There is a political and cultural background to Cardinal O'Brien's remarks, and these are indicated in the BBC report and in the remarks of Pope Benedict XVI in Westminster Hall, to which Cardinal O'Brien made reference. It is very easy to see Cardinal O'Brien's remarks exclusively in this kind of context, and to then interpret them as being a call for Christians and, among them, Catholics to be assertive in visibly wearing the Cross in the face of a secularising world around them. Undoubtedly the wearing in public of a sign of Christian belief does have this dimension to it, but I would want to suggest that it is a dimension, and not of the essence of wearing a sign of Christian belief.
Within Cardinal O'Brien's homily, it is interesting that he quotes Pope Benedict's observation that:
“Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance”.While the second sentence of this quotation draws attention to the political/cultural context, it is the first sentence on which I would like to focus in reflecting on the significance of wearing a sign of Christian belief in the world. "Religion is not a problem ... to solve". The wearing of the Cross, or of another sign of Christian belief, should not represent a problem to others and, for the vast majority of our fellow citizens, this is precisely the case: someone wearing a sign of Christian belief does not represent a problem for them. Cardinal O'Brien's reference to those who already wear a Cross " not in any ostentatious way, not in a way that might harm you at your work or recreation" recognises the need to wear a sign of Christian belief in a way that does not create a problem where there is not really a problem. Immediately following this Cardinal O'Brien observed that such people wear a Cross as:
..a simple indication that you value the role of Jesus Christ in the history of the world, that you are trying to live by Christ’s standards in your own daily life and that you are only too willing to reach out a hand of help to others, as did Jesus Christ when he was on earth.This seems to me to capture what is of the essence of the idea of wearing in public a sign of Christian belief, as Cardinal O'Brien suggests it, a Cross. One can decide to wear a Cross in response to Cardinal O'Brien's words, in a kind of obedience. But the decision to wear a Cross in a way that really expresses the meaning contained in that act belongs to the individual member of the lay faithful. That decision can take encouragement or inspiration from Cardinal O'Brien's words, and rightly so; but it will be an effective sign of witness only if others can see in it that the person wearing the Cross is expressing the three-fold meaning described by Cardinal O'Brien.
It is interesting that the three-fold meaning of the wearing of a Cross as described by Cardinal O'Brien is also a good descriptor of the particular mission of the lay faithful in the Church and in the world - the evangelisation of culture, achieving holiness through the work of our daily lives and charity towards others. In line with this, my view is that the decision to wear a Cross or other sign of Christian belief, particularly in a place of work, lies firmly within the competence of the lay faithful and not within the competence of the ordained or religious states (who have their own forms of public witness). The full text of Cardinal O'Brien's homily seems to respect this; the media coverage - "Britain's most senior Roman Catholic Church cleric has called for Christians to wear a cross every day" - misses that subtlety.