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Address to the Catholic Childrens Society (Westminster)
posted on 06 September 2011
Archbishop Vincent Nichols
Archbishop Vincent Nichols

In an address given to the Annual General Meeting of the Catholic Childrens Society (Westminster), The Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster has said that work to support familes and young people needs to be rooted in a proper understanding of the the true nature of every human being.

Speaking at Westminster Cathedral Hall on 6 September 2011, Archbishop Nichols said: Every young person, said, is a spiritual being, called to know God, to love God, made visible in Christ Jesus, and to be happy with God for all eternity in that fullness of life after our earthly death.

Reflecting on the relationship between young people, their families and society, Archbishop Nichols said:

Clarity of standards of behaviour for youngsters and patterns of discipline are, of course, important. And they are best when shared by all. Indeed cooperation rather than contestation between parents and school in the formation of their children is urgently needed if both are to play their part. But issues of discipline, important as they are, are best understood as the framework for the growth of the young person, not the growth itself.

May I use the analogy of growing plants?

Most plants need a framework if their growth is to be ensured, encouraged, and straight and true. But a plant needs much more.

Growth comes about in an atmosphere of warmth. Seeds planted in permafrost do not grow. Youngsters need acceptance and love.

Growth needs a measure of water and nourishment. Little grows in a desert or in a swamp. Deserts need to be irrigated and swamps drained if growth is to be achieved. Children need nurture and care.

Growth needs light, for only with light will a plant reach up in growth. Children need inspiration and challenge.

These simple analogies are but one way of stressing again the challenge that forming future generations really entails, and how it cannot be reduced to one response. The atmosphere of acceptance has to be rooted in the family; but it has to be wider than that, too. The nurture and care needs to take place in each of the widening circles that make up the experience and growth of every youngster. The inspiration and challenge includes but goes well beyond opportunities for employment.

The Catholic Children's Society (Westminster)

Since 1859, the Catholic Children's Society (Westminster) has been reaching out to disadvantaged children and families. From rescuing orphans at risk of starving, losing their Catholic faith and the orphanages of yesteryear, to running counselling services and family centres the CCS has kept the interests of the child at the heart of all the work they do.

The full text of the Archbishop of Westminsters address follows:

I am very pleased to be able to address this meeting with its overall title of Good Citizenship and organised by our Diocesan CCS. It gives me an opportunity to thank all who work so hard in the endeavours of the Society and all of you who support and encourage that work. In particular I thank Mgr Phelim Rowland for his Chairmanship of the Board of the Society, a role which he is fulfilling we great character and effectiveness. I thank Dr Rosemary Keenan for her leadership as Chief Executive Officer together with all her staff. Thank you all very much indeed.

Some of the social needs of our society were put into sharp relief by the events of early August. Even though only a tiny minority were involved in the rioting, destruction and looting, it is now clear that a good number of them already had criminal records. Nevertheless many others were drawn into shocking and destructive violence and criminality. This has led to considerable discussion about the loss of some fundamental shared values, the role of schooling and its sharp challenges, the role of parents and the family, as well as wider questions of hardship and poverty of life as experienced in Britain today. This is the context for some of the crucial work of our Catholic Childrens Society, especially in its family centres.

There has been a great deal of discussion, over the last decade, about the role of the family in society, and, of course, of the relationship between the family and the institution of marriage. I do not intend to survey the swings of political opinion and comment about these matters. But I am sure that some of you will have taken note of the Prime Ministers own comments about the importance of marriage, given in a speech last May. Much more recently we have had comments by the Deputy Prime Minister on the responsibilities of parents, a theme which was much exercised during those summer riots.

The overall teaching of the Church is also clear. It was perhaps most succinctly expressed by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Great Britain in 1982 when, at York, he said: The future of society passes by way of the family.

In my own reflection in recent days, particularly in a video message to every youngster in our Secondary Schools,  I have concentrated on young people themselves, encouraging them to deepen not only their respect and responsibility towards others, but especially their own self-respect, as the basis for the expectations and standards they have for themselves. This self-respect is, of course, based on their innate dignity as children of God and a growing understanding that they are loved and esteemed by God unceasingly, for the Lord is interested in their flourishing and fulfilment, even to the point of dying that it may eternally be so.

