Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on Christian Unity

20 Jan 2012

Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland, Dalkey, on Christian Unity

 Fifty years ago the Roman Catholic Church worldwide was preparing for the opening of the Second Vatican Council.  Pope John XXIII had surprised the Church by his call for a Council.  He surprised many, particularly; by the stress he placed on the Vatican Council as an event to foster the unity of all Christians.

Many were surprised and puzzled at what the Pope intended, not least here in Ireland. In the early 1960’s, contacts between the Churches were becoming more common and more cordial, but the idea of them really coming together seemed remote, especially on the terms that appeared to be on offer.  The few contacts were, if anything, social rather than theological.

I remember at school debates finding it easier to be on the side opposing the thesis that the Christian Churches would come back into the Roman Catholic Church or that the chances of the Council achieving the unity of all Christians were high.  Times were different. In our debates we tried to understand what were for our vocabulary new words, such as “ecumenical”, which Dubliners delightfully preferred to call “euceminical” or even “economical” or an Italian word which was even more complex to pronounce and explain “aggiornamento”.

Pope John XXIII won the day.  I am not sure if fifty years ago in January 1962 he really knew what his Council would attain.  All I can say is that all of us here this evening are indebted to him and he must be smiling down seeing that one who fifty years ago was a sceptical school debater opposing his dreams, is not just here in a Church of Ireland Church as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin but absolutely at home in this Church.

Fifty years onwards here in Dublin, gatherings for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity have become truly family events for our Christian Churches.  Relationships have been transformed.  New friends have become part of our family as the ethnic mix of our population has become more and more diverse and varied Churches of different traditions, especially from the Orthodox tradition and from Africa, have enriched our Christian presence in Dublin. Our celebration here this evening is repeated during the Week of Prayer across this city and the entire country.

We thank God for what has been achieved in these years.  This evening’s celebration in Dalkey is the fruit of on-going cooperation between the Churches in this area over many years.

Yet we know that our divisions remain and that these divisions are still a stumbling block to our capacity to bring united witness to the Gospel; to our ability to witness fully to our faith in Jesus Christ, whose prayer was that “that they be one” would be a distinctive characteristic of his disciples.

Our common witness is all the more needed today at a time when change and diversity could lead to further social division.  Our common witness of Christian caring is all the more needed as many of our brothers suffer the effects of our economic crisis and social change.  Our common witness to Jesus Christ is needed to respond adequately to the spiritual hunger of many. Our common witness to Jesus Christ is more necessary if we wish to be heard and appreciated and understood in and contribute to the common good of a society which is becoming increasingly secularised.

There is no easy path to Christian Unity. Short cuts will end up bringing short circuits. We need conversion and conversion is painful.  Conversion requires change.  We know however that change is not just our work, but a response to a call to change which comes from the Lord and which will be attained fully when the trumpet of resurrection resounds fully in our cosmos.  But the path to unity must be followed day by day through our common conversion and our day-to-day convergence.

Fifty years ago Pope John XXIII addressed in his thoughts and in his prayers what he intuitively understood would be the path to unity at that moment.  Whither the path of ecumenical dialogue today and here in Dublin?  Where are we going?

I felt that in my answer to that question I might cheat a little.   I am going to take up and comment on the points that Archbishop Michael Jackson took up last evening at our common opening service for Christian Unity in the Catholic parish of Milltown.  I hope that you will not be offended if I take up someone else’s thoughts.  It is not that I am simply stealing someone else’s sermon.  I think that it is significant that I can take up that sermon and make it my own; that I wish to do so and that my colleague and friend Archbishop Michael is happy to know that I am doing so as an indication of the convergence of our thoughts.

My hope is that these common thoughts can also be a sort of programme or indication of the way forward for our Churches in Dublin, working together in our unity already achieved and on our path towards full unity, remembering as Archbishop Jackson so rightly and succinctly pointed out that:  “We are less different from one another than history has made us”.

In his homily, Archbishop Jackson suggested that firstly “there needs to be a common voice of humility on the part of all churches in Ireland, a voice which gives priority to service over leadership”. Here I would endorse the Archbishop’s comments except perhaps that I would look on the term leadership in a slightly different sense.  The Churches must lead; but they must lead in humility and service.  If we do that and do it together then I believe we can exercise a true and necessary leadership within society regarding which are the values that our society requires.

