Sunday 10th May 2009
Response to the Homily of Bishop Trevor Williams
Cardinal Seán Brady
Archbishop of Armagh

May I, first of all, welcome all the members of this General Synod of the Church of Ireland back to Armagh.  It is a real joy to have you back in the City of St Patrick.  I hope you have had a very successful and fruitful meeting.

Recently the St Louis Post-Dispatch journalist Colleen Carroll spent a year asking more than 500 young people what was drawing them to Orthodox Christianity.  The results of her findings are published by Loyola Press in her book, The New Faithful.  Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.

Asked why young people are so spiritually hungry she responded “The hunger comes from a lot of different places.  If you feel you weren’t fed growing up, then you’re going to have intense hunger.”    Later on in the interview she says “Kids are craving the ‘hard Gospel’.”  Obviously the St Louis Post Dispatch has been keeping an eye on recent developments in the Church of Ireland.  Let us hope that the Gulf Stream will bring, not the Mexican flu, but that same spiritual hunger to all young people of these islands very soon.

Thank you, Bishop Trevor, for your challenging words about a very challenging project – the ‘Hard Gospel’.  I am grateful for the opportunity to offer this response to your homily and to express publicly my admiration for all those involved in the “Hard Gospel” initiative. It was not just important for the Church of Ireland.  It was important for everyone on this island who looks to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as their rule of life.

I had heard many references, over the years, to the Hard Gospel.  Is it true that the title comes from the comment “The Hard Gospel is that you love God and love your neighbour – end of story”?  But, of course, it is not really the end of the story – Hard Gospel – hard questions:

•        Who is my best model of one who loves God?

We would all love to think that it is Jesus.  Unfortunately, there have been times in history when the behaviour of Christians towards one another seemed more inspired by Joshua in Jericho rather than by Jesus in Tyre and Sidon (Mt 15: 21-28).

Love your neighbour as yourself for me begs other hard questions: 

•        In what ways have I been trained to love myself?
•        Have I ever been discouraged from loving myself?

And, possibly the hardest question of all:

•        What if the change of heart preached by Jesus were to demand a move from self interest to the interest of my neighbour, a change from exclusivity to inclusivity?

Of course understanding fully what it means to love God and neighbour means becoming actively involved in working towards building peaceful communities, based on understanding of difference and mutual respect.

I am very grateful to the Church of Ireland for deepening the understanding of all of us of the concept of difference and for addressing, not just sectarianism, but such things as North/South difference, ethnic, social, political and theological difference, as well as relationships with other faiths, and attitudes towards such matters as disability and age.

I salute your courage in addressing key strategic issues in relation to the legacy of conflict in an increasingly multicultural Ireland.  The independent review of the whole initiative concluded that the projects on immigration and Loyalists communities are at the cutting edge of contemporary diversity and inclusion issues in Ireland today.  My own limited experience of contact with the Loyalists communities, in recent times, would lead me to the same conclusion.

The ‘Hard Gospel’: a shared challenge

As the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, I do not approach the ‘Hard Gospel’ initiative as a detached bystander.  I cannot.  I am also challenged by it.  It raises important questions for me and for the Church to which I belong.  I expect that is what it was intended to do: to raise difficult questions.  It will take some time to unpack those questions and to come up with realistic answers.

What I do know is that we all share the same challenge. What I do know is that sectarianism, racism, prejudice and the instinct to exclude are odious viruses which threaten all our traditions.

Sectarianism is a shared problem – not an exclusively Protestant one.  Racism is a human problem not an exclusively Loyalist one.  It is just as likely to manifest itself among Catholics across this island as it is among any other group.  I say this, aware that some Catholics do not believe this, which, in itself, indicates the extent of the problem.

As Dr David Stevens, Leader of the Corrymeela Community reminds us “Christian faith challenges all exclusive claims of tribe, tradition and political commitment.  The Gospel invites us into the space, created by Christ, and to find there … a view of wholeness, justice and living in right relations”.  It is a view “Which sees the whole world as potential brothers and sisters – a nourishing and fulfilment of the human” (Inter-Church Relations, p. 194).

