Homily of Archbishop Martin at Christian Unity Service 2013, St Saviour’s Church of Ireland Church, Arklow

20 Jan 2013

Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at Christian Unity Service 2013

Saint Saviour’s Church of Ireland Church, Arklow, Co Wicklow

When I began working in the Vatican many years ago now, I was involved in the preparation of a very simple but useful short reflection of the fostering of marriage and family within the Catholic Church.   As is the custom, a package of these documents was dispatched to each the Conferences of Catholic Bishops around the world, through the offices of the various Papal Nuncios.

Over the following weeks the replies of the nuncios arrived saying that they had done their duty in dispatching the documents to the local bishops and the Nuncios then finally, each with the same formula, thanked also for the copy of the document “destined for the archives of this Apostolic Nunciature”.

Ecumenical documents and agreements are not destined to find their place on our bookshelves or even worse in our burglary-proof archives.  Ecumenism belongs to the world of open doors and open windows.  It is a living reality which must be kept alive through open hearts.

A few years ago Cardinal Walter Kasper, the President of the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, published a small book called “Harvesting the Fruits”.  Its aim was to gather together and examine the fruits of the ecumenical dialogues between the Roman Catholic Church and a variety of other Christian Churches and to take stock of where the fruits of these dialogues are today.

I believe that perhaps the time is ripe that we in Ireland ought to undertake a similar review of where we are in our ecumenical relations.  We need to do so in order to understand better the path forward.

An important dimension of such a review would also be address the doubt and scepticism and tiredness that can easily creep into our relations.  There are those who talk of an ecumenical winter or a lack of progress after many years of conversations.   Such scepticism can easily lead to frustration and immobilism and drain our spiritual energies in the ecumenical field.  There is a danger that many will become content with the status quo and simply go through the motions on occasions like the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

We need to constantly remind ourselves of just how central ecumenical endeavour is for the Christian life.  The call to ecumenism is an urgent call.  Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism sets out the negative consequences of our divisions.   Our division “openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the good news to every creature.”

When I say that we need to review our ecumenical endeavours, I am not talking just about doing more things or about anticipating things as if we have already attained unity.  The work for Christian unity is not our work alone.  Only God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit can truly bring Christians together in a manner in which all the riches which God has sown in the history of each of the churches and traditions is understood.

There are of course many areas where enormous progress has been made and if we look at them in terms of the length of years of our common history of division these gains have been attained in a remarkably short time.

The Second Vatican Council began only 50 years ago.  Over the past few weeks I have been reading a good deal about the period of the preparation for the Council.  I came across an interesting interview with the then private secretary of Pope John XXIII, Archbishop Loris Capovilla, who is still alive today.   He recounts how Pope John had been thinking of a Council from the very first days after his election.  Pope John was a man of intuition and he was not afraid to think boldly, placing as one of the aims of the Council the theme of Christian Unity.  Pope John’s personal life-history had led him to ecumenical openness.  He had the Papal Representative in three countries, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey – countries with tiny Catholic minorities – and he entered into good relationships with the Orthodox leaders in those countries.

His announcement of a Council, made during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, just three months from his election, caused surprises and not a little anxiety among some of his collaborators in the Vatican. Pope John was anxious, but he later noted with a certain genuine relief and appreciation the positive tone of his conversations with the few influential Cardinals with whom he shared his intentions before he announced the Council.  There are times when consultations work much better when bold decisions have already been taken.

It is hard for us to think today of just how remote relationships between the leaders of the main Christian Churches and the Roman Catholic Church were.  Pope John was fortunate that the Spirit had placed on his path ecumenical leaders who were also deeply committed to Christian Unity, people like Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher or Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.   The encounter between Archbishop Fisher and Pope John and the later meeting between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI were historic and represented the reattachment of conversation after centuries of separation.  It had been over 400 years since Henry VIII broke with Rome and the divisions with the East were even longer.

It was remarkable at the recent Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church which also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Vatican Council, to see the normality of the participation at the Synod of the successors of Archbishop Fisher and Patriarch Athenagoras, Archbishop Rowan Williams and Patriarch Bartholomew.  Both spoke to the Synod.  They sat alongside Pope Benedict at a simple meal for the Synod Fathers and one could only observe the warmth of the encounter and the indications of respect and friendship that was evident in their conversation.   There is a type of Christian friendship which can be a true building block to mutual understanding and breaking down barriers.  I have been blessed in that sense by the friendship shown to me by Archbishop Neil and by Archbishop Jackson and by the leaders of the other Churches.

