no one can reasonably claim that the conditions in which we hold many prisoners are acceptable. Throughout England and Wales there are examples of well-run prisons which are clean and tidy, where people are treated with respect, receiving the care and support they need to change their lives.  However, it is a stain on our society that in the twenty-first century some prisons are still characterised by rubbish, damp, dirt, graffiti, and unhygienic facilities.

The Chief Inspector recently highlighted how prisoners often have no choice but to eat meals in their cell right next to an unscreened toilet. There is surely no justification for treating our brothers and sisters with such disregard. Worse still, by locking people in squalor we send the most blatant message to society about their worth. A society which shows such contempt for a prisoner’s dignity truly undermines that prisoner’s chance of reforming their lives.

Much of the outstanding work carried out in prisons is undermined by chronic overcrowding and understaffing, which means that people can be locked up for almost the entire day. It is nothing short of a tragedy how frequently prisoners are deprived of the opportunities to get a good education and learn skills simply because there is no one available to unlock their cell door and walk them down the corridor to a classroom or workshop.

I know that this similarly impacts upon people’s opportunity to practice their faith. Belief and Belonging highlights that around a quarter of Catholic prisoners have at some point faced problems getting to Mass or engaging with chaplains, not through any lack of support on the part of prison staff, but sometimes because there was simply no one available to escort them to the chapel.

I am grateful to our colleagues at Chaplaincy Headquarters for resolutely challenging and drawing attention to these situations, including the most extreme cases where chaplains have had to resort to counselling or comforting prisoners through locked doors. How can educational programmes or restorative justice schemes succeed when people cannot get into the study or meeting room in the first place? Sometimes cells are not opened for the basic human needs. How can we tolerate a regime where people, given just one hour out of their cell, have to choose between exercising, taking a shower, or making a phone call?

Here it is important to remember that around a quarter of our 85,000 prisoners will have been in care as a child, at least one in three will have a mental or physical disability and half will have the literacy levels of an eleven-year-old (RSA Journal Matters of Conviction Issue 2. 2016).

There is also much more that needs to be done when it comes to protecting and enabling the relationships between prisoners and their families.

It is no secret that family is one of the biggest incentives for people to turn their lives around. We know that prisoners who stay in regular contact during their sentence are far less likely to reoffend after their release. Organisations such as PACT carry out excellent work both inside and outside prisons. They deserve our praise and our support. However far too often family relationships are still permanently damaged when a loved one is locked away, thereby decreasing the chance of a reformed life.

Some prisons have been truly innovative by providing facilities to help sustain family ties. Audio-visual technology is used so that prisoners can have face-to-face conversations with family members. What a difference that makes when it comes to moments like saying goodnight to their children! Families also now have the opportunity to book visits online and prisoners can receive e-mails. But in other areas the benefits of technology are woefully lacking: for example, families wishing to send money must still fill out a postal order and pay the associated costs.

Pope Francis has described the importance and the experience of family members visiting prisons: “They undergo the humiliation of being searched. They don’t disown their sons or husbands, even though they have made mistakes; they go and visit them. This seemingly small gesture is great in the eyes of God. It is a gesture of mercy, despite the errors that their dear ones have committed.”

Despite the tireless work of many in the prison service to facilitate contact, families who desperately want to make these visits are often prevented from doing so by the great distances that prisoners are held from their homes. In order to gain these benefits for rehabilitation, accessibility for families must be at the forefront of decisions about where to locate new prisons. For a large number of mothers with young children in particular, the cost and practicalities of travelling hours by public transport for each visit present an enormous obstacle and serves only to deny the prisoner an important help in reconstructing their lives.

Government reforms

Our society is failing prisoners and prisons are failing our society. Even more than before a bold and serious program of prison reform is needed. I was hugely encouraged in February when David Cameron announced that “we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed.” This is a long overdue acknowledgement and opens the way for real change.

Since then Dame Sally Coates has carried out her ground-breaking review of education in prison and legislative reforms were announced in the Queen’s speech. Amid the turbulent politics of the past few months it was exciting to hear the new Secretary of State for Justice promise that “the vital work of prison reform will continue at pace” and commit to a radical agenda of modernising prisons, improving education, and tackling violence.

My message to the government today is that the Catholic Church will be your partner in this. We are ready to work alongside and support you in transforming prisons from places of despair to places of redemption. But I also urge you to be brave and go further than any government before: make this the turning point where prison policy is built upon giving people the support they need to make amends and play a positive role in our society.

It is widely accepted that effective change in our prisons will also require tackling underlying factors. One of these is sentencing policy, which is inherently linked to the expanding and increasingly unmanageable prison population. This is a challenge but with courage and commitment it need not be an insurmountable one.

Prison reform is often misconstrued and rarely popular. But this is not about being soft on prisoners or crime. It is about being civilised. It is about recognising just punishment, reducing reoffending, genuinely helping victims, and getting people’s lives back on track so that they are a benefit not a burden on our communities. It is about creating a criminal justice system that delivers real justice. As Pope Francis reminds us: “where there is mercy, justice is more just, and it fulfils its true essence. This does not mean that we should throw open the doors of the prisons and let those who have committed serious crimes loose. It means that we have to help those who have fallen to get back up.”

Individual responsibility

When pursuing this cause we must never lose sight of each person’s own responsibility. Even the most civilised treatment and best opportunities will come to nothing if those who have been found guilty are not themselves prepared to accept punishment, make amends and work towards a better future.

Our vision is one in which prisoners are helped to change. But prisoners must play their part. While the state has an inherent duty to care for those it imprisons and facilitate their rehabilitation, we must always insist that every person is the agent of their own life and accountability for their own actions, even though that accountability may be limited by conditions and ability.

