Dear people of Arundel & Brighton,
I was in Rome for three weeks in October, at an international meeting of bishops from all over the world called the Synod. The word means something like ‘on the road together’ and while that might be true, it was clear that we are very differently prepared for the journey. For three weeks I sat between a bishop from Liberia and a bishop from Eritrea, and almost the only things we had in common were the English language and the Catholic faith, and teaching that faith (the point of the Synod) presented very different challenges for the three of us. One question that came up again and again, especially from Africa and the Middle East, was the question of relations with other religions, and especially Islam.
The gospel reading today ends just tantalisingly short of that famous line from Pontius Pilate, ‘Truth? What is that?” And because we only have the written word, we don’t know how he said that. Was it a cynical jibe at Jesus, or an honest enquiry? Was it even a word of sympathy, as if to say, “Why are you really standing before me?” After all, he then goes out to the crowd again and says to them, “I find no case against him.”
Today’s Feast of Christ the King ends our liturgical year; next week a new yearly cycle begins with the First Sunday of Advent. So today we not only round off the year but somehow also sum it up. Christ is supreme over all things, and in him truth is to be found. There are the fundamental truths about ourselves, that we are made in the image of God, and that all things came into being through him;
as the beginning of John’s gospel tell us. And this tells us the truth about human dignity, that what we call ‘human rights’ are not given to people by the enlightened generosity of governments, but that we all have a fundamental dignity simply because we are human. And because of that, too, there are truths about the sacredness of life and the need for love.
But there are truths, then, that are less clear, and these are the truths about God, and these are truths that we must never stop trying to grasp more fully. What does God mean to me? How do I see God? Do I expect to experience God, and if so, how? And what does God want of me, and how does God see me? Do I really believe that God loves me so much that he sent his only Son to die on the cross for me? I know that for many of our young people these are questions that they are asking seriously as well. Today is also National Youth Sunday, and I ask you to pray for our young people especially. The ones that I meet always give me a great sense of hope and comfort; their lives seem very complicated, but I think their hearts are in the right place, and they tend to see fewer differences between people.
Recently Pope Benedict was quoted as saying that one of the more important documents to come out of the Council was not one of the four we are studying for the diocesan Jubilee. It was the document called in Latin Nostra Aetate, from the opening words, “In this age of ours..” and goes on to talk about how people are coming together much better and how “the bonds of friendship between different people are being strengthened.” I’m not sure we would say that with the same conviction today. But the document goes on to say that the Church wants to examine its relationship with other non-Christian religions, to see what we have in common and to see ways in which this can foster better relations between peoples.
The document talks about questions relevant to all religions: “What is the meaning and purpose of life? How can genuine happiness be found? What happens at death?” In the first chapter of the document there are passing references to Hinduism and Buddhism, and it says that “the Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” These were bold words in 1965, even shocking to some. And then the second chapter begins, “The Church also has a high regard for Muslims,” and acknowledges that there has been a sad history of conflict between Christians and Muslims. But it goes on to urge “a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding, for the benefit of all.”
So what of today’s celebration? If Christ is Lord and King of all, how are those saved who do not acknowledge or know him? The answer is that all people, we believe, are saved in Christ, whether they know him or not. Those who consciously reject him presumably do not want to be saved. But it raises the more important question about the nature of truth. Is it something we possess, or is it something we search for?
The search for truth means having an open mind and an active mind. It means having a tolerant and welcoming outlook. It involves listening and praying. It involves thinking and reflecting. It cannot mean standing still.
I’ve no doubt that Pilate never forgot that meeting with Jesus, and for the rest of his life probably wondered, “Who was that man? What was he here for?” They are questions that have been asked by millions since, and as we begin a new year with Advent next week, and especially during this Year of Faith, I ask that we renew ourselves in that sense of search and that willingness to ask and ponder those questions. In the end they are not just questions about Jesus, but about who we are as well.
With my prayers and best wishes for you all.
Bishop of Arundel & Brighton