At the Synod of Bishops in Rome Archbishop Williams spoke about the significance for him and his generation of Vatican II.  “For so many of my own generation, even beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church, that Council was a sign of great promise, a sign that the Church was strong enough to ask itself some demanding questions about whether its culture and structures were adequate to the task of sharing the Gospel with the complex, often rebellious, always restless mind of the modern world”.

Vatican II and the growing ecumenical collaboration which was developing was not just an intra-Church matter, as Archbishop William noted.  Ecumenism is about the essential mission of the Church and the place of the Church in the world.  Jesus prays that we may be one “so that the world may believe” that he is the one sent by the Father (John 17:3).    Announcing the good news of Jesus Christ is impeded by the discordant witness of Christian communities in competition with or indifferent to one another.  Such a contradiction is an obstacle for those who hear the message and who might otherwise place their faith in Christ.  Growth in communion between the Churches, on the other hand, is a powerful witness to what the gospel can bring to a fragmented and divided world.

We should never underestimate the importance of encounter between Christians even when their differences remain.  We know that are so many things that Christians can do together.  But we should never say that! What we should say and think is that there are so many things that Christians should and must be doing together in their common witness to their one baptism and their one faith in Jesus Christ and to the unity of humankind in Christ.

There are many things we can do but ecumenical activity will be empty if it is not based on prayer.   Prayer is the soul of the ecumenical movement.  In prayer, Christians are invited to become fully that for which our Lord prayed.  Prayer is the spiritual root of ecumenism from which all else springs.

Allow me to take up this theme in the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Synod where he stressed the role of contemplation.  “To be contemplative as Christ is contemplative is to be open to all the fullness that the Father wishes to pour into our hearts. With our minds made still and ready to receive, with our self-generated fantasies about God and ourselves reduced to silence, we are at last at the point where we may begin to grow”.

Prayer is the essential stepping stone towards overcoming our “self-generated” divisions.  Prayer is the key which opens our hearts to Christ’s desire for unity.

In our ecumenical endeavours we must learn to pray together.  Praying together does not mean that we cut-and-paste prayers from our various traditions into a single printed prayer sheet.   We must learn and receive from one another’s patterns of prayer and worship.  We can learn from reflection on liturgical rites that predate the major divisions of the church.  In our Catholic tradition we need deepen our understanding of the prayerful reading of the scriptures.   Our post Vatican II liturgies need to re-discover something of that dimension of silence and contemplation about which Archbishop Williams spoke and which are so much a part of Orthodox liturgies or of modern prayers forms such as that of Taizé.

This dimension of silence and contemplation must also form part of our contribution as believers to our world, where so often the emptiness of noise prevents us from even asking the fundamental questions about life.

Let me turn again to the words of Archbishop Williams at the recent synod.  He spoke of “living more humanly” and by that he meant “living with less frantic acquisitiveness, living with space for stillness, living in the expectation of learning, and most of all, living with an awareness that there is a solid and durable joy to be discovered in the disciplines of self-forgetfulness that is quite different from the gratification of this or that impulse of the moment”.    And he noted that if we do not manage to live more humanly in this sense we “run the risk of trying to sustain faith on the basis of an un-transformed set of human habits – with the all too familiar result that the Church comes to look unhappily like so many purely human institutions, anxious, busy, competitive and controlling”.

Renewal of the Church comes through prayer, which leads us to that “self-forgetfulness” of which Archbishop Williams spoke.  Paradoxically perhaps the greatest contribution that we can bring to a world which so stresses self-fulfilment may be precisely that sense of self-forgetfulness.    Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus the response to our sadness and lack of direction and meaning – and that of the world we live in – will be found through allowing Jesus to enter into our hearts and interpret our lives for us.   Likewise, the way we measure our progress on the ecumenical path is not that of polls of public opinion, but once again on asking ourselves how we allow Jesus into our hearts to interpret for us his word and thus reduce our self-generated fantasies about God and ourselves to silence. ENDS


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