In contrast, other comments, as I have already mentioned, have focussed on the framework of discipline needed by many young people today. Such expectations are being set for schools and, by extension, for parents and families. And today there have been comments on the role of the penal system and the challenge of repeated offending.

Let me reflect on that for a moment.

Clarity of standards of behaviour for youngsters and patterns of discipline are, of course, important. And they are best when shared by all. Indeed cooperation rather than contestation between parents and school in the formation of their children is urgently needed if both are to play their part. But issues of discipline, important as they are, are best understood as the framework for the growth of the young person, not the growth itself.

May I use the analogy of growing plants?

Most plants need a framework if their growth is to be ensured, encouraged, and straight and true. But a plant needs much more.

Growth comes about in an atmosphere of warmth. Seeds planted in permafrost do not grow. Youngsters need acceptance and love.

Growth needs a measure of water and nourishment. Little grows in a desert or in a swamp. Deserts need to be irrigated and swamps drained if growth is to be achieved. Children need nurture and care.

Growth needs light, for only with light will a plant reach up in growth. Children need inspiration and challenge.

These simple analogies are but one way of stressing again the challenge that forming future generations really entails, and how it cannot be reduced to one response. The atmosphere of acceptance has to be rooted in the family; but it has to be wider than that, too. The nurture and care needs to take place in each of the widening circles that make up the experience and growth of every youngster. The inspiration and challenge includes but goes well beyond opportunities for employment.

Indeed, unless we understand correctly the true nature of every human being then the efforts we make, through our families and our schools, will be limited in their reach and effectiveness.

When we think of a youngster, at home or in school, what do we see? Well certainly we see someone whom we hope will become a responsible adult member of society, someone who embraces shared responsibilities and respects the needs of others and responds generously to them.

We also see a person whom we hope can develop their talents and abilities and become a productive member of society, contributing to economic and social success, bringing their unique set of gifts to that wider effort for the common good of all.

We also see a person whom we know has a personal vocation, a call, to the fullness of life and love, often expressed in profound friendship, in marriage, in a religious calling and dedication. We hope that this level of mature commitment will be part of what lies ahead for each of our youngsters.

But we also have to keep in mind that every youngster is also a spiritual being, called to know God, to love God, made visible in Christ Jesus, and to be happy with God for all eternity in that fullness of life after our earthly death. To live without this perspective is to see life without its extra dimension. I am no expert on 3D television and films. But I suspect the gift of our Christian faith is a bit like donning the 3D glasses and seeing everything in its full richness. The same reality is seen by all. But the eyes of faith bring a new and enhancing vision in which we do indeed see life whole.

It is this vision which inspires the work of our Catholic Childrens Society. It is a vision which was well expressed in the theme Making a Difference. That theme was well expressed, for example, in the school which developed its ARK project: acts of random kindness.

It is this vision which impels the Society to work with families and parents, especially in the difficult circumstances of economic stringency, seriously limited resources, social exclusion and high levels of anxiety. It is this vision we try to share with them, supporting them in their demanding tasks and encouraging them in the greatness of their calling.

This same vision has to inform efforts in promoting good citizenship and every debate about the moral principles and values which are needed to underpin a stable society. This, of course, was the theme of the great address given by Pope Benedict in Westminster Hall when he argued cogently for a greater recognition of the role of religious faith in our pluralist society. He insisted that the fundamental and objective moral principles which democracy itself requires for its stability are open to reason and not reliant on the light of revelation. This must be an encouragement to us as we engage in these debates, although, as I have already said, the full picture of our human reality emerges in its clarity when illuminated by the light of our Christian faith.

I thank you all for your support for our Catholic Childrens Society. The witness you give in our society is crucial. It may not be shouted from the housetops, nor written up regularly in any newspaper. Indeed it may even be misunderstood or distorted. But those with whom you work know its true value, and know that it comes to them with the inspiration of our faith. Strengthening that faith dimension is always important, as is strengthening the links between all who seek to serve society in the Diocese, in the name of the Church, through the development of a diocesan Caritas. In this I thank Fr Paschal Ryan for his sensitive leadership.

I thank you again for all the work of this year, and I trust that the Society will continue its dedicated work in the coming year, courageously facing new challenges and continually supported by you all.

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