6 JULY, 2001

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Alive in his Church he is the source of hope for the world. On the night before he died at the Last Supper with his disciples he prayed: “Father, I ask not only on behalf of these – my disciples – but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word – that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you – may they also be in us so that the world may believe that it was you who sent me.” The unity of Christians is necessary so as to show to the world God’s love in giving his only Son. When this takes place the supreme desire of Jesus will have been fulfilled.
The last millennium was the millennium of the great divisions. Hopefully this will be the millennium of reunions. In 1054 East and West went their separate ways. The Reformation divided the Western Church. Then there was the Enlightenment which saw the separation of reason from revelation, science from faith.
Europe was the continent in which the divisions originated. There is much talk today of the unity of Europe, that is of political and economic unity. But the very idea of Europe was born and developed in the light of one common Christian faith – as the life and teaching of St Columbanus shows for example. At the age of 50 he left Bangor to set out to re-evangelise Europe after the destruction wrought by the Barbarians and he worked first in what is now France, then in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, before founding his last and greatest monastery in Bobbio where he died in 615. He said he could never understand how Christian could ever be in conflict with Christian since such a conflict reveals a failure to understand what being a Christian really means.

Today the scandal of division among Christians is acutely felt in an era when we should be standing together and working closely in the face of our common enemy – namely those who would seek to minimize the Cross of Jesus Christ and to empty it of its meaning by denying that it is in the Cross we have the source of new life. Believers in Christ cannot remain divided if we wish to truly effectively oppose that tendency to reduce to powerlessness the saving death and resurrection of Jesus.

We live at the beginning of a new century and a new millennium which bring its own hope. The last century has seen considerable ecumenical progress. That progress is a sign of great hope for the Church today. It was the recognition that disunity was a major stumbling block in the preaching of the Good News brought by Jesus Christ and to belief in him that brought the modern ecumenical movement into existence. Protestant mission societies meeting at Edinburgh in 1910 came to acknowledge that divisions among themselves were greatly reducing the effectiveness of their preaching of Christianity in such countries as India.

The Catholic Church was a late arrival among those committed to the search for Christian unity. Until the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church remained officially distant from the ecumenical movement. Pope John XXIII wished to see this changed by having the Fathers of the Council take up the question of Christian unity. That Council radically altered our approach as Catholics to the ecumenical movement.
The Council recognised that the movement for the restoration of unity among all Christians is fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It pointed out that the divisions among Christians prevent the Church from effecting the fullness of the Catholicity proper to her. It noted with gratitude the growing participation of Catholics in ecumenical work. It commended this work to Bishops throughout the world for their promotion and guidance.

This commitment by a Council of the Church remains binding today. In the 36 years since the Council the Catholic Church has gradually assumed a prominent role in the ecumenical movement. It has, with God’s grace, solid achievements which show the sincerity and strength of its ecumenical commitment. There are two basic aspects of the Catholic Church’s work in ecumenism. The first is the promotion of the ecumenical task within the local or particular Catholic Churches or dioceses. The second is the building up of relations with other Churches and ecclesial communions. The approval of the Council document on ecumenism was an important beginning, but it was only the beginning. The next step was to make the teaching contained in that document part of the self-understanding of the Catholic Church. A secretariat for the promotion of Christian unity, now known as the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, was set up in the Vatican. Its task is to help the Bishops throughout the world carry out the ecumenical task. Ecumenical commissions were set up within bishops’ conferences to bring the teaching of the Council into the life of the dioceses. Every diocese was recommended to have its own ecumenical commission or officer.

The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity published an ecumenical directory in 1970; this was updated and enlarged in 1993. In 1995 the Pontificial Council co-operated with Pope John Paul in preparing a special encyclical letter entitled, Christian Unity. It deals with our commitment to ecumenism.

The statement of the Holy Father in the Encyclical that the movement promoting Christian unity is an organic part of the Church’s life and work, brought joyful hope to a lot of people. It gave fresh heart to local communities and communities of consecrated life that are already working in this areas of practical and spiritual ecumenism. The same Encyclical says that the Church must enter into a dialogue of conversion, that is an examination of conscience. Whether in his meetings in Rome with visiting dignitaries or with leaders of other Churches or during his pastoral visits abroad the Holy Father has lived out this commitment of the Catholic Church to the restoration of unity among all the disciples of the One Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

At this time the Catholic Church is in official dialogue with the ancient Oriental Churches, the Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Methodist Council, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. It is also having important discussions with the World Baptist Alliance, the Mennonites, some Pentecostals and Evangelicals. In addition it maintains close contact in many ways with the World Council of Churches. Last May a joint working group of the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church met in Dromantine, Co. Down. These dialogues have produced valuable material for the world ecumenical movement. They have resulted in some outstanding theological agreements which deserve mention.

The theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, known as ARCIC, has produced documents of great value. Some have been officially received by the two communities, for example, the sections of the final report on Eucharist and ministry. Others such as the recent Gift of Authority have offered the Churches valuable matter for reflection and reception.

An outstanding achievement of the ecumenical movement was undoubtedly the signing in Augsburg, Germany on 31 October, 1999, of the joint declaration on justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. A very interesting consultation study day organised by the Irish Inter-Church Committee was held in Mount Oliver, outside Dundalk, to get reactions from the main Churches here on this joint declaration on justification. This took place last May. These are all positive developments, which provide us with reason for optimism and hope as we cross the threshold of the new millennium.

The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 was foreseen by the Holy Father as a promising opportunity for the fruitful co-operation in the many areas which unite us: these he wrote are “unquestionably more numerous than those which divided us”. You may remember that at the beginning of the Jubilee Year the opening of the holy door of one of the four Roman Basilicas, that of St Paul’s Outside the Walls, was delayed until the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and so on January 18, 2000, leaders from 22 Churches, ecclesial communions and international Christian organisations gathered for the opening of that door. The most moving moment was when the Pope, together with Archbishop George Carey of Canterbury, and the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Metropolitan Athanasius of Constantinople, pushed open the Holy Door.

The value of ecumenical work is now widely accepted. Of course the challenge is to have it pervade all that the Church does and is. A lot of prominence is now given to spiritual ecumenism, meaning a change of heart, and