In the lead up to World Youth Day Archbishop Bernard Longley wrote a moving letter to all UKpilgrims before they headed our to Rio de Janeiro, assuring us of his prayers and blessings. Almost five months later, UKpilgrims met with Archbishop Longley to reflect on our experiences at the first South American World Youth Day in 27 years.
We were curious to meet the man who leads one of the largest archdioceses in England and Wales.
Ukpilgrims asked the Archbishop about his personal life, World Youth Day, the use of social media and if he is ready for the young people in his diocese to ‘make a racket’ or “hacer lio” as Pope Francis invited us to do in Brazil.
As I waited for His Grace in the reception of the offices of the Catholic Church of England and Wales, I imagined his secretary would come and take me to one of the meeting rooms. Instead it was Archbishop Bernard himself who greeted me and after checking with the receptionist that one of the meeting rooms was free, we settled into the room to start the interview.
We spoke for about 40 minutes during which Archbishop Longley struck me as a calm person, but very assertive in his answers. He radiates a certain simplicity in his manner. He is incredibly approachable – I had to pinch myself a few times to remind myself that I was interviewing an archbishop! Most significantly for us, he was extremely enthusiastic when talking about World Youth Day.
Today, on the feast of Christ the King, the Catholic Church of England and Wales celebrates National Youth Sunday and so we give thanks for the Year of Faith which concludes today, with our interview with Archbishop Longley.
The Most Reverend Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham
Thank you very much Your Grace for allowing this interview, I am very excited and very happy because today is the feast day of Blessed John Paul II and we are going to talk about World Youth Day amongst other things, which feels almost like divine intervention.
The first thing I wanted to ask you is where were you born and where did you grow up?
“I was born and grew up in Manchester in the north of England, which is an industrial city with a very strong history of Catholic parish life; with communities which were really formed by migration, largely from Ireland. Our little parish was St Vincent’s where I grew up in a very close knit Catholic community. I went to the local parish school and so I knew many of the families there. Then I went on to another Catholic school in Manchester run by a religious order, the Xaverian Brothers, therefore Catholic Manchester has been very important to me and although I have worked as a priest in different places away from Manchester, the roots of my faith are in that city and also my family relations who are still in the North West.”
Tell us about your family. How many siblings do you have?
“We are quite a small family; my parents together with my sister Kathleen who is a little younger than I am. My parents hoped that they might have a slightly larger family, but providence determined otherwise. But I am blessed with my sister and of course her family is my family. My father and my mother were both from Lancashire. My mother died 18 years ago – God Bless her soul – but she herself had been brought up within a non-Catholic family and it was later on in life, that she decided that she would become a Catholic, about the time that I was being ordained as a priest in 1982.”
So was your father the main Catholic figure in your family?
“My father, yes. My father always brought my sister and myself with him to Mass every Sunday. On special occasions my mother came. She also did her part in ensuring that we were ready for mass to go with my father. Eventually she became more and more interested in the Catholic Church and I was delighted of course when both my parents were united in their faith in 1982.”
Do you see quite a lot of your family?
“I do, my father and my aunt come to stay with me now in Birmingham from time to time, but I do see my sister quite a lot, thank the Lord! The family relationship is quite important, she keeps me rooted and grounded and it is always good to have the insights of a sister who doesn’t mind speaking the truth to me in love.”
When did you feel the call to the priesthood?
“When I was very young actually. I was involved in the life of our local parish as an altar server, so I was involved with the liturgy and the life of the parish; however, it was at university that my sense of calling to explore a vocation to priestly ministry was strengthened. I’d been studying at university in the South of England and I felt a call to be in a diocese where I was not at home – that would have been in the Diocese of Salford – I suppose I was influenced by friends living in the South of England and so I applied and eventually I was accepted by then Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, Bishop Murphy-O’Connor, who eventually became Archbishop here in Westminster.”
How did your family and friends react to the news that you wanted to join the seminary?
“It was very positive, I was then 21 and now I can see that it was a blessing to offer myself at a time before some of the really difficult periods in the Church’s life. At that time, the identity of the priesthood was still quite strong. I sense that in these days we are beginning to return to a much more confident appreciation of the vocation of priestly ministry and other vocations in the life of the Church.”
How did you receive the news of your appointment as Archbishop of Birmingham?
“With considerable surprise and a little bit of anxiety. I was here in the Westminster Diocese where I had been serving for nearly seven years as an auxiliary Bishop. Of course, looking back on it I can see what a blessing for me it was to be called to a wonderful Archdiocese with a great body of priests and deacons, the religious communities in the diocese, the schools and the parish communities. A very, very rich life across the Midlands of the Catholic Church.”
Archbishop mass installation
When you look back at your life from the time you entered seminary until now, do you have a particular stage of your journey that you look into with particular fondness, and why?