The Hard Gospel echoes this challenge.  It sets out signposts to those spaces and places where we can encounter each other in a way which challenges us.  The Project deals with what Dr Stevens calls the “Janus Face of Religion!”  It looks both inwards and outwards at the same time.  It reflects on the critical link between what goes on within a Church community and how this affects the way that community relates externally.  It acknowledges that faith communities can be, at one and the same time, contributors to conflict and healers of conflict.

Most importantly, the Hard Gospel envisages new horizons of inclusion and practical action.  Indeed, it created new and important opportunities for such action.

Improving Practical Collaboration between Churches

One of the main findings of the independent evaluation of the Hard Gospel project is that it “was successful in developing a series of new collaborations and partnerships with other churches” (p5).

Since we gather today as Christians, united in prayer, let me focus on the relationship between shared actions and the specific challenge of Christian unity.  The Hard Gospel of ecumenism calls us beyond good relations to the intimacy, even to the challenges of being a family, of being sisters and brothers in the one Lord.

This reminds me of something Pope Benedict XVI said following his first Mass after having been elected as Pope.  He declared that the primary commitment of his Papacy would be to “work tirelessly towards the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers.”  He went on to say “expressions of good feelings are not enough.  Concrete gestures are required to penetrate souls and move consciences.  As the First Letter of St John has it “Our love is not to be just words or mere talk but something real and active” (1Jn. 3:18).

Interior conversion, change of attitude, is perhaps the hardest Gospel of all.  It involves walking the extra mile with and towards the other.

I am conscious that your generous invitation to be here at this service for the closing of this Synod is exactly such a ‘concrete gesture’.  It has its own historic and symbolic significance.  I want to express my gratitude to Archbishop Alan, to Dean Patrick and to all involved in that generous invitation.  It is a privilege to be here.  It is a joy to be among sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ who are so clearly committed to Him and to His word.  It is a grace to be united with all of you in the presence of the Risen Lord.  He promised to be among us when His word is shared and where two or three gather in His name.

The Risen Lord is powerfully present in His word spoken to us today.  The story of the vine and the branches presents three themes that I think are particularly relevant to the message of the Hard Gospel.

Patience with the Ecumenical Journey

The first is the image of the vine and the branches itself.  It reminds me of my days in Italy.   In the nice crisp, frosty days of winter in the Alban Hills, you would often see people busy at work pruning the vines.  I came to appreciate how important the vine is in the life of that community.  It gives food in the form of grapes and drink in the form of wine.  It also provides firewood and leaves that fertilise the soil as well as shade which protects from the sun.  I also noticed that the vine-dresser is very patient.  He patiently tills the soil and prunes the branches to just the right degree, confident that – in time – ripe and luscious fruit will appear.

Someone who claims to know more about good wine than I do told me recently that the best wines are produced by planting the vine in the rockiest soil in the vineyard.  By having to struggle harder and dig deeper to find the nutrients in the soil, the vine is strengthened and the taste of the grapes becomes more vibrant.

On the journey to the full visible unity of Christ’s followers – patience is a critical virtue.  The temptation is to want to get to the end of the journey, without having to walk the sometimes difficult and winding paths which take us there.  However the experience of the journey together and the patience to endure its twists and turns will, eventually, make for stronger unity.  To use show-jumping parlance, rushing the fences, namely the difficult issues, can eliminate time-faults but can still cost vital points for fences down at the end.

I believe we are, at present, experiencing the end of one phase and moving into a deeper, more honest phase of the ecumenical journey.  By its very nature it will require more patience but the fruits of this new stage of our journey together will, I believe, be richer and more lasting.

And this brings me to the second dimension of our Gospel this morning.  St John speaks to us of being ‘pruned by the word.’

The Importance of Meditating together on God’s Word

In October last I had the privilege of attending the Synod of Catholic Bishops in Rome on The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.  It was attended by a wide range of representatives from other Churches.  During the Synod it was acknowledged that the improved access to the Scriptures, promoted by the Reformation, was something good from which all Christian communities have benefited.

There was also an earnest reflection on the words of St Gregory the Great who said “Frequently, many things in the Sacred Writings, which I was unable to understand on my own, I came to grasp while in the presence of my brothers” (Homiliae in Ezechielem, II,2, I: PL 76, 948-949).

