Here is the homily given today by Archbishop Charles J. Brown, the Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, for an Ecumenical Service in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, held at Saint Anne’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Belfast.
The week of prayer for Christian unity is held in most places from Jan. 18 to Jan. 25.
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Dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, it is a joy and indeed a great privilege for me to stand before you this evening in this historic and beautiful Saint Anne’s Cathedral here in the centre of Belfast to celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In particular, I want to thank the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend John Mann, for his kind invitation to me, and I greet in a special way the Bishop of Connor, the Right Reverend Alan Abernethy; the Bishop of Down and Dromore, the Right Reverend Harold Miller; as well as Bishop Noel Treanor, Bishop Donal McKeown, Bishop Anthony Farquhar, the Reverend Dr Rob Craig, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, and the Reverend Dr Donald Ker, the representative of the Methodist President.
The historical roots of this week of prayer for unity among Christians stretch back into the first decade of the twentieth century, the same period in which the early work was being done here in Belfast on this magnificent Cathedral. The idea of an annual celebration of ecumenical prayer for unity was the fruit of the vision of Father Paul Wattson, who began his ministry as an Episcopal priest in the United States, as well as that of the Reverend Spencer Jones, Anglican vicar of Saint David’s, Moreton-in-Marsh, England. Both of these men were deeply committed to prayer as a path to unity. Similarly important in its own way was the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh in 1910, with its emphasis on the intrinsic connection between ecumenism and the missionary impulse that is central to the Christian faith. I am sure that the early pioneers of the ecumenical movement would be very pleased to see the day when a Papal Nuncio would reflect on the Word of God in the Cathedral of the Church of Ireland in Belfast. We have come a long way indeed, and that is something for which we must be very grateful. Dean John Mann’s kind invitation to me needs also to be seen, of course, in a more local context as well, as a sign of the truly remarkable progress made in recent years on this Island towards reconciliation and mutual understanding between people of different traditions. We are profoundly indebted to those who worked so hard and who risked so much to bring us to where we are today.
While the roots of our gathering this evening go back more than one hundred years, the celebration in its current form dates from the late 1960s where it arose in continuation with the extraordinary event of the Second Vatican Council. Each year since that time, a theme for the week of prayer comes from a specific area of the world. This year the theme has been proposed by the Churches of French Canada and comes from Saint Paul’s First Letter the Corinthians, where he asks: “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:13).
We live in a world where strife and violence between different groups of people is sadly a daily reality. We need only to think this evening about what is happening in Syria or in the Central African Republic. It would be mistaken simply to attribute these conflicts to religion, although it would be equally mistaken to pretend that religion did not play a very significant role in them. The sad spectacle of such conflicts ought to make us, as Christians, reflect more deeply on the paramount importance of unity, and especially unity among the followers of Jesus. This was one of the great insights of the Second Vatican Council: the recognition that the Christian Church is and must always be a sacrament of the unity of the entire human race (cf. Lumen Gentium, 1). A sacrament is, of course, an action which signifies and effects; it is a sign, but also a cause. Christians therefore must be, for the world, both a sign of unity and indeed a cause of unity, wherever we find ourselves. Indeed, according to Tertullian, the great Christian author of the second and third centuries, it was the unity of Christians which so impressed to the pagan world. Amazed by the way that Christians lived, Tertullian reports that their contemporaries would say “See how they love one another…and how they are ready to die for each other” (Apologeticus, 39.7). Their unity in love astonished the world.
And so too in our own time, when societies and peoples are divided by suspicion and by the memory of painful historical events, the followers of Jesus Christ need to be the ones who show to others that reconciliation is possible. In this way, we become a sign and a cause of a wider unity.
But unity does not come cheap, nor is it guaranteed, as we know. We see the need to struggle for unity among Christians in the first reading chosen for our service this evening. In it, Saint Paul laments the divisions that had arisen in the Christian community of Corinth which he himself had founded. On a certain level, the fact that Saint Paul was compelled, at some point in the first years of the Church, to intervene in order to restore unity among the followers of Jesus can give us a certain reassurance. We can be tempted at times to think that the early period of the Church, as witnessed by Tertullian, was somehow pristine and immune from the struggles which have come into existence later. We focus rightly on the beautiful description in the Acts of the Apostles of the community in Jerusalem as being “cor unum et anima una”, of “one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32), and we imagine that this beautiful description was always valid for the early Christians. And yet, of course, we know that this was not the case. The Acts of the Apostles themselves speak about the difficulties between Jewish and Hellenistic Christians within the Jerusalem community. So the divisions in Corinth which so alarmed Saint Paul were not without precedent. And this fact leads us to an important conclusion: Christians have always had to fight against divisions and must always continue to do so. This struggle is not characteristic of only one age, like our own; it is a part of our Christian calling. So while the existence of divisions in the Early Church should keep us from falling into despair over the divisions which we see now, such divisions must never be accepted by us with complacency. Because unity is not just some utopian dream; it is absolutely possible through the grace of Christ.
With his grace, Christians must strive for that unity, because by his grace we have truly been made brothers and sisters. Indeed, in the reading we heard proclaimed this evening, Saint Paul reminds his listeners of that reality by addressing them as “my brothers and sisters”. In fact, he uses just one word in Greek: ἀδελφοί – my “siblings” really.
It is instructive to reflect on the fact that in Holy Scripture the first manifestation of the disorder that was introduced into human life and human relationships by Adam and Eve’s turning away from God in the Garden of Eden, was a horrific sin against natural familial unity: it is the sin of Cain who kills his own brother Abel. God comes to Cain in the Book of Genesis and asks him “where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9). And Cain responds with the memorable words “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:10).
Jesus of Nazareth is God’s answer to, and his remedy for our fractured humanity and the community of Christians is the place where a new familial unity arises based on the transforming power of God’s grace. And so, for us as Christians, the answer to Cain’s question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is of
course: yes, we are our brothers’ keeper. When we are divided from our Christian brothers and sisters, we need to hear the voice of the Father saying to each one of us: “where is your brother?”. We cannot be content, like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 15:11-32), just to do our duty and stay at home, when our brother is gone from us. We need to go in search of our brother. We need to go in search of each other. And that is what authentic ecumenism is all about. This is the grace we pray for this evening, the courage always to go in search of our brothers and sisters, and to receive them in love when they come in search of us.
This going out to find the other in fraternal love does not imply any underestimation of the differences which exist among the followers of Christ. Differences are one thing; divisions are another. Christians need to rejoice in difference, and struggle against division. Saint Augustine, in his attempts at unity in the Church of North Africa in the fifth century, had a very powerful interpretation of the need to go out in search of other Christians, even to those who did not want the divisions to be overcome. Augustine bases himself on the idea of baptism and faith making us truly brothers and sisters in Christ and he says of those who did not want to be his brothers; they are our brothers and will cease being so only when they cease to say “Our Father” (Sermon 32.29).
It is, as I mentioned at the outset of my reflections, a great honour for me to be with you this evening and I am deeply grateful for the invitation. I bring all of you the best wishes of the newly elected Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, who has so captured the imagination of the world in these first months of his pontificate. In continuity with his predecessors, ecumenism remains an absolute priority for him and for the Holy See. Echoing the theme on which we have reflected this evening, Pope Francis has written that “Ecumenism can be seen as a contribution to the unity of the human family” (Evangelii Gaudium, 245). That unity, wounded by sin, has been restored in Jesus Christ. Christ is not divided. There is but “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:5). Let us together gave thanks to him tonight for the amazing progress which has been made in ecumenical relations, and let us recommit ourselves as individuals and as Churches to doing everything we can to bring that progress forward, and to make unity a reality.