God & I: Bishop Thomas Burns

May 19 2003 | by

YOU WERE BORN in Belfast. How did the situation there affect your early life?

I was very conscious at a young age of the differences between Catholics and Protestants. I was also conscious of the suspicion and the distrust that existed and was almost engrained and taught to us by our teachers and by our clergy, so I suppose from an early age I had an unease about these differences and I couldn’t understand them. At the same time, I cherished the richness of the Catholic Church, its stance on many things quite firmly, the guidance that the Church gave us in our lives, but still, I couldn’t understand why there should be this suspicion and this distrust between Catholics and Protestants. It was brought home to me particularly when my father came in one day after he’d been to an interview for a job. He was told he couldn’t have the job because he was a Catholic. I didn’t understand that and I resolved as a child to try and mend fences, build bridges and bring an end to such division.

As a soldiers’ priest, do you think there is a hope of lasting peace in Northern Ireland?

Among the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, and in the rest of Ireland, there is a desire to live in peace with one another. The days of suspicion and distrust are dwindling, people see no purpose in violence, nor in the sectarian divisions that are prevalent in that land; they want to be able to live and work in harmony with people of whatever race, colour, creed or religion.

You are a Marist priest. Would you like to tell us something about your vocation? When did you realise the Lord had called you to the priesthood?

I began to have ideas about becoming a priest when I was in secondary school. I saw these young Marist priests who taught me enjoying life, playing football, taking us away on holidays and they were good fun and I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind doing something like that’, and if that is vocation, then the Lord called me to that way of life.

How did your family react to your decision to become a priest?

My mother and father were very religious people. At home we would kneel down at night and say the Rosary together. On Sunday we went to Church together as a family and we always wore our best. I think it was from that environment of prayer and strong Catholic support that I told my parents one day that I wished to become a priest. My father perhaps could not understand it as easily as my mother, but nonetheless they were both very proud that they could give a son of theirs to the Church and to the service of the Lord.

You are the bishop of the British Armed Forces; what is your mission?

My mission is to be among those whom we ask to risk life and limb for the values that we cherish in this country. Some months ago, I was in Germany and I asked some young people there “What is it that the army can give you that you cannot find in civvie street?” One after the other, in different workshops and in different sections of this vast army base, these young people replied that the army has given them a sense of camaraderie; it has given them a sense of integrity; it has shown them the value of teamwork; it has given them a good job, training and prospects of promotion; they feel self-valued and challenged; and they spoke of loyalty to one another. Surely the values of these young people, expressed as being important to them, are the values of the Christian Church?

What would you like to say to the families of those young people who are currently involved in the War in Iraq?

Your son or daughter is following their chosen career, working alongside many others of their own age. Parents often worry about things more than their children do. Yet, this is a testing and anxious time for everyone. Young people are energetic and will give their best. Their parents can be proud of them, and proud of the way that they brought them up. In full awareness of the complex issues raised by the primacy of personal conscience, I would confidently assure all our troops that, in the present circumstances, they can regard an order to go to battle as morally decent, because they are men and women under the command of a legitimate authority. If in need, then turn to your Chaplain. You will find in him a shoulder to lean on, a sympathetic ear, a comfort and a strength, someone to speak with in confidence.

During the service for your Ordination as Bishop, you said, “My service as a naval chaplain has taught me that spiritual depth is inseparable from operational effectiveness.” What do you mean by this?

I mean that the person we ask to go into conflict and risk the loss of life or limb will be more effective and convinced that what he is doing is right, if he has got spiritual depth. There is a little part in his spiritual being that drives him to do good, that tells him he is taking a just action in pursuit of a just cause, and that he is doing right, in other words, that he is conducting himself in the right way when he goes to war. I often use the analogy of jump- leads which we use to charge the batteries of a car. I think we have to get our people, those in the Forces, but also elsewhere too, a set of spiritual jump-leads. One end of the jump-leads will be connected in heaven, and the other end will be earthed in this world. To have a good charge, you have to have both ends firmly connected; this is what we bring to our people in the Armed Forces: that sense of prayer and spirituality, and being in touch with their own inner being.

An often quoted saying referring to war by William T. Cummings goes: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Do you agree?

When you are faced with your own survival, your whole life flashes in front of you, both the good things and the things that you might regret. You are also very conscious of and concerned about the person next to you, and the feeling is reciprocal. That depth of being able to look into one’s soul and feel the soul of the person next to you, means that you are transcending this world, to something beyond this world and reaching out for a hope of a better time, whether it is in this world or the next or both. It is that hope which really underpins a latent, concealed, hidden faith within each one of us. Certainly it is tested when you are in a foxhole and you know that your life could be threatened at any moment.

All the great religions of the world based upon one God (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) have the fundamental principles of peace, love, justice, dialogue... And yet the situation of the world today is very discouraging. Why do you think this is?

The news that gains the headlines is usually of a negative nature. It talks of violence, disruption, war, conflict, disagreement; but it is a minority of what is actually happening in the world. There is so much good going on that does not make the headlines. So in a sense, we have a distorted view of God’s world. We do not hear of so much charity or charitable effort going on world-wide to bring peace and justice to many areas of the world, to break down barriers, to try and make people take responsibility for their own lives, as the East Germans did when they tore down the Berlin Wall, as the people in Romania did when they replaced the government there. We hope that wherever there is oppression or repression that the people themselves will be able to grip their own situation and decide their own future and their own present, and that the world will help them to achieve what is of value, of justice and of peace. So, I am hopeful for what happens in the world because I see so much good going on, and going on quietly!

In your opinion, who is God?

God is my father. As is written on this bishop’s cross that I wear, ‘God is the way, the truth and the life.’ Those are aspects of Him that challenge me every day to find out how He is the way, the truth and the life. God is also my neighbour, especially when my neighbour expresses those Christian values that we find in the Gospel. I also know God as a human person from what was related about Him in the Gospels. I find it very heartening that He shared what I share now and He shares in what other people are sharing in the world. He is sharing a way of trying to put God into people, not just putting people into heaven, but putting heaven into people.

Do you feel young people today, when facing unsettling violence, war, the seductiveness of consumerism and the threat of incurable diseases, are still interested in seeking out God?

Indeed they are, but in different ways to what we have known in the past. They are not people who want to commit themselves permanently to a particular way of life, for example, to the priesthood or religious life. They move in and out of relationships, jobs and places much more easily than people did in the past. They are part of a more global community whereas in the past people were more focused on their local commitments and responsibilities. They want strong guidance, but they also want to be able to make up their own minds once they have heard official views and also other opinions on various issues facing us today. These issues are to do with marriage, family life, consumerism, financial matters, work relationships and relationships between countries. They cannot often understand why it takes so long and so many meetings to achieve any progress in what they see quite clearly, as young people do, as the way ahead and how things should be done. They are impatient and want change and cannot understand why it takes those in charge or responsible for a country or work place so long to bring about the change that they so clearly see. It’s wonderful to be young! You see things so clearly!

I am a Friar of the Basilica of Saint Anthony. Does this saint have any particular meaning for you?

Saint Anthony has always been associated in my mind and in the minds of many people as the Patron Saint of Lost Things or Causes. I would imagine that he has a strong relevance still today and we would do well to publish his life and his spirit much more than we do because failure is something today which many people have difficulty in accepting, (if failure is a definition of lost causes or things). People want to be reassured that failure is part of our human nature, as is the courage to get up, try again and continue searching for what we know to be right and of value. This is what Saint Anthony stood for and what he can offer to young people, or people of any age today.

Updated on October 06 2016