“Yes, well each period of my priestly ministry has had its own blessings, its own richness. Time in the parish originally and then in the seminary when I was on the staff. Time working for the Bishops’ Conference on Ecumenism and Interfaith relations before I went to Westminster. Those are the four periods, with my fifth now in Birmingham. But I think the second of those teaching at the seminary at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh, was a very happy time because there was an opportunity for me to read, to study as well as to share insights and of course to learn from my own students, the seminarians. Being engaged in formation for priesthood was a very enriching and rewarding time. I was there for nine years and I gained a great deal in that time, both from the seminarians coming through and from my colleagues on the staff.”
How many World Youth Days have you attended?
“I’ve been to four World Youth Days and I have to say I was already well into my 40s, nearly 50, when I went to my first. I went to the World Youth Day in Cologne. I was here as an auxiliary bishop in Westminster and Cardinal Cormac asked me if I would go. I went with my Episcopal twin Bishop Alan Hopes, who is now the Bishop of East Anglia and we had a very good experience with the young people. That was of course the first World Youth Day with Pope Benedict. The next World Youth Day, as you know, was in Australia in Sydney, then the World Youth Day in Madrid and finally this year in Rio de Janeiro. I attended Madrid and Rio de Janeiro with the Birmingham pilgrims.”
Birmingham pilgrims at the famous site of Christ the Redeemer
How would you describe your experience in Rio de Janeiro?
“I think it was a wonderful, uplifting experience. Our group was a fine group of young people who made all the difference to my experience of World Youth Day this year. In Rio, I went to join them every day in the morning for the catechesis sessions and con-celebrated mass with other English bishops – who were giving the catechesis. We prayed together, we celebrated Mass together and we had a shared meal. We spent as much time together as we could, given the logistics of moving about but the three days, the catechesis and then continuing the discussions with them afterwards was very important.”
How did the witness of the transformational experience of WYD in so many young people appear to you?
“They are finding their faith in a different setting and in a different way, and for some of them… they thought of a vocation, for others it was just the experience of faith. Their sense of worth as well struck me, as some went maybe not so sure that the Church valued them as people and as Catholics, but then that understanding was deepened in that period there. The witness of the young people to one another is a very important thing and World Youth Day draws that out, but also their awakening sense of being part of the worldwide Catholic family, the Catholic Church. Rio de Janeiro and all World Youth Days give this experience to young people in a new way so it strengthens their faith, it confirms them and of course being during the Year of Faith, it was a very important contribution for the young people in the UK.”
The location of the last WYD in Rio was chosen by Pope Benedict XVI, as well as the theme ‘Go and Make Disciples of all Nations’. Do you think he was trying to teach us something, particularly to the Catholic Church in England and Wales?
“I think one of the things we tend to forget is just how significant the Church is in South America, although having said that, of course the subsequent appointment of Pope Francis awakened everybody to the life of the church in South America and it did seem providential, that we should all be going to Brazil. Being in South America, of course, enabled people from all the neighbouring countries to gather there more easily and they did come out in tremendous numbers to support World Youth Day. Pope Benedict, with his own particular awareness of the strengths of the Catholic community in different parts of the world, saw the challenges that are there before the Church in Brazil, and hoped that the gathering of young people would also do something to strengthen the Church in Brazil. I think Brazilians are great missionaries and when I was based at Westminster, I got to know the Brazilian community in East London very well. In my own diocese the Brazilian Catholics make an important contribution to the life of the Church, they bring their faith with them which I think there is a need to strengthen; I think we recognise the missionary impetus of the Brazilian Catholics.”
Pope Francis greeting the crowds in Rio2013
In WYD Brazil we experienced a church that is very outgoing, in terms of liturgy as well as in mission. As an example, two weeks ago the auxiliary Bishop of Rio de Janeiro was actively convoking Catholics to attend a March for Life. Here, we had the Bishops opposing same sex marriage legislation quite forcibly. Do you see your role as an archbishop as someone who should take causes such as the pro-life cause on your own shoulders, so to speak?
“We do. We must each as individual bishops within our dioceses but as Bishops together make sure that we teach the Catholic faith with clarity, with confidence and in a way which supports the work of people who are picking up these issues on behalf of the Church. In the UK we have a Day for Life, which we celebrate in July every year. This day gives us an opportunity both to inform people more clearly about the Church’s teaching in relation to life issues – both at the very beginning of life in the womb until its natural end – to encourage those who are bringing that teaching before others and to give some material for prayer. In my own diocese there are a number of initiatives, which I personally try to support as much as I can, such as the 40 Days for Life, which began on Ash Wednesday. I went to join the group who were at prayer in Birmingham outside an abortuary so that we would be united at the very beginning of that. Very peaceful prayer, standing in the snow, but the sense of praying together in recognition of the gift of life and offering reparation too for the loss of life. In relation to World Youth Day, these issues were also very present amongst the young people, especially within the catechesis, questions came up time and time again about life issues in Brazil.”
In the UK there are now many young Catholics with a thirst to live out the Gospel of Christ. This gives great hope for the English Church but also demands spiritual support, formation and thus resources. How do you see the pastoral work of the English Church evolving to suit the needs of this new generation?