The restorative justice work that many chaplains undertake, such as the Sycamore Tree course, is just one compelling example of how prisoners can be encouraged to come to terms with their offence and the impact of their choices on others. This is an integral part of any worthwhile prison system and crucially benefits victims as well as offenders.

Equally when people are released from prison they have the responsibility to continue on a new path. Prison should equip them with the skills to do this, but hard work and commitment must come from the person herself or himself.

Community responsibility

A further part of this puzzle is, of course, the role of communities and attitudes in our society as a whole. When people who have left prison are stigmatised and rejected, is it any wonder that they return to the gangs and drug dens of their past? When people are continually punished despite having served their sentence, can we really be surprised if they sense that they have no stake in society?

Our parishes are particularly well placed to welcome people and help them get back on their feet. I hope and pray that this Year of Mercy will be a rallying call for Catholics actively to reach out a hand of friendship and offer practical assistance to those leaving prison. For even the smallest actions can give someone hope and help them to stay on the right path.

One young prisoner, actually preparing for baptism as a Catholic, gestured to the knife scars and tattoos on his face and neck and poignantly asked his Catholic chaplain “How can I walk through the door of a church looking like this?” His words challenge us to ensure that we can confidently say he would be welcomed in our own parish.

Out of the 85,000 people in our prisons there are only a tiny minority who will never be released. Everyone else is going to re-enter our communities and live alongside us. We have a duty to support them, not segregate them. Without this welcome any redemption they found in prison and any motivation they have to reform will be wasted, along with all that they have to offer.

This will not always be easy, particularly when we are called to show compassion to those who have committed violent or serious crimes. But at such times we can draw strength from the words of Pope Francis when he tells us that “their fall could have been mine.” In different circumstances many of us may well have been led to make the terrible choices that led our brothers and sisters to prison.

True rehabilitation means not defining people by their worst action for the rest of their life. Some of the steps that we need to take are as basic as changing our use of language. Why, for example, should someone forever be labelled an ‘ex-offender’ even after they have paid their debt to society?

Ban the Box

We know that for people leaving prison one of the most important aspects of rebuilding their life is finding stable employment. But for at least two years after their release they must disclose their sentence on initial application forms for employment. Everyday people are instantly written off just because they have ticked that box.

I know of one man who, during his sentence for a serious crime, achieved several qualifications including a post-graduate degree. Upon release he was determined to use his skills for the benefit of others. Yet three years on and despite many applications he has not had even a single interview. He has not even been able to tell his story.

It is hard to envisage the crushing disappointment of someone who has worked hard to move away from crime and learn new skills, only to be rejected for job after job and never even given the opportunity to explain how he or she has changed since being convicted years before. That is not just devastating for the individual – it deprives employers of potentially excellent and able workers and denies society working taxpayers.

This is why a growing number of socially responsible companies and public bodies are banning the box, and allowing people to disclose and discuss their conviction later in the recruitment process. Then they have a chance to put their past in context and show who they really are. Of course convictions have to be disclosed and where necessary DBS checks undertaken. But people are not simply written off without a hearing for actions in the past which may no longer have a bearing on their future.

Over the coming year I look forward to discussions about how the Church can ban the box in our own employment practices, while taking all the necessary steps to ensure that safeguarding is never compromised.  I personally appeal to all employers to take this step and give people a fair opportunity that will benefit our society. I would also like to pay tribute to those companies such as Timpson’s who go even further and help to level the playing field by actively recruiting people who have been in prison. Dioceses too have such opportunities if they can create social enterprise programmes with employment possibilities.

Concluding remarks

There is a long and rich Christian tradition of advocating criminal justice reform. Women and men from all Christian denominations, and from other faiths, have worked to make our system more civilised, humane and therefore more effective. Putting the Gospel message into action, they have played a role in ending the death penalty, overturning unjust laws, and putting the rights and needs of prisoners on the political agenda. Now more than ever we need to harness that tradition, with a strong voice and clear message.

The Church’s legitimate place in the prison reform movement derives from the fact that we are not merely concerned observers, but in so many ways we are on the front line. Chaplains are working day in, day out, in every prison across England and Wales. Catholic charities are helping thousands of prisoners and their families as well as providing vital support to people after their release. Hundreds of volunteers are visiting, teaching and mentoring people on both sides of the gates. And of course Catholics can be found among the many excellent staff of the Prison Service.

This work is immeasurably valuable in its own right. But it also means that as a Church we have the experience and expertise to actively promote change and work with those around us achieve it. The Year of Mercy presents an opportunity and a challenge to re-energise our commitment to all whose lives are touched by prison. Responsibility for reform falls upon individuals, government, businesses and communities. So let us continue to help offenders be accountable for their actions, push those in power to implement bold agendas, encourage employers to play their part, and ensure that our society treats this cause with the importance it clearly deserves.

The personal commitment of Pope Francis to prison reform has been evident throughout his Papacy. Shortly, on 6 November, as the Year of Mercy concludes, he will make history by welcoming hundreds of prisoners to the Vatican for the celebration of Mass in St Peter’s Basilica. This is a tremendous undertaking and one not without risk. But by physically bringing prisoners into the centre of the Church he will be giving the most powerful practical expression to the clear message he shared in the Penitentiary in Philadelphia: “Jesus wants to help us to set out again, to resume our journey, to recover our hope, to restore our faith and trust. He wants us to keep walking along the paths of life, to realise that we have a mission, and that confinement is not the same thing as exclusion.”

+Vincent Nichols

Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster

Posted in Cardinal Nichols, prison reform