Words on the Word
Acts 8:5-17: Many were delivered.
1 Peter 3:15-18: Always be ready to give an account.
John 14:15-21: So he can give you the Spirit of Truth.
Dear candidates for confirmation,
A couple of days ago I found myself standing in the centre of Kyiv. There was lovely spring weather there as here. The chestnut trees were in bloom. The city was bustling. I walked past a snazzy café with the same complex assortment we’d expect at Starbucks. I could have been on a long-weekend city holiday. But I wasn’t.
I was, with Cardinal Arborelius, conducting a visit of solidarity in the name of our Bishops’ Conference. And even if Ukraine has a rare ability to live normally in extreme conditions, not to let itself be brutalised, the country remains in the throes of a terrible war. The front has lain frighteningly near Kyiv. The night before we arrived, missiles rained down over the city. We visited Irpin and Bucha, names familiar from the news, names associated with terrible massacres. The towns are only about 30 km from the capital. There’s a straight road from there into Kyiv.
That the occupying force was never allowed to pass that way is a strategic miracle. It is also a testimony to Ukraine’s power of resistance. This power manifests itself courageously still, at the eastern front. We honour it, and do so rightly. But let’s not forget the cost.
While we were strolling in the spring sunshine, in Kyiv, we passed the wall of the monastery of St Michael. The wall is covered with photographs of victims of the war, men and women, many of them barely three or four years older than you are today. I found myself thinking of a reportage I heard on the BBC World Service in March last year, a couple of weeks after the invasion. Jeremy Bowen stood at the station in Kyiv, where the cardinal and I had arrived, and saw youngsters go to war. He described two lads: ‘They were dressed for a camping weekend or a festival, except they were carrying newly issued Kalashnikov assault rifles. One had brand new white trainers. Another had a yoga mat to sleep on’ (see my Notebook for 5 March 2022).
There was something heart-rending about the details. The word ‘soldier’ is so anonymous. We think of faceless, greenclad extras in war films we have seen. Here one caught a personal glimpse of two fellows one might come across in a coffee shop. Are they still alive, the two of them? Or are their faces among the thousands of others on the wall by Kyiv’s Blue Church?
The thought of a major war between European nations seemed absurd until not long ago. With so much binding us together, political and economic alliances, war seemed preshistoric. My generation is heir to the 60s slogan, ‘Make love, not war’. Little by little politics itself has become strange to us. Many can’t be bothered, now, to vote in elections, or see no point in voting. What we want is to be left tranquil, have a good salary and at the same time plenty of leisure to do as we please, and access to 5G internet browsing.
But then a massive crisis can, in a trice, turn reality upside down. Suddenly we stand there, with our new trainers and our yoga mat, faced with existential choices. ‘Fight for what is dear to you, die if need be’, we sing in a song almost everyone in this country knows by heart. Is there something that dear to me? What do I live for, in fact? What stars do I navigate by when night falls and my iPhone is dead? What do I do when others’ future depends on choices I make?
Many are bewildered before such questions. Not so you, my friends. Today you declare yourselves to be Catholic Christians. In the name of Jesus, you stake out a clear direction for your lives. In the sacrament of confirmation you are sealed with the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit of Jesus, the Gospel tells us, is ‘the Spirit of Truth’. Truth is more than theory. We cannot always think our way to truth — even if the ability to think clearly is of inestimable worth. Circumstances may arise that simply give us no time to weigh alternatives. Then we must know how to act. The sense of what is true must be alive in us and form our judgement. The Spirit of Jesus helps us to judge rightly. To receive the Spirit is not to be varnished with magic; it is to enter a friendship, to become aware of God’s presence in our lives as a light, a source of consolation, living wisdom. In this way we are freed from fear, freed to act.
The world needs women and men who see clearly, who are not taken in by lies, who recognise sincerity and radiate goodness. This is the task for which you are prepared today. None of us knows what awaits us. With all my heart I wish you a safe and prosperous future. I wish that you may use your gifts fully, that your lives will be fruitful, that you will know love and genuine friendship.
Still I ask you to be prepared to fight for what is good and true. A world order that only yesterday appeared unshakeable is collapsing. This fact places demands on all of us. Simple pragmatism, the attitude that leans back to wait and see, is inadequate in the long run. To have direction, our lives must be informed by an ideal. The Christian ideal is demanding. But it is noble, beautiful, a source of joy. Get to know this ideal ever better. And remember: you have received strength to live by it. Confirmation is a sacrament of strengthening.
‘What is truth?’, Pilate asked Jesus. Jesus answered by giving his life for his friends. He went through death in order to vanquish death.
The power inherent in Jesus’s Paschal sacrifice manifests itself again when ordinary people, people like you and me, transcend themselves and display the boundlessness of the Gospel: when those who have known injustice refuse to give in to hatred, when those who have lost all still rise up to help others, when weakness is transformed into strength. In Ukraine I saw proof of such transformation. That is why I wanted to share this experience with you.
As Christians we are called to live in a new way. We don’t want to merely be spectators of life; we want to enter life consciously, whole-heartedly, as agents. Thank you for saying Yes to this call. Let us help one another to be worthy of it.
In the name of Christ! Amen
Photograph: Ukrainian Greek Catholic Media Department