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Marking Christian Unity Week

Jesuits, colleagues, and friends all took part in various activities during Christian Unity Week. They were responding to a letter sent out by Tom Layden SJ, the Province Coordinator for Ecumenism, asking that they mark the 2020 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (19-25 January) in any way that is appropriate for them.

The theme for the week was ‘Unusual Kindness’, a phrase used in the Acts of the Apostles where St Paul, shipwrecked on the island of Malta, declares that ‘the natives showed us unusual kindness.’ (Acts 28:2).

Tom Layden himself attended the annual unity service which took place this year in St Anne’s Church of Ireland cathedral in Donegall St, Belfast on Tuesday 21 January at 7.30pm.

The preacher this year was Fr Tony Currer, a priest of the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle in England, who works at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome. He works at the desk engaged in dialogue with Anglican and Methodist. The music for the occasion was provided by the combined choirs of St Anne’s C of I and St Peter’s Catholic church. At refreshments after the service participants from various denominations had a chance to meet one another and discuss Fr Currer’s input.

According to Tom Layden, Fr Currer in his homily drew peoples’ attention to the contrasting role of the different groups in the story from the Acts of the Apostles: the soldiers, the sailors, and the prisoners. In his concluding remarks, he drew their attention to the importance of valuing and taking seriously the contribution made by the smaller churches in the broader church and societal landscape.

“As I reflected on this walking home,” says Tom, “it struck me that this observation was especially relevant here in Belfast where we have so many smaller churches and gospel halls. Their perspective on the situation in which they find themselves is a feature of our current reality which we do well to hear and take seriously,” he noted, adding, “I am sure that other members of the congregation may have taken away some other points from Fr Currer’s address but it was his drawing our attention to the experience of the smaller churches in our midst which particularly caught my imagination. His thoughtful address gently delivered gave us all something to think about.”

Fr Currer also preached in St Patrick’s Chruch of Ireland cathedral in Armagh the following evening.

Fr Currer, a native of Northumbria, had been in Ireland last July when he read a paper on ‘Receptive Ecumenism’ at the International Congress of Jesuit Ecumenists which met in Clongoews 8-13th July.

The teachers and students in Clongowes College marked the week by inviting the staff and pupils of The King’s Hospital to a memorial Mass celebrating the life of the late Phil Fogarty SJ. Phil was headmaster of Clongowes for 17 years and during that time furthered the ecumenical outreach of the school which has a special relationship with Royal Portora in Enniskillen and The King’s Hospital.

Pupils and staff from Clongowes made a return visit during Christian Unity week to the  Evening Communion Service of Kings Hospital. Clongowes College says these engagements serve as “a real expression of unity between both our schools and more importantly the faith that unites us. It is a living witness to the desire for greater communion”. They thanked all of the King’s Hospital community for “their warmth of welcome and friendship, not just for this week, but throughout the year. Our relationship goes far beyond any differences,” they said.

Gerry O’Hanlon SJ was invited to speak at a special service organised by the Rev Bruce Hayes and the Church of Ireland community in Dalkey. They were joined by Fr Declan Gallagher, Fr Paddy Devitt and the Catholic community of the Church of the Assumption in Dalkey. Gerry spoke of the considerable ground that has been covered over the last 50 years in the journey toward unity and reconciliation. He said the progress was reflected in the Common Declaration of Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby in 2016 where they say: “Those things which are behind – the painful centuries of separation – have been partially healed by fifty years of friendship.”

Nonetheless, Gerry notes, the healing they refer to is ‘partial’, and ecumenical dialogue, whilst welcome, can also be an opiate, dulling the pain of separation.” The good news, as Welby also notes, is that dialogue can also be “a stimulant confronting us with the need for repentance and change.”

Gerry concluded by urging Christians of all denominations to work for change. “Christendom, the dominance of the political, social and cultural life of the State by the church, is over and we should not lose ourselves in nostalgia for its return.” he said, adding that instead, “We should renew our encounter with Jesus Christ by sharing it with one another.” And he urged those present to “go out and find Him in others, especially the poor,” and to “think hard and vote well for a different Ireland, and build up Churches which will tackle secularism above all by the attractiveness of the vision and experience which they offer. We will do that better by doing it together, grateful for events like this evening which can inspire us to continue on this journey together.” Read his full address below.

In addition, many Jesuit communities included intentions for the week in their daily Mass or in their personal or community prayer. The Milltown Community invited Church of Ireland Archbishop Michael Jackson to join them for evening prayer with readings based on the Church Unity week service.  In his short reflection, Archbishop Jackson said that some people now see the annual church unity services as perhaps somewhat predictable and routine. But for him, these gatherings and Chruch Unity Week is about ‘habit’ not routine, and the practice or habit is now ingrained and welcome.

Some staff members of the Jesuit Curia in Dublin replaced their Friday Mass with the order of service from the workbook resource produced especially for Unity week and used by Christians all over the world.

Notes for address of Gerry O’Hanlon SJ in St Patrick Church of Ireland, Dalkey

1 ‘The natives showed us unusual kindness’ – hospitality.

