The news that Missionary of Africa, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, has been made a Cardinal has been met with great acclaim in the UK and internationally. The surprise announcement came at Pope Francis’ Sunday Angelus address in early September. The new Cardinal is a British expert on Islam and the former president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
Cardinal-designate Fitzgerald, who moved with his congregation into an inner city parish in Liverpool last autumn, with a particular priority of outreach to the Muslim community said he’s been overwhelmed by the reaction to the announcement from Rome : “The response has been very positive, from the Superior General and his Council right down to students whom I have known in Jerusalem. They see this as an honour to our Society and a confirmation of this aspect of our charism, reaching out to people of other religions, particularly Muslims.”
The Walsall-born White Father has worked tirelessly over many decades to build relations with people of other faiths and also served as the Vatican’s nuncio to Egypt until 2012. He added : “Judging from the messages of congratulations that I am receiving from different people, and not only Christians, it seems that people who are engaged in interfaith relations are greatly encouraged. They see this appointment as a sign of hope at a time when work in interfaith relations is often called into question, but when in fact it is more necessary than ever.”
The General Secretary of the Conference of Religious, Valerie Nazareth, warmly welcomed the appointment: “The Conference of Religious is absolutely delighted to hear of the announcement of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald being elevated to the College of Cardinals. It is a great blessing. We know all the congregations of England and Wales will join us in passing on congratulations and best wishes at this news and that they will also hold him in their prayers. We thank him for his dedicated contribution to interfaith dialogue and we also pray that the new mission of the Missionaries of Africa in Liverpool will bear much fruit.”
The Missionaries of Africa see their mission as not only on the continent of Africa but to the entire African world and their new parish, St Vincent de Paul, has a considerable migrant population. They are in the process of reviving activities in the parish, which like other similar inner city areas, has experienced significant demographic change in recent years.
Archbishop Michael sees the congregation’s ability to mobilise in this way as a strength: “The difference between religious men and diocesan priests should not be exaggerated, yet I think it would be true to say that religious congregations, whether of men or of women, are freer to do new things. Whereas pastors are busy looking after their sheep and seeing that they are well fed, religious are freer to move into new fields, seeking other sheep that are to be brought into the fold, or bringing the message of the Gospel to other parts of human society. This is why it is often religious who are more engaged in efforts for justice and peace and in the integrity of creation, working on behalf of migrants and refugees, combating human trafficking, engaging in interfaith relations, and so forth. It is true also that different congregations are enriching the Church through sharing their distinctive spiritualities. This sharing is not confined to other religious, but is offered also to lay people.”
The announcement of Archbishop Michael’s elevation to Cardinal came just before Pope Francis set off on a high profile visit to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius: “As a Missionary of Africa, events in Africa are always followed with interest and with prayer” Archbishop Michael said. “The Churches in Africa are facing huge challenges. these come from a lack of stability in many of the countries, wars, conflicts. The Churches try to respond to the needs of people but their means are limited. In living and celebrating the faith African Christians show great vitality. They are often disappointed with the celebrations in our churches here in the UK. As Missionaries of Africa we would like to encourage them to make their contribution to the life of the Church in this country. This does not concern only the liturgy, but also the experience of small Christian communities in which lay people play an important part.”
Another member of Archbishop Michael’s community in Liverpool, Fr Terry Madden, explained more about the nature of their work there: “As a community, we want to welcome the stranger, asylum seekers and refugees, especially from the African diaspora. We also have a commitment to Justice & Peace issues, including human trafficking.” They’ve also made links with a local foodbank and are offering their active support as well as getting parishioners involved and are reaching out in welcome to a local hostel for asylum seekers.
Archbishop Michael attended a recent awareness raising day about modern slavery organised by a congregation in the northwest, in conjunction with the Conference of Religious:
The parish church they’ve adopted in Liverpool was built in the 1850s and was once home to 7000 Catholics, with five Masses on a Sunday. Many local homes have been demolished and the area has experienced significant depopulation. Following their arrival in 2018, Mass was celebrated there this Easter for the first time in many years. The diocese has renovated the presbytery and welcomed them into the area.
They are building up parish life and organising community events like a recent summer barbecue on the local street. The Chinese community has its own Church just nearby and Fr Terry hopes that barriers that have developed over the years will be broken down.
Directly opposite St Vincent’s there are signs of social change, with developers moving in and modern flats emerging. Digital enterprises and new coffee shops indicate a younger generation breathing life back into the area. Fr Terry has an exciting vision for the rather jaded Victorian church building they have been given charge of : “We want to take out the benches at the back and make a social space. We’ll be free to use it as we want.”
A key focus is to welcome the stranger. Fr Terry adds: “We made a choice to come to Liverpool. Archbishop Michael and I are both working on interreligious dialogue – it’s a long term project. We have visited mosques and engaged with academics at Hope University. We are very keen to break down barriers and to help people of different faiths get to know each other. We are making inroads.“