SCIAF 50th Anniversary Pastoral Letter

SCIAF 50th Anniversary Pastoral Letter

SCIAF 50th Anniversary Pastoral Letter

32nd Sunday of the Year 2015

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

This year, 2015, marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of SCIAF, our Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund.  It also marks the 50thanniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council and the beginning of the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, declared by our Holy Father Pope Francis, which we await with anticipation.

 The Year of Mercy

Sacred Scripture teaches that we are all made in the image andlikeness of God.  We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God.  Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”. [1]  This beliefinspires us to “love one another”,[2] treating our brothers and sisters inChrist with love, respect and dignity. We learn to acknowledge thepresence of Christ in every human being. The Gospel relentlessly callsus to care for one another, ensuring that every human being isrespected and protected.

 Although we are sinners, we remember that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners.  When he was questioned on this by the Pharisees, this was his response: “Go and learn the meaning of the words what I want is mercy, not sacrifice. And indeed I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners.”[3]  Throughout scripture, Christ is shownto be the ultimate model of mercy in his solidarity with those on the margins ofsociety and his forgiveness of sins.

 Pope Francis reminds us that mercy is not optional for Christians – “it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves”. [4]  We are called to show mercy to others because mercy has first been shown to us by the Father.  He asks us now “to take up the joyful call to mercy once more”.[5]  He asks that in our parishes, communities, associations and movements, everyone should find an oasis of mercy.[6]

 The Holy Father underlines the Christian meaning of mercy, reminding us that in the Gospel, the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy.  “Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples.  Let us rediscover these corporal acts of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead.  And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently with those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead.”[7]

Experiencing mercy in our lives

It is worth reflecting on God’s mercy shown through history and to usin our own lives. Without a deep and intimate sense of this mercy, apersonal relationship with the God of love becomes difficult. In all oflife, we can, if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear, sense thatwe are deeply loved by the one who has created us for love.  “For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love”.[8]

Pope Francis reminds us that when we have a true encounter with God’s love, “which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self absorption….Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelisation. For if we receive the love that restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” [9]

Mercy is about the language of the heart.  Experiences of mercy, givenor received, can transform people.  Mercy is sometimes considered a‘soft’ response; however, it can require us to do hard things – to challenge, to speak out, to stand alongside those who are oppressed, to forgive those who have hurt us.[10]

As the Holy Father explains, “believers themselves must constantly feel challenged to live in a way consonant with their faith and not to contradict it by their actions.  They need to be encouraged to be ever open to God’s grace and to draw constantly from their deepest convictions about love, justice and peace.”[11]


St Margaret of Scotland, merciful to the poor

To commemorate this 50th year of SCIAF, in the light of the forthcoming extraordinary year of mercy, the Bishops of Scotland have declared St Margaret of Scotland the patron saint of SCIAF and all those who serve the needy through our Catholic aid agency.

 St Margaret is a clear example from our own history of how to live as a disciple of Christ.  She came to Scotland as a refugee, married Malcolm, King of Scotland, and helped to shape Scotland into the modern country it became.[12]  She was an unusually educated woman, well-read and well versed in the politics of court life. She learned about her faith and used this learning to challenge the Church – she called Church Councils and held Bishops, priests and people to account to ensure the proper spreading of the faith.

Margaret did not achieve these changes through the might of arms or even by the quality of her debate.  She achieved lasting social change because she was loved and respected within her society.  She insisted on self-discipline, justice and piety.  But she was not harsh with others – only with herself.  In all of her actions she was merciful.

She worked to help the Christian culture grow deep roots in Scotland.  She was loving and charitable, constantly showing small acts of mercy.  She invited 300 poor people to dine with her and the king, serving them herself.  She looked after a number of orphaned children and poor people personally for many years.  She paid the ransom of captives and restored them to freedom.

St Margaret was a towering figure in our culture.  It is clear that she was a breath of fresh air, bringing about changes in Scotland for good.  She was driven to do this by her faith and her sense of mercy and justice.

Mercy – the motivation of SCIAF

This is the same as the motivation today for SCIAF and its work on your behalf.  It comes from a vision of faith in the human person, in doing what is right, in Christian love and how God sees us.  Through SCIAF we wish to uphold the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God and re-created through the death and resurrection of Jesus. That person, loved by God and saved in Jesus, was not destined for misery and squalor, poverty and oppression, but for life and freedom, to enjoy nature, health and the sufficiency of the goods of this world. He or she was created ultimately for fullness of life in this world and in the world to come.[13]

 We have a moral obligation to show mercy, to seek the good of our neighbour and make sure their fundamental needs are met, especially those needs which guarantee their dignity.  Not to do this is not an option for a Christian. It is such a serious moral obligation that it touches upon not just the kind of people we think we should be, but the kind of people Jesus Christ in the end judges us to have been:

Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me….in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” [14]

It is this vision of faith in the dignity of the human person, in the quality of our love, in mercy and ultimately in our destiny which inspired those who founded SCIAF, and which must inspire our response to the Holy Father’s call today.

 The mercy and faith of the poor

The readings today tell us of the generosity and faith of the poorest people in society.[15]  The widows in both the first reading and the Gospel reading are examples to us.  Elijah meets a poor widow gathering sticks to cook her last meal.  She and her son are facing death from starvation – they must have been slowly eking out their food for days.  However, strong in faith and rich in generosity, she shares that last meal with Elijah, a stranger passing by her home.  She is rewarded with food which continues to flow from her near-empty stores right through the year until the rains come and she can grow again.

 In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is sitting in the temple and watching how people behave in their worship of the Lord.  He notices the scribes who seek celebrity status in the synagogues and prey on the poor.  He notices a widow – one of the poorest and most lowly people in Jewish society – who gives two small coins to the treasury, all that she has.[16]

 Through SCIAF’s work, we have the opportunity to learn from and share God’s love with the poorest people around the world.  Time and again we hear stories of great courage and compassion within poor communities.  With a little help from the Catholic community in Scotland, poor people are sharing their own gifts and talents with each other, identifying those who most need our help, and working together to build their communities for the future.  We give thanks to God for SCIAF, and for the chance this Catholic agency gives us to come closer to the poor, to meet them and hear their stories, and share their faith in the future.

Works of mercy today

The Gospel story tells us that our faith must be active and compassionate, it challenges us to go beyond our comfort zone and to learn from the example of the widow in the temple.  We can all do more to put our faith into practice.  But the example of St Margaret, or the deep faith of the widows in today’s readings, may seem far removed from our own lives.

As Catholics, it is our relationship with Christ that inspires us to loveothers and to act when we see them denied justice. Pope Francis reminds us that “God shows the poor ‘his first mercy’”, explaining “We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.” [17]

Being merciful calls us to be open to transformation: of our own lives, that of our communities and of our world.   “Everything is interconnected, and genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others”. [18]

What are the works of mercy we are called to today?  Pope Francis has given us some suggestions:

 “This Holy Year will bring to the fore the richness of Jesus’ mission echoed in the words of the prophet [Isaiah]: to bring a word and gesture of consolation to the poor, to proclaim liberty to those bound by new forms of slavery in modern society, to restore sight to those who can see no more because they are caught up in themselves, to restore dignity to all those from whom it has been robbed.” [19]

How can we live up to these examples of mercy in the world we live in today?  SCIAF and the other Catholic agencies give us a practical way to do this.  Giving what we can to others, through SCIAF, brings us closer in solidarity with the poor.  The work of SCIAF gives us eyes to see the terrible circumstances faced by the poorest people of the world.  It gives us arms to bring consolation and dignity to many.  However, we know that we must do more to bring God’s mercy to the world of today.

St Margaret came to this country as a young refugee following the battle of Hastings in 1066.  She was welcomed and given a great opportunity to shape the nation for the better.  How do we treat refugees in our country today, or those who struggle to reach our shores?  Do we show them the mercy and respect they deserve as God’s children?

The widows in today’s readings were living on the edge of starvation, as so many still do in the countries where SCIAF works.  Yet they were willing to give their all for others, as a mark of their faith.  How do we treat the most vulnerable people in our country today?  What more can we do to ensure that every human being, here in Scotland and around the world, has good food, a decent education and a secure future?  Do we leave this for others to do?  Or are we active in our works of mercy, supporting the poor when they need us but also challenging the powerful so that all can live a dignified and full life?

We know that the materialistic society we live in today is impeding God’s call to compassion and mercy.  It harms the rich as well as the poor, reinforcing inequality and damaging the bonds that create a flourishing community.  Pope Francis tells us that our societies become unmerciful when the voice of the poor is muffled and drowned out by the indifference of the rich.[20]  Our conscience has grown dull in the face of so much poverty.  Let us remember that we have much to learn from the poor.  During this year of mercy, let us try to live more simply, to turn our face away from greed and indifference, to care for the environment, to re-establish bonds of solidarity with the poorest and most vulnerable people who have that special experience of God’s mercy.

As the Holy Father reminds us, “we must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world.” [21]

Thanksgiving for SCIAF

A decade ago, the Bishops of Scotland called SCIAF “the jewel in the crown of our Scottish Catholic community”.[22]  Today we give thanks for the continued growth and success of this jewel.  SCIAF is the heart of the Catholic Church in Scotland.  It is how we show tender, loving and personal concern for those who suffer far away, seeing the person of Christ in each one of them.

Pope Francis expressed the mission of our Catholic agencies very clearly, in his Lenten message last year and again in his message of blessing for SCIAF’s 50th anniversary.  He stresses that Catholic agencies must meet the whole needs of each poor person, seeing each person as Christ and working to transform their lives and our own societies:

“As Christians we are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters: to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.  In the poor and outcast we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ.  Our efforts are also directed to ending violations of human dignity, discrimination and abuse in the world, for these are so often the cause of destitution.  When power, luxury and money become idols, they take priority over the need for a fair distribution of wealth.  Our consciences need to be converted to justice, equality, simplicity and sharing.”[23]

The joy of God’s mercy

As we look towards the year of mercy, and give thanks for the work of SCIAF over 50 years, let us treasure a sense of joy in our hearts.  We remember that Jesus shows mercy to sinners and tax collectors, and we all gain a share of this mercy.

On this anniversary, our thanks first go of course to Our Lord himself who is the ultimate inspiration and strength of all we do. Our thanks go also to those who took the founding decision fifty years ago, to the lay people who have led SCIAF over these years, to the members of the Board and staff, and especially to the SCIAF volunteers and supporters, over these years and today. We thank parishes, schools, individuals, institutional funders and government departments for tens of millions of pounds given for the needy; we give thanks for crises alleviated, projects partnered, attitudes altered, poverty and misery solaced and dignity and self-esteem restored through your generosity.[24]

As Pope Francis asks, as we seek to live out Christ’s call to mercy, let us allow God to surprise us.[25]  Let us share Christ’s mercy with cheerfulness.[26]   “Let us sing as we go.  May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”[27]

We close with a prayer that invokes the intercession of St Margaret, patron saint of SCIAF.

O God,

who made Saint Margaret of Scotland wonderful

in her outstanding charity towards the poor,

grant that through her intercession and example

we may reflect among all humanity

the image of your divine goodness.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever.


Yours in Christ,

+ Joseph Toal

Bishop President of SCIAF

on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland

[1] Laudato Si’, #65 [quoting Benedict XVI, Homily for the Solemn Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry, 24 April 2005]

[2] Jn 13:34

[3] Mt 9: 13

[4] Misericordiae Vultus, 2015, #9

[5] Ibid, #10

[6] Ibid, #12

[7] Misericordiae Vultus, 2015, #15

[8] Laudato Si’, #58

[9] Evangelii Gaudium, #8

[10] See ‘Rediscovering Mercy, a resource for parishes’, by Justice & Peace, Missio Scotland, SCIAF, 2014

[11] Laudato Si’, #200

[12] See ‘St Margaret of Scotland’, biography by Turgot, edited and presented by Iain MacDonald, 1993

[13] From homily by Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, 50th anniversary Mass in Glasgow, 29 April 2015

[14] Matthew 25:34-46 RSVCE

[15] Readings for 32nd Sunday, Year B

[16] Mark 12:38-44

[17] Evangelii Gaudium, #198

[18] Laudato Si’, #70

[19] Misericordiae Vultus, #16

[20] Misericordiae Vultus #15

[21] Laudato Si’, #212

[22] Bishops’ Conference of Scotland – pastoral letter for the 40th anniversary of SCIAF

[23] Pope Francis – apostolic blessing for SCIAF’s 50th anniversary, quoting his Lenten message 2014

[24] See homily by Bishop Peter Moran, national Mass for SCIAF’s 50thanniversary, February 2015

[25] Misericordiae Vultus, #25

[26] Ibid, 16, quoting Romans 12:8

[27] Laudato Si’, #244