BY SURESH ABBOODASS
An archbishop has expressed grave concern over the rising number of people seeking the help of food banks and demanded more money should be put into providing houses and jobs for disadvantaged people.
The Most Reverend Peter Smith of Southwark also said the government should prioritise refugees and help them more.
He said: “One of the priorities should be looking after the poor and the homeless.
It is a very difficult problem. There is no simple solution to it. There is not enough housing, many can’t get jobs. More money has to be put in to get jobs. “There must be a commitment by the government to have it as a priority.”
The spiritual head of a Roman Catholic diocese – which stretches from Wandsworth out to the Kent coast – said in an exclusive interview on the eve of his retirement that Pope Francis has accepted his resignation and his retirement will take place once a suitable successor is selected.
His Grace Peter Smith served as the Bishop of East Anglia for seven years, and then Bishop of Cardiff for eight years, before being appointed Archbishop of his home-diocese, Southwark in 2010.
He was born on October 21, 1943 in Battersea, and educated at Clapham College. He added: “The whole concentration is on Brexit. This has to be settled once for all. It is disrupting the work of the government. Nobody knows what will happen.
“We have to get out of Europe. It is a huge bureaucracy, and I don’t think that is good for our country. We are the first country in the world to begin that notion of democracy. I think there is a movement within Europe to establish a federal Europe.
“Personally I don’t want that. To have a foreign country telling us what to do legislatively, I don’t agree with that. Some of it has been good. It is complex.”
He would not comment on Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans to exit the EU. “I don’t get publicly into politics,” he said. “I don’t think it is a good idea for an archbishop to do so personally. “I don’t agree to a second referendum. The first was clear.
It was not a vast majority, but a majority have spoken; this is what democracy is about. The majority of the people in this country said we want to come out. Therefore the government must pursue that.
“It is clear the difficulty is negotiating with Europe because they are not prepared. And they are afraid if we come out, other countries might want to come out.
“It is up to the Prime Minister to continue the negotiations and be much more firm with the European Council. It is an enormously complex task. I have pity on any Prime Minister who has to deal with this task.”
The 76-year-old has visited refugees in Calais. “The government should treat this as a priority,” he said. “Refugees are suffering terribly. We must pray for them, help them if we can. They are driven from their homeland for fear of death or starvation. “They have spent a huge amount of money to get to the European area, and often their families are being killed.
“It is a terrible situation for them. The difficulty is we are quite a small country here.
Having said that we have benefited hugely by immigration. People from all over the world who have come here and want to stay here and so on.
The Irish came here in the 18th century after the famine. No government in the world has been to say we are doing the right thing.
The government should put that as a priority.
In Southwark we have hugely benefited from migration, not as refugees, but people coming from other countries.
“In Southwark it is like the United Nations – all sorts of people from different backgrounds, countries. It has given vibrancy to the parishes they are in.
“The church faces a shortage of priests. It is difficult to know how to deal with that, but we have a steady trickle. “Every bishop has the same difficulty. Young men are wary about coming to priesthood. There are so many other attractions. Now the new priests tend to be older – 30 or so.
We would not accept youngsters of 18. They need to have a good sense of what is life to be a holy person. They have to be much more mature. “It is a wonderful vocation. But more tough. Ultimately what might attract is when you have a good parish priest they admire the priestly ministry and their parish priest.”
But he does not want women to be priests. “That has been the consistent teaching of the Church from time immemorial,” he said. “I can’t see any change in that.
Women contribute greatly to the well-being of the church. When you look at the Gospel, there were always a group of women supporting our Lord. They were committed in their belief in him, when it came to his suffering and death. The church’s teaching is quite clear that women are not for priestly ordination.
Equality laws don’t apply to this vocation. “We have got three lady trustees in our diocese and they are doing very important work for the church.”
Asked what could be his legacy, he said: “The Mass number is now 87,000 and above parishioners on every Sunday. The emphasis has shifted. Christians of other denominations, that is the Catechumens, who have never been baptised at all are now the vast number of people coming to church.
They have met a good Catholic family and are inspired by that family who are held together behind the Gospel. And that is why they wanted to become a Catholic.”
He will be available to be a supply priest after he retires, covering for those travelling away from their parish. “I won’t be idle,” he said. “I will be ready to do supply work whenever it is required.
I will be very much missing all my people who have been very affectionate towards me and also the parishes which are very vibrant.”