The final proposition of the Synod declared that the “The Bible is truly a privileged place of encounter among the diverse churches and ecclesial communities.  Listening together to the Scriptures helps us live together in a real communion” (Relatio post disceptationem, 36).

Pope Benedict XVI made the same point when he said “Listening together to the Word of God, practicing together the Lectio Divina of the Bible … constitutes a path to walk for reaching the unity of faith, as a response to hearing the word” (Discourse of Benedict XVI, Jan. 25, 2007).

It seems to me that these words clearly affirm the general proposition of the Hard Gospel initiative. Within the guidelines indicated for the ecumenical journey, there are many opportunities for shared reflection on the word which unites us, and for joint action. 

The Shared challenge of a Secular Culture

The message of today’s Gospel about the importance of remaining part of the vine could not be clearer.  As disciples of Jesus, we are all part of that vine.  We draw from the same source of life.  We have been washed in the same waters of Baptism.  It is the same grace which unites us with Christ and to each other.

The call to remain part of the vine therefore is a call to remain part of each other.  In the verses which follow John draws this out in terms of the importance of friendship and our relationship to the world.  We have to accept that if we are faithful to the Gospel there will be times when we have to stand against some of the most popular trends.  As Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity said recently “Christians are never saved by adapting to the world”.  As St Paul says “Do not adapt yourselves to this world but be changed and renew the way you think” (Roms 12:2).  Jesus was not afraid to allow people to walk away.  He had many ‘hard sayings’.  Being faithful to the less popular aspects of the message of Jesus is also part of the ‘Hard Gospel’.

Conclusion: Opening the doors of friendship

I shall always be grateful for the friendships I have made here in Armagh over the last fourteen years.  I am especially thankful for the friendships made through the Inter-Church meetings, meetings of the Four Church Leaders and other meetings with individuals and groups from widely different backgrounds.  They have taught me that real friendship allows people the space to be different.  Real friendship commits us to seek, at all times, the genuine good of the other person in spite of widely different views.

I would like to think that I have been personally enriched by all of this.  I can honestly say that I have grown in my understanding and empathy with others in all of this experience.  The call is to move beyond our comfort zone and deepen and widen our friendships.  It is also part of the Hard Gospel. 

Last Wednesday I celebrated Mass in Arbour Hill, Dublin and blessed the graves of executed 1916 leaders.  Tomorrow I hope to preach at the Service of Thanksgiving and Commemoration in the College Chapel of Trinity College, Dublin.  Today I am here at this Eucharist to mark the closure of the Church of Ireland Synod.  To some people all of that seems an impossible combination.  But what it does suggest, perhaps, is that we live in remarkable times.

The last millennium saw great divisions in the unity of the Church – the Body of Christ.  Many now dare to hope, and I am one of them, that this millennium will see the great healing of those wounds.  The last millennium also saw great divisions and conflict on this island of Ireland and between Ireland and her nearest neighbours.  Again many dare to hope that those conflicts can now be resolved, once and for all. 

Today the cause of religion is faced by the opposition of secularism in this country as never before.  Nevertheless, I believe this island – North and South – is a deeply religious island.  So I see the present moment as a wonderful kairos to play our part in trying to heal, once and for all, the hurts of the past.   I salute the efforts of those who have already courageously undertaken this task.  But we all have our part to play.  Now is the time to pray that God’s power, working in us, may do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine.  The great test of the Hard Gospel, for all of us, will be the task of reconciliation.  May God grant that all of us may prove adequate to the test.  Without Him we can do nothing but we can do all things in Christ who strengthens us.

In conclusion, let me echo the words of Dr David Stevens “At their centre, Churches have a narrative of forgiveness, reconciliation, new possibilities and new identities which, if it was really believed and acted upon, could be transforming.  The challenge now is to believe and act” (p 201).

The ultimate Hard Gospel – is probably ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’.  My prayer today is that we all may be given the grace, the strength and the generosity of spirit to grasp the new possibilities for forgiveness and reconciliation which are being offered to all of us here and now.  May God, who has begun this good work in us, bring it to completion.

AMEN so be it.