Rome was bathed in glorious sunshine last week as I spent three days visiting the Vatican with fellow legislators from the British Houses of Parliament. It was a wonderful trip and we had illuminating conversations with Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States, effectively the Vatican’s Foreign Minister, and many others.
Much of our focus was on Catholic Social Teaching. The question for all of us must be: Does Catholic Social Teaching make any difference to you and me? Do we live out our lives focussed on ourselves and what the Church can do for us, and our ultimate destination (hopefully Heaven)? Or do we try to live the reality of the teaching of Jesus who called on us to give everything, as He did for us?
We regularly sing the hymn we know as St Patrick’s Breastplate, acknowledging the profound importance of Christ in our lives – we sing ‘Christ before me, Christ behind me…’ and we often sing it hugely energetically, but do we see Christ before, behind, around us, and around everyone of his children, so that the reality is as St Teresa of Avila says we are his eyes, his hands, his feet in the world?
In Rome we heard of the extent of the active living of Catholic Social Teaching, including quiet, heroic work in the shadow of gunmen and violence, when often the only structures left in a conflicted country are Church structures, and work with people suffering from HIV/AIDS.
We met the Community of Sant’Egidio, a community of ordinary people with ordinary jobs who do magnificent work across the world. It began in Rome in 1968 following the Second Vatican Council. Today it has more than 60,000 members, dedicated to evangelisation and charity in Rome and in more than 73 other countries. One project, the DREAM programme, focuses on people with HIV/AIDS in Africa. DREAM stands for Drug Resource Enhancement against AIDS and Malnutrition. It was launched in 2002 and today the programme operates in Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, the Republic of Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon.
They have assisted 225,000 people of whom 38,800 are younger than 15 years old. Some 95,000 are in antiretroviral therapy, of whom 10,500 are children. 22,500 children have been born healthy as a consequence of the word of Sant’Egidio, and they are currently treating 2,000 pregnant women. 1.5 million people have used the DREAM programme accessing health training, water filters, nutritional support, mosquito netting, and HIV/AIDS prevention programmes. Sant’Egidio was also the location for the Mozambique peace talks and engages actively in peace-making.
In Cardinal Turkson we met a man of great humility, wonderful intellect, humour and huge compassion. Just before he met us he had been in Iowa, in the US, as the keynote speaker at the 2013 World Food Prize conference. Before delivering his keynote speech to the conference, he had spoken at an event in the basement of the First United Methodist Church of Des Moines hosted by a local group, Occupy the World Food Prize, which opposes biotechnology and agribusiness, and supports small farmers.
They asked that he publicly denounce the use of biotechnology in farming. One person said that “the Catholic Church has a moral obligation to refuse GMOs”. Cardinal Turkson’s response was to express disappointment that there had been no meeting between the World Food Prize organisers and the Occupy protest. He said, “I was coming here to encourage conversation. Whether I was naïve to promote that dialogue this week, I’m here, and I’m a priest, I’m a Christian, I’m a Gospel-preacher, and the message central to the Gospel is reconciliation and fashioning communion where it doesn’t exist or where it has broken down.”
It is reported in the National Catholic Reporter that he told the Occupy protesters that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation “meets around the table, making room for everybody, small-scale farmers, big farmers.
“Can some forum exist like that here? That big farmers can hear your anxieties, hear you speak from your hearts?” he asked.
“We need to promote something like that,” he said. The cardinal then made Occupy the World Food Prize group an offer: “At the dawn of 2000, the bishops of Africa organised with other bishops to go to the International Monetary Fund and push for debt consolation. That did work…if the situation you present is so life-threatening, we can do that again…we can follow the same channel. Which means that at a certain point, I will liaise with the [US Conference of Catholic Bishops], the Vatican, and the UN in New York or Geneva. We can put in motion the same machinery we did in 2000”. It was a direct offer of help.
Speaking later at the World Food Prize conference, Cardinal Turkson said the Catholic Church supports using biotechnology to improve efforts to feed the poor and afflicted of the world. “It is legitimate for humans, with the correct attitude, to intervene in nature and make modifications. The human person does not commit an illicit act…when he intervenes to modify some of their characteristics, even at the genomic level, for food production.” He stated that “the findings of science must be put to use in order to ensure a high productivity of land”.
He asked why biotechnology has elicited “so much displeasure, distrust, scepticism and opposition”. He cautioned that “there is a need sometimes to be prudent…Let’s take every reasonable measure of caution beforehand to avoid the risk of human health or the environment. He urged that the industry adopt the highest standards of communication including rules of labelling to guarantee producers and consumers’ rights to information. “This is necessary for everyone to have a true choice,” Cardinal Turkson said. “For what makes us truly human is our power to choose.”
We had many other meetings, but I came away energised and so very pleased at the way in which the Church, led by the Pope and courageous people like Cardinal Turkson is really living its social teaching. The Church across the world is working so hard still, in the cause of the poor, the hungry, the marginalised, the sick and those in conflict. Here in Ireland, immersed as we are, and have been, in our recent history, we read endless criticism of our Church and of the Vatican. Undoubtedly our human frailty means that things could be better, but the Church is so clearly working globally to promote the Gospel. We, in Ireland, must make sure we play our part too.
I was very privileged to meet Pope Francis at the General Audience: a man who clearly had a very sore knee and who looked very tired, but whose eyes shone with love for all the people. His sole request was “pray for me, pray for me”. We finished our trip with Mass at the tomb of St Peter in the Vatican, celebrated by our chaplain, Canon Pat Browne. As we knelt before the tomb of our first Pope, as we received the Eucharist, we prayed for Pope Francis, the 266th Pope, for all the people we love, and for our world.
We do not know what the future holds for us. We can each make choices today, though, to do all we can in our own lives to contribute to the coming of Christ’s Kingdom.