This is not to say that the Churches have a monopoly of values. In today’s society I could not agree more with Archbishop Jackson’s comment that we “need to cease pushing ourselves, invading the space of others. We need to accept the integrity of intention of others”.   We need a different type of presence of Church in society.  Those who truly follow a Jesus, who came to serve, if they remain authentic followers of that Jesus, can in a unique way enlighten a society suffering the wounds of past greed and arrogance and self-centredness and can bring vision and hope for those seeking to understand meaning in their lives.

Many onlookers might comment that the Churches should first look to the sinfulness in their own ranks before they point fingers at others.  I do not deny this.   But I also truly believe that there is a sense in which our own path of repentance and conversion can – if fully authentic – make us better witnesses of a humility which helps us to identify with sinfulness and brokenness in others.

Secondly Archbishop Michael appealed to make greater use of “the abundant capacity of lay people”.  That capacity, I would add, is varied: there is the specific expertise of lay men and women which they acquire in their daily calling of living the Christian message in the world.  There is the participation of lay men and women in the structures and services of our Churches.  There is the vital role of Christian parents in transmitting the faith in a modern culture and leading their children into authentic Christian life.

I believe that parents in all our Churches have more in common that we imagine in that challenging task.  I believe that here we can do more together to help parents in their task of transmitting the faith to the next generation.

Archbishop Jackson’s third point was precisely addressing the faith of young people, building on the commitment they have “to justice and fair-mindedness, to friendship and to versatility at which we ought all to marvel”.   Looking back to fifty years ago I entered into the seminary exactly one week before the opening of the Second Vatican Council.  My faith was shaped by that moment of change and renewal and reform in my Church.  It was about a forward-looking, hope-filled Church.  We need to regain that spirit of hope and to do that we need rejuvenation; we need to guarantee space to the prophetic voice of the coming generations and we must listen to that voice.

Fourthly Archbishop Jackson reminded us not just of our need to address the challenges of economic recession and the hurt that it has caused but that “the poor always are at the heart of the Gospel”.  The Christian response to the unjust and oppressive poverty of those who are today left excluded and precarious, is not just through doing things for them, but in changing ourselves to be in the forefront of living a genuine Gospel style of life in contrast to a society that entraps.  Not only can we Christians do that together, we can do it better together.

In all of this the Churches and the Christian community do not act alone, in isolation from others, much less feeling superior to others.  “Ecumenism of itself is not enough… Christian Churches together need to engage in the common cause of humanity” with those of other faiths and those whose beliefs cannot be categorized into our confessions and structures.  In this I would add that a truly pluralist society   would welcome that presence of men and women of faith in society and its institutions and in the public square.  Republics are not by their nature agnostic, but tolerant and welcoming to the values of all those who live them out in a respectful way.

Archbishop Jackson’s final point is one that I could share with enthusiasm:  “we need to be joyful, to rejoice, to let the trumpets sound”   A Church which bemoans its tiredness will never attract anyone.  A Church which simply bemoans the woes of society will never energize or enthuse anyone.  It was Pope John who spoke of “prophets of doom” in the Church and its leadership.

When I had the idea of taking up or as I said copying someone else’s homily, it seemed an easy task.  But it has not been quite so easy.   In the same way, while watching the Church of Ireland and Catholic Archbishops of Dublin taking up and supporting each other’s ideas is something new and exciting, the path forward is still not an easy one. It requires a further conversion that requires that we come closer together, putting aside some traditions to which we have been attached, or overcoming attachments to power and position to which each of our Churches on account of our history have become accustomed.

All of us as Christians have to learn more deeply how we can serve, love and suffer for the Church.  That is the path of ecumenism.  There are no short cuts to unity but this path of sincerely loving, serving and suffering for the Church is the path that Pope John XXII and the great reformers of the Church in our days, of whatever denomination, faced with trust in the Lord and thus made the Churches more united and the world a better place.

Each year we come together at this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  We come back year after year not having realised our dream, but knowing that in ways unexpected we have found new signs of hope through the presence of the Spirit in unexpected ways and places.  We know that what the Lord has begun with us he will bring to fulfilment and we give thanks and praise to that God in whom we place our trust.