28 JANUARY, 2000

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to you tonight at this privileged moment in history. I thank Dean Leslie Forrest for his gracious invitation to be here. I congratulate him and Father Aidan Jones and the Ferns Joint Ecumenical Committee on the initiative of inviting Archbishop Robin Eames and myself, to preach in the ancient diocese of Ferns.

As Fr. Walter Forde remarks in Memory and Mission – An Account of Christianity in Wexford from 600 to 2000 – “1400 years represent a huge sweep of history”. Tonight we honour and celebrate that huge sweep.

We are gathered here tonight in St Edan’s Cathedral. When I asked Mgr. Patrick Corish of Maynooth to tell me something of Aidan, he assured me that he was a very famous saint who brought honour, not only to Ferns, but also to his native Breifne. As a Breifne man myself, I am happy to tell you that the memory of Aidan is alive and well today in his native heath. No less than five churches and several schools are named after him.
The time of Aidan was a time of great missionary activity and energy. It was the era of Gregory the Great, the man who sent Augustine to England after he had seen English captives in a Roman slave market. Augustine landed in Kent, and made its capital, Canterbury, his headquarters.

It was a time of great missionary activity here in Ireland also – the age of Columcille and Columbanus. Columbanus studied in Devenish in Co. Fermanagh, near the homeland of Aidan. He (Columbanus) travelled on from there to Bangor and Burgundy, and ended up in Bobbio. I remember well one night, some years ago, the community of the Irish College in Rome were going to Bobbio to celebrate the feast and Fr Fintan Morris, of the Ferns diocese, told us proudly that Columbanus was a South Leinster man.

As Columbanus moved north, Aidan seems to have moved south. Of course like all the famous saints he was of noble birth. His father belonged to one of the tribes of the Kingdom of Airgialla, territory of Oriel, which was mainly Co Monaghan and part of Fermanagh. The links of Ferns and Oriel still continue with the presence of Bishop Brendan Comiskey, a Co Monaghan man in your midst.

Indeed this exchange of north/south gifts seems to have been often repeated. I know that Reverend Charles Mullan, from Co Cavan is ministering here in Gorey. In the last century Ferns handsomely repaid its debt to Breifne when James Brown of the parish of Ballymore and Mayglass, was Catholic bishop of Kilmore from 1829-1865.

There was North-South movement but there was also East-West movement as well. Before settling in Ferns Aidan studied for some years in Wales, at Menevia, now St. David’s in Pembrokeshire, South Wales. It was here at Ferns that he established his most important foundation. Obviously Aidan would have travelled around the area preaching the Christian message, baptising and founding churches. At Ferns he probably also established a school for the sons of the nobility. The missionary method at the time was to try and convert the king in the hope that the king’s subjects would follow suit.

The first millennium was the great millennium of evangelisation, preaching the Word, missionary activity, consolidation of the faith. It was followed by a millennium in which the great divisions took place. Unfortunately, most of those divisions began here in Europe. The century which has just ended has seen, thankfully, considerable ecumenical progress. That progress is a sign of great hope for the Church today. It is a sign that the prayer of Jesus that they all may be one is being heard. We thank God for the progress already made and for the much improved quality of our relationships, we pray that the remaining problems may be resolved.

The realisation that disunity was a stumbling block to preaching the Gospel brought the modern Ecumenical Movement into existence. Protestant Missionary Societies meeting at Edinburgh in 1910 came to see that divisions among Christians were greatly reducing the effectiveness of their preaching in such countries as India. The scandal of disunity among Christians blocks the work of Christ. It prevents people from believing what we say. Progress to end the scandal of Christian disunity is being made. Many theological dialogues have taken place between the Roman Catholic Church and other Churches. A joint declaration on justification, a very important declaration, has been agreed with the Lutheran World Federation and published recently. This progress is a sign of great hope and yet we are well aware that some new obstacles have appeared on the ecumenical journey both in regard to doctrinal and ethical questions.