“I think young people are already having an influence upon the way in which the Church in England and Wales looks to the future. Leadership is emerging within those groups, and so we are helping to shape the direction of that leadership so it has a firm foundation alongside the enthusiasm and the faith of the individuals involved. We do this so that we equip people to take up their mission amongst the young people. I think there is already a strong indication that there is a generation of young Catholics coming forward who want to and have qualities and gifts to lead others in prayer, in the understanding of their Catholic faith and the living out of it day by day. Within my own archdiocese we have several groups that have formed in recent years, for example we have something called the Second Friday Group, which meets regularly in Birmingham and I would encourage any young people who lives in or near Birmingham to attend.”
Young Catholics feel that our government is ceasing following Christian values and morals. How do you think the Church can best support us?
“I think the Catholic Church in England and Wales is aware of the need to resist pressure which says that you have no voice in public life. We have at least as much right as anybody else to express our opinion, our view in public life but also we are commissioned to lead others in a deeper understanding of the moral life. We also have, I think, a duty to try to form Catholics who are involved in public life. Young people are able to influence their contemporaries. We need young Catholics formed and equipped to live out and speak for the Catholic values and moral norms that guide us. We also need more young Catholics to enter local and national political life, where they can challenge and halt the moral drift.”
In the meeting between Pope Francis and the young Argentineans in the Cathedral of Sao Sebastião in Rio de Janeiro, he called all young people ‘to make a racket’ (hacer lio) in your Diocese. Are you ready for this?
“No! (laughs) I am not ready for it, in this sense as I understand it, a racket is something that takes you by surprise. Surprise is not always a bad thing, of course you know you have to trust the Holy Spirit to enable you to respond properly so… I think, a racket is a loud noise, that means that people take notice of you suddenly… so I am waiting to see what happens next!
I am trying to translate literally from Pope Francis’s Spanish to English and I think the best way to explain ‘hacer lio’ is by explaining its opposite to being lethargic and doing nothing. I guess it is about getting things moving, being active in the diocese…
“Thank you I understand a little better then. That would suggest to me that as well as making a noise it is actually a way of drawing people’s attention to important issues, not least by the witness from their own actions and lives. I have certainly been alerted to a number of issues through the young people in my own archdiocese who have brought things to my attention, who have spoken about their own enthusiasm and those are things which make you stop and listen. There is an authenticity that the young people have with their enthusiasm but I think that the Holy Spirit authorises that voice within the life of the Church, so although I cannot say that I am prepared for it, I shall be open to it.”
The New Evangelization according to Pope Francis is ‘creativity to offer an encounter with Christ to those who are far from the Church’. With this in mind, how do you feel about social media? Will we see you on Twitter soon or Facebook maybe?
“I am probably a little bit behind on technology, but I am always open to something that might be of use in communicating so I am very open to that. But twitter might have moved onto something new by the time I get there.”
Twitter and Facebook tend to be very useful. Cardinal Dolan is very good in posting his homilies every Sunday on Facebook and on Twitter I follow different Cardinals, who tweet reflections of the Gospel.
“I must say I went to visit Cardinal Timothy Dolan in New York and I was hugely impressed, he has a whole radio studio in his own office, so I did an interview with him when I went there a few years ago on Blessed John Henry Newman. I do know that many of the American dioceses are very well resourced, but I also realise that with just a few resources you can actually reach a wide number of people, so I’ll have to give it more serious thought.”
Did you take part in the biggest flash mob in Rio de Janeiro, just before the sending Mass?
“(Laughs) We must have been in the wrong part of the stage…there were about 700 bishops there. When we got home we saw the flash mob recorded on TV. The English temperament is a little more restrained then the Latin temperament. I would probably have only tapped my foot!”
When I was in Rio many pilgrims from all over the world asked me if the next WYD would be in London. What do you think about this?
“You know the next World Youth Day is in Krakow and then after that, it will be in another location outside Europe. It seems to me there is a growing interest in London as a possible location. Always the logistics and the cost are issues that have to be borne in mind because you have to be prudent but at the same time be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I can imagine the benefits that will come following the visit that we had of Pope Benedict in 2010. WYD of course will gather the Catholic youth of the world together, I think another important thing is migration to the UK as there are already many communities in the UK from right across the world and migration of Catholics within London and elsewhere in the UK is a significant factor in, I think, looking forward to it. So, I certainly will be open to an exploration though I am aware of the prudence we need to use as well.”
Will you be taking pilgrims to Krakow and possibly attending yourself?
“Yes, to both questions. God willing. I am sure the Archdiocese of Birmingham will have a good group of pilgrims. I would hope that if we could take 4,000 pilgrims to Madrid why not take 10,000 to Krakow but we will want to work towards that, and now we have the three years to prepare and it’s an easier journey for people to make. If we could take 50 to Rio de Janeiro then we should have hopes of taking a good number to Krakow and I most certainly would wish to be there.”
Thank you very much for this interview, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you and meeting you as well.
“Thank you very much, you are very welcome.”
Interviewer: Paula Thompson
Editors: Paula Thompson and Jo-Anne Rowney