Good evening everyone. It is good to count blessings. Like Paul and his shipwrecked fellow prisoners landing on Malta, we have come a long way in our journey as Christians of different churches. The polemics of earlier centuries in a different part of the world, compounded by political issues on our own island, gave way in the first half of the 20th century to a kind of polite separatism in this part of Ireland. I remember in the 50s, my wonderful mother shopping in town with her three children, coming up to Christmas. Exhausted with all the hustle and bustle she sought refuge in a church. But quickly and suddenly she realised that all was not well: a different feel, different iconography, what was it? – Anyway, like a flash, we were out on the street again. We had blundered into St Anne’s in Dawson Street. Imagine, in 1956 or so, a Protestant church!

Later, in the 90s, no longer able to go to Church herself, this same mother took great pleasure in listening to the various services on Sunday mornings, commenting with wonder and appreciation –”how similar they all are!”

This journey towards reconciliation is reflected in the Common Declaration of Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby in 2016 where they say: ‘those things which are behind’ – the painful centuries of separation- ‘have been partially healed by fifty years of friendship’.

And so, like Paul and his fellow prisoners and crew en route from the Holy Land to Rome, we give thanks for hospitality, in this case of Bruce and the Church of Ireland community in Dalkey, joined by Declan Gallagher, Paddy Devit and the Catholic community of the Assumption, and for all the similar events that are taking place this week all over Ireland. It is indeed good to be here.

2. ‘That they may be one’

Francis and Justin spoke about ‘partial healing’. Elsewhere Justin Welby, commenting on a daily prayer used in Lambeth Palace, says: ‘…the difficulty which the prayer faces full-on is that the habits of centuries render us comfortable with disunity – even more so when there is an apparatus of dialogue. Dialogue can be an opiate, dulling the pain of separation or it can be a stimulant confronting us with the need for repentance and change’.

Pope Francis says somewhere that Jesus didn’t come on earth, live and die, just to teach us good manners. There is an urgency and importance about his coming which reaches into our inner lives and invites us to change, to conversion. The words of Benedict in this context are apt: ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’. This, of course, is the core of our unity as Christians, that encounter with Jesus Christ, the living out of our sacramental baptism. The encounter with Jesus is beautiful, captivating, consoling, like falling in love.  But, if we stick with it, it is also surprising, even disturbing, in that it invites us to look at our world differently. Think of the righteous anger of the Elder Brother in the parable of the Prodigal: why doesn’t Jesus understand that we respectable people are his real friends?!

For decades now – most tellingly in various ARCIC documents (I and II) on thorny issues which divide us – Catholics and Anglicans have been in dialogue, and the recommendations issuing from these dialogues have always concluded that, while differences remain, they are of the kind which enrich through diversity and not of the kind which should preclude unity. Ecumenists speak of ‘reconciled diversity’. Why then are we still divided, why is this week for Christian prayer, very welcome though it is, seen by so many as simply a polite exercise in good manners and not an urgent asking of the Lord and one another for unity?

In their hazardous journey to Rome, with this unplanned stop-off at Malta, Paul and his fellow prisoners formed alliances with centurion and soldiers, with captain and crew, sometimes in disagreement, always aiming through some kind of unity to fulfill their mission. We face a similar challenge.

In the most recent ARCIC III Document (Walking Together on the Way – Learning to be Church) there is a different methodology involved, one of ‘receptive ecumenism’ where the churches pledge to learn from the other’s respective strengths and weaknesses in promoting effective instruments of communion for mission. The Anglican side, strong on autonomy and diversity, admits the risk of insularity and a parliamentary form of procedure which is sometimes perceived as a blunt instrument incapable of cultivating true discernment for mission. The Catholic side, only just re-discovering a synodal model, is strong on unity but at the cost of uniformity, with a centralised magisterium and governance that does scant justice to the ‘sense of the faithful’ and their baptismal dignity.

In a 21st century Ireland increasingly in thrall to a horizontal secularism in which ‘God is missing, but not missed’, it is way past time for us as Christians to join forces in bearing common witness.

3. Be not afraid

What the angel of God said to Paul was intended for his fellow passengers, that central evangelical promise of God’s saving and merciful providence. It comes for Paul in the context of his encounter with Jesus Christ and the mission to spread the good news of God’s kingdom as disciple and missioner which arises from that encounter.

Malta is a place many of us may have visited, some of us perhaps on Mediterranean cruises. We know that for Paul the going was rougher, as it is today for the hundreds and thousands of immigrants scattered about the Mediterranean, some of whom land at Malta and are detained in camps a long way from that ‘unusual kindness’ experienced by Paul and his fellow travellers.

We are in election mode in Ireland. How can a relatively rich country have so many homeless people, children? Why such a dysfunctional health system? Is there an acceleration in anti-immigrant, racist sentiment? Paul was not afraid of vipers and he cured many people. When we think of our mission as Christians today in Ireland it seems to me that there are two vital aspects: first, to be close and concrete, to be with Christ suffering in the poor, the homeless, the sick, the rejected. And second, as citizens, as thinkers, can we begin to shape a different narrative about human flourishing, taking into account care of the earth, which would promote equality and belonging rather than a too one-sided focus on economic growth and the market?

Conclusion

Christendom, the dominance of the political, social and cultural life of the State by the church, is over and we should not lose ourselves in nostalgia for its return. Instead, we should renew our encounter with Jesus Christ by sharing it with one another, go out and find him in others, especially the poor, think hard and vote well for a different Ireland, and build up Churches which will tackle secularism above all by the attractiveness of the vision and experience which they offer. And we will do that better by doing it together, grateful for events like this evening which can inspire us to continue on this journey together.