I prefer to concentrate on the signs of hope. For example, the Second European Ecumenical Assembly took place in Graz in Austria in 1997. Graz was a wonderful event, only the second of its kind in history. The first was held in Basel about ten years ago. Over 10,000 people attended Graz, many of them young people from all over Europe, especially Eastern Europe. The topic was ‘Reconciliation – Gift of God, Source of New Life’ Yes, reconciliation is a gift of God, it has to be sought in prayer but once it is achieved it becomes a magnificent source of new life, new relationships, new friendships, new energy.
The Assembly at Graz recommended that the Churches, all the Churches of Europe, should produce an Ecumenical Charter. It is to help foster an ecumenical culture of living and working together and to promote reconciliation.


This Charter is expected to be ready for the year 2001. We have a lot in common, we say the same Creed we have received the same baptism. We read the same Scriptures. The Charter will ask that our lives actually reflect that fact. We are going to be asked to recognise the spiritual riches of the different Churches, to learn from one another, to share each other’s gifts. It is going to commit us to humbly reassessing the history of our Church’s guilt and to asking one another’s forgiveness. Probably its most challenging part is where it talks of reconciling peoples and cultures. It proposes a ban on every form of exclusion and marginalisation. It asks for openness towards the increasing number of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. It calls for homeless persons to be given shelter and a home in Europe. The Charter will call for human rights to be defended. It asks that the environment be respected.


Another sign of hope for me was the historic meeting, over thirty years ago, of Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI in Rome. It led to the setting up of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission called ARCIC. That Commission issued what it thought, was going to be its final report in 1981. The official response both by the Lambeth Conference and by the Catholic Church was positive. Those positive responses encouraged the Commission to build on the progress that had been made. The result was another agreed statement on the subject of Authority in the Church. It is called The Gift of Authority published in 1998.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey and Pope John Paul II met in 1996, they stated that: “Without agreement in this area, (that is the area of authority), we shall not reach the full visible unity to which we are both committed”. The Anglican communion and the Roman Catholic Church will study this document and will publish their position on it in due course.


What we are doing here tonight, namely praying together, that is the heart of ecumenism. We try to listen to God’s Word to get the light to examine our mentalities and our attitudes. We ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to see how we, as communities of believers, may have offended the Lord with our attitudes and turned our back on His grace. Yes, we belong to Christ; we have a lot in common: The Creed, Sacred Scripture, prayer, sacraments, 1000 years of common history. And yet we have differences in belief, in our teaching and in our approach to moral issues. Those differences account for the divisions among the Churches. We are trying to arrive at a consensus, a consensus based on agreement about the fundamental truths of our faith. And so, there is no alternative to dialogue.

Of course the very idea of a dialogue involves an examination of conscience. If genuine dialogue takes place, and if it leads us to see that, as a Church community, we have neglected the Word of God in any way, there is then an obligation, before God, to repent of this, both to God, to other Christians who may have been scandalized by our positions.

The joint message of Bishop Neil and Bishop Comiskey in Memory and Mission is challenging: “We should greet the fourteenth hundredth anniversary and the third millennium”, they say, “with a humble and contrite heart, conscious that in the most important area of Church life and mission, namely unity, we have failed and indeed sinned.”

Those words were re-echoed by Pope John Paul II last week. He was speaking to representatives of 23 Christian Churches. They were present, in Rome, on the occasion of the opening of the Holy Door. Archbishop George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury was there. In his homily the Pope said: “We ask pardon of Christ for all that in the history of the Church has prejudiced His plans for unity”.


The fact is of course that sins which damage the unity willed by God for his people, demand repentance. Unfortunately they still burden us. We need to make amends for them. We need to take a long hard look at ourselves, at our Church, at our communities and ask, “How have we contributed, and how are we contributing, either wittingly or unwittingly to sectarianism and division? I suggest that we start with our own wrongdoing because these are the things that we can repent of and which we have the power to change. Such a process of honest self-criticism will at once challenge and reassure other people. If planned and carried out well it could turn out to be a great source of energy and renewal for our own Churches. It would surely lead to inner conversion and repentance for the wrongs we have done or allowed to be done in our name. It would build new relationships among ourselves and allow people to develop a capacity for compassion, that is the power to stand in the shoes of the other person and suffer their pain. Without such a capacity to feel with and understand both ourselves and other people, most attempts at reconciliation will remain superficial. It is not easy but it must be faced. It is one thing to confess that I have sinned. It is quite another to provide the details. It is still more difficult when I am asked to examine the group to which I belong and acknowledge its failures in public. It seems almost impossible to take personal responsibility for something in which I have not personally been implicated. But it is always possible and may be helpful to acknowledge that the community to which I belong did things which were wrong. Just as we frequently share a sense of pride in the past achievement of our own community it should be possible to acknowledge a sense of shame for past sins.


Closer co-operation with the other Christian Churches is an urgent requirement at this time. That co-operation must be based on respect, respect for each person in their own place, respect for teachings and universal disciplines; respect for the fact that these universal disciplines cannot be set aside at national level in the hope that such a setting aside will contribute to an easing of local difficulties. I know that when some Protestants hear Catholics talk of reconciliation, there is a fear of coercion. There are shadows of the claim that the Roman Catholic Church alone is the one true Church. Let me be quite clear on this. In the proposed Ecumenical Charter the Catholic Church, along with the other Christian Churches of Europe, commits itself to recognise and protect freedom of conscience and religion. We recognise the right of every person to seek the truth and to witness this truth according to his or her own conscience. The Second Vatican Council teaches that nobody can be forced to act against his or her conscience in religious matters.


When people meet and really know each other as fellow believers in Jesus Christ, they are able to appreciate and reverence each other and to thank God, for the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The task of reconciliation is immense and is going to require increased levels of real inter-Church relationships and cooperation if it is going to get anywhere. This will be needed at all levels but especially at local level.

The deep divisions of our society are both political and religious. As Churches we need to take a courageous and prophetic lead in bridging the religious divide. Of course it is often more comfortable for us to work along with the politicians on socio-political issues than it is to face strictly denominational and religious questions. Sometimes we are guilty of using the needs of the political situation to distract us from the religious division, from what is properly one of our tasks of reconciliation. What is required as a minimum, is a sustained conversation between appointed Church representatives about the divisions that exist, about the reasons for their existing and about the ways of bridging them that will contribute to reconciliation.


God wills the unity of all divided humanity. The primary concern for this third Millennium must be to reach out to all of God’s people. The efforts to achieve the visible unity of the Church is part of that task.
In Ireland today we find ourselves at a number of crossroads. Together we must work to make sure that the new political structures, north and south, can become the basis for a more just and caring society.
Society in Northern Ireland is deeply wounded after thirty years of violence. It will need space and time to allow the wounds to heal and the ailing relationships to be transformed. The sense of loss is deep and the memory of suffering is very long. A new Millennium dawns. History beckons the people of Ireland to a new beginning.

I am firmly convinced that the resources exist to make that fresh start. The achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust is possible. I believe there are enough people of good will, able and equal to the task. I hope that they, in turn, will be given the time and the trust to do the job. The vast majority of people want to see the political progress continue. New relationships are being built. Of course there is also some confusion and an amount of disagreement. Mutual trust is still in short supply but the seeds have been sown. It would be tragic if the progress already made were to be interrupted at this stage. The different parties to the Agreement know clearly what is expected of them. They know what they have committed themselves to do. They know what they have signed up to do. People, north and south, expect them to honour their commitments and deliver on their promises. Let us pray this evening that they will receive the help they need to fulfil their commitments.

As we reflect on the positive developments of the recent past we also remember the reasons for shame and sorrow in our history. We do not lose sight of the challenges and the goals which lie ahead. And as we do so we turn to the God of hope, to the God of all consolation from whom every blessing comes. With God nothing is impossible. In God mercy and faithfulness have met, justice and peace have embraced. We gladly join with our brothers and sisters in the other Christian traditions and with all people of goodwill in looking forward with confidence to that day when God will turn our mourning into joy. We commit ourselves to use only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any kind, instead, let us be kind and tender hearted to one another and forgive one another as God has forgiven us in Christ. (cf. Eph 4:30-32).