The National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) conference by zoom on Saturday 18th July, looked at social issues during the pandemic and the imperatives of Catholic Social Teaching to imagine a more just and sustainable future, writes Ellen Teague. Its title was, ‘Post-pandemic Church: Paralysed or Energised? Recovered or Re-imagined?’ NJPN Chair, Anne Peacey, described the conference as, “a real celebration of what it is to be J&P people”. It was in place of the postponed NJPN annual gathering in mid-July, ‘Action for life on Earth’, which is re-scheduled for July 2021.
The gathering of around 300 participants was lay-led but also supported by men and women religious and by Catholic and ecumenical members of the Network, including CAFOD, Pax Christi, CSAN, the Romero Trust, National Board of Catholic Women, CARJ and Christians Aware. It was life-affirming to see so many people from various elements of Church social outreach waving at each other through their screens.
“We will be different when we emerge from this pandemic, but, though we are in a new place and a new time, the Church we have is probably the Church that will emerge from it,” according to one speaker. Fr Joseph O’ Hanlon, a priest of Nottingham diocese and a biblical scholar and writer, said online gatherings, where groups have shared their faith in creative ways, “are not patches on the real Church” but should be encouraged to keep going. In the discussion, Passionist Fr Nicholas Postlethwaite asked, “why not simply encourage the development of ongoing virtual meetings – not linked necessarily to liturgy – but within which people can be encouraged to have conversations together – and lets then see where that takes us”. He called for more opportunity for “honest, authentic conversation” about the Church in the world.
Participants seemed to agree with Fr O’Hanlon that the Kingdom of God is about love. “And how do we see God’s love in the world?” he asked. He suggested it should be understood as “righteousness – the right way to live” and applauded those who tackle structural sin and injustice. He underlined, “amazing biblical language about peace and justice” and which deplores leaders who “trample on the poor.” Fr O’Hanlon stressed, “God’s love makes the whole of creation the Body of Christ”. He hoped the structure of Church will support laity building the Kingdom and transforming the world for the common good.
The opening session on ‘Forgotten People’ looked at social outreach during the last four months of the pandemic. Paul Bodenham, J&P Fieldworker in Nottingham Diocese, reminded participants that in his Easter Sunday message, Pope Francis urged us to feel the suffering of others as our own.
Kevin Flanaganof St Antony’s Centre for Church and Industry in Trafford said, “we chose not to close during lockdown”, and “at a time of crisis we had to dig in and dig out”. The centre has supported people in work, out of work or looking for work and warned that we are likely to see huge redundancies and unemployment in the future. He regretted that the Catholic bishops no longer have a World of Work Committee because today’s challenges are great and growing, and his call to reinstall it was supported by many participants in the conference chat room. “Employers are cutting pay and then cutting jobs” he said, and training has been scaled back, including apprenticeships. He urged participants to support the right of workers to join trade unions and called for, “our bishops to release monies for people in the world of work”. He hoped a “radical transformational Church” would emerge from the pandemic.
Colette Joyce of Westminster J&P spoke on ‘Homelessness’. When the nation was asked to stay at home on 23rd March, “some people could not stay at home because they didn’t have one”. Whilst many homeless were placed in hotels, Westminster Catholic groups and churches initiated a huge social project to feed people who had, “no recourse to public funds”. It became a great ecumenical and interfaith project, as a Sikh group also helped provide food to more than 200 people daily in Trafalgar Square. A clip of the story on ‘Newsnight’ was shown, and it included words of endorsement from Cardinal Vincent Nichols. “Something has gone wrong in our economic system if we cannot support everyone in our community,” reflected Colette, “but we proved that dramatic change is possible”. Nick Hanrahan of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) also reported on the destitution of refugees who do not benefit from any government funding and the Church reponse. During lockdown, JRS in London took its day centre onto the road, distributing food and toiletries and offering a prepaid master card with money so that refugees had emergency money. The JRS Refugee Hardship Fund was topped by generous donors. “The virus is of real concern to refugee friends – most of whom are vulnerable black, Asian or ethnic minority – and they face a hostile environment” Nick reported. He agreed that the lack of recourse to funding has been a key issue and has meant that chronic illnesses are left untreated because of fear of charges, and many are forced onto the streets.
Clare Dixon, CAFOD’s Head of Latin America, gave an international overview, saying that, “everything experienced in Britain is seen in the global south”. However, the Church here too has been providing a “moral voice” in a city like Sao Paulo which has a quarter of all Brazil’s Covid cases. She asked, “how can you access food and keep distancing in a shanty town?” and reported that CAFOD and its partners are providing for 11,000 families in Sao Paulo. “Seventy percent of the population in many Latin American countries have no stable jobs and many have died with no treatment,” she said, reporting the example of Columban Ed O’Connell in Peru who tells of widespread destitution in Lima, with many families unable to access government aid because they have no bank accounts. Many people are out on the streets because they need the informal economy to get income to eat. “They prefer risking the virus to hunger” she commented. Clare also highlighted the plight of indigenous people in the Amazon region. She said President Bolsonaro is often called ‘BolsoNERO’ because he appears to watch while the country burns. CAFOD supports community-based radio to share stories of hope and information about water, food, justice, equity and inter-community solidarity. It is running a Coronavirus Appeal which participants were urged to support.
In the breakout discussion groups there was reflection on the post-pandemic Church. Mentioned was the importance of adult social justice formation, advocacy on structural sin and ecocide, and encouraging a mission-led Church that hears “the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor”, as Pope Francis would put it. Comments directed to the bishops of England and Wales included: “We need the Bishops Conference to champion Catholics committed to Catholic Social Teaching”; “They need to take the voices of concerned Catholics and hold the government to account, for we are on the brink of high unemployment and homelessness”; “We need to be calling on the government for targeted support for the marginalised”: “How do we use Church assets, and are we disinvesting from fossil fuels?”, and “Let us hear more about the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative.”
After a heavy morning session someone asked, “Does lunch arrive by email attachment?”
Liturgies were led by Anna and Eleanor Marshall, who assist with liturgies at NJPN conferences, and by Marty Haugen, a liturgical composer and pastoral musician based in the United States. He composed a special chant for the occasion, dedicated to NJPN and inspired by Laudato Si’, called, ‘For Our Common Home’:
‘We come together for our common home,
We are together we are not alone,
For all the blessings we know, let us sing as we go,
And work together for our common home.’
@NJandPNetwork and @njandpnetwork
Picture: The outreach work in Trafalgar Square during the pandemic has received national media attention.