Do this and life is yours.
On many occasions in recent weeks I have thought – and other people have said to me – we shall never forget 2020. We are not quite halfway through the year, yet we know that this is true. It is a year like no other because of the coronavirus pandemic which has changed our lives. We still don’t know exactly how we and our world are going to look when we emerge from this unsettling time, but we do know that we shall have much to be thankful for as well as much that we can learn from – alongside the individual scars and sorrows that many of us will continue to carry because of illness or bereavement.
Tonight’s Mass of Thanksgiving for all health care workers is one of a series of Masses in the Catholic Cathedrals of England and Wales being celebrated and offered in gratitude for all our nurses and doctors, all the staff in the NHS and in our care homes, as well as for those who are carers at home. It is our opportunity to recognise and thank God for the remarkable spirit and the selfless efforts of all health care workers at a time when demand and expectation have never been greater.
We shall never forget 2020. So, what will we remember? Each of us will have framed a different image of our experiences this year, made up of photoshots of the individual moments that will be forever impressed on our memory. For those of you who have been caring for hospital patients, for care home residents or for your own relatives there will be many individual moments of struggle and of loving care that will feature within your picture-frame. For some of us it is still too early to capture a difficult or painful moment in focus and only time and the support of others will help to clear our vision.
For others, these memories are still being shaped. We pray for those who are still anxious about their health or the health of somebody close to them – for those whose work and livelihood are threatened – for those facing mental health issues at this particularly stressful time – and for all who are struggling to return to what we remember as our normal daily lives. In the midst of all this we must also hold onto the unforeseen blessings which have come our way and to some of the new ways of communicating and working together which we need to carry into the future.
Among the most vivid memories that I will recall from this extraordinary time is the clear message that what motivates and energises our health care workers is their sense of vocation – that beyond the career or profession lies a calling. People of faith would recognise this as a calling from God to care for and serve others. For other people it is a calling that arises from within human nature itself responding to the needs of others and impelling them to reach out in kinship to their fellow human beings to bring healing, comfort and consolation.
Some years ago, when I was working as an Auxiliary Bishop in central London, I was taken by the hospital chaplaincy team on a pastoral visit to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. This famous hospital was founded in the 12th century by the monk Rahere, alongside the Augustinian Priory of the same name, to give free medical care to the poor of the City of London. As well as the patients and staff on the hospital wards I was taken to see two magnificent 18th century paintings by William Hogarth. One of them depicts the story of the Good Samaritan which we have heard this evening in St Luke’s Gospel.
The painting reminded me of the long link between the witness of faith and the provision of healthcare to those who are most in need. During the last three months in particular people of faith have recognised God’s hand at work in the goodness and generosity of our carers and we seek to offer something back by our prayerful appreciation.
Listening recently to the experiences of one of my brother priests in this Archdiocese who spent many weeks on a ventilator because of the coronavirus, I know what such dedicated care have meant for him and his family. Many years of his own priestly ministry were spent serving as a healthcare chaplain. Like all our healthcare chaplains he witnessed a strong sense of vocation among the doctors, nurses and carers with whom he spent his days – and in recent weeks he has been nursed back to health in a way that has undoubtedly strengthened this conviction.
He has preached on this passage of St Luke’s Gospel – the parable of the Good Samaritan – on many occasions. I am sure that to will now have a poignantly new significance for him. The stories that Jesus told, together with so many of his actions, are an inspiration for us. The parables flow from his own personality – they show how he observed and thought about the world around him – they reveal the values that underpinned his way of life and his teaching.
The parable of the Good Samaritan offers us a message that is relevant to our times. We are taken to a roadside at a place where the unwary traveller could be taken advantage of. The tale reminds us that people who are already vulnerable are often open to further exploitation. At the centre of the parable is a man who is destitute because he has been badly attacked and robbed. His suffering is made far worse because the very people from whom he might have expected pity and assistance have chosen to ignore him. The parable shows us that it is quite possible for good people to walk by on the other side of the road, too scared to get involved, too preoccupied to respond, or too self-absorbed to notice.
But the man from Samaria – from a different culture and background – he does notice and he acts, proving himself to be a true neighbour to his brother. There is a pertinent lesson here about seeing beyond my prejudices and acting justly in my appraisal of people with a different background and culture from my own. The parable invites us to cherish every human life on the basis of the innate dignity that comes from God.
In a few moments we will hear some special messages – messages of thanks and of hope – that offer us an insight into other peoples’ experiences of the coronavirus pandemic. We will see something of the sadnesses and the joys that will lie within the framework of many memories in the years ahead. We thank Christ the healer who has been present in the prayerful support that has restored many to health during this time. We thank Christ the redeemer and the giver of new life that, while many people have sadly died without family present, they have not died ‘alone’ because the carers in hospitals and residential homes have been with them.
We shall never forget 2020. We shall recall the goodness and truth evident in so many words and deeds responding to peoples’ needs. We shall recall the words of Christ: Do this and life is yours.