As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio stood against the Argentine government's proposed legislation to legalize same-sex "marriage." Similarly, the British people are seeking to defend marriage at a time when politicians are actively pushing for legislation to redefine it.
Pope Francis' election comes also at an important time for the Church of England, as he was chosen just over a week before today's enthronement of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury.
President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, spoke with ZENIT about what the papacy of Pope Francis means for Britain at this time in history:
ZENIT: While serving as cardinal in Argentina, Cardinal Bergoglio stood against the government on various issues, such as same-sex "marriage." What does it mean for the Church in Britain, which is currently facing a similar situation, to have a Pope who has also confronted these issues?
Archbishop Nichols: The efforts and struggle to make clear not simply Catholic belief about marriage, but a human truth about marriage, have been actually quite widely welcomed by many people, but not by the political forces that have the upper hand at the moment. Our experience might be a bit similar to his in Argentina. In Argentina, however, I imagine the culture is fundamentally Catholic, whereas in Britain it's not. In Britain, we do speak much more from the minority position, and in that sense that can be used against us. It's not too difficult for public voices to dismiss our arguments, saying that "Well, they're the Catholics, and they are easily put to one side."
But I think, in this debate, we have actually touched a much deeper and much wider level of opinion that the political process is ignoring. As this legislation comes into effect (we expect), there is quite a deep unease about its possible ramifications in terms of religious freedom, in terms of freedom of expression, and maybe in terms of the shared common fundamental perception of what marriage is about.
ZENIT: Turning now to how the Holy Father is perceived throughout the world with regard to his service of the poor: There are some who see the Church as primarily a humanitarian institution. How can we take the words and actions of Pope Francis, so directed to serving the poor, and understand them within the proper context of the Church's true mission?
Archbishop Nichols: Some of the images he has been using already are very vivid. He has spoken of the fact that, if the Church is not fundamentally centered on Christ, then it is no more than a compassionate NGO. If it's not fundamentally centered on Christ, than what it builds is like a sandcastle on the beach. These are very vivid phrases.
I also noticed when he was speaking to the cardinals, he said that this being built on Christ, centered on Christ, meant being centered on the Cross of Christ. He said "When we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples."
If you place the Cross of Christ central to what he's saying, then it takes us very obviously to his second major point, which is about the mercy of God. In a way, the Cross displays and makes present what he speaks of as the unfathomable mercy of God. As he said on Sunday: God never tires of rendering us forgiveness and mercy. It's that infinite outflow of God's love and mercy, which is portrayed and effected on the Cross.
That's the place where we start to recognize our poverty. The root of our stance toward the needy of the world flows from that point: that the first poverty we have to recognize is [our] own, my own before God. When that is firmly recognized and lived, then, in the words of the Psalm: "Then we will serve the poor in right judgment." But without that sense of my own emptyhandedness before God, service of the poor can lose its purity, and can become sometimes easily rather patronizing.
ZENIT: Could you speak about the relevance of Pope Francis' election coinciding with the enthronement of Justin Welby as the new Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury?
Archbishop Nichols: This is obviously a very special week for us in the Catholic Church, but it is also a very momentous week for the Anglican communion – and for the Church of England – because the Archbishop of Canterbury is enthroned on Thursday in Canterbury Cathedral. He's a very different candidate and character to Pope Francis.
At this time, he is leading a pilgrimage of prayer where he is walking with a little entourage through the city centers of some of the cathedral cities in England, simply inviting people to come and pray with him. He's also handing out small candles, saying to people: here, take the candle, take it home, pray: but first, if you can, bring it to the cathedral at lunchtime or this evening. As he said to me, he is trying to do something that's tangible, to actually give people an object that they can hold. I think that's a lovely way of alerting people in our nation to what's going to happen on Thursday.
These two things together – the response of the British public to Pope Francis, and this moment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury – points to a spiritual awareness, and an intuition for the things of faith, which is still actually quite strong. I sometimes say we as Christians shouldn't fashion our relationship with society on the basis of what we read in the media, or on the projections of the media. Underneath that, at a human level, there is a far greater readiness for the things Invisible.
It's also interesting to me that, right at the center of the ceremony of the installation of the new Archbishop of Canterbury – after he takes his oath on a copy of the Gospels brought to Britain by Saint Augustine – he will re-sign a covenant agreement with the other Christian Churches in England. That ecumenical undertaking is placed right at the center of his ceremony of installation.
This is a very important week for us, and one that I know many people will enjoy and many people will be very encouraged by it too.
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Part 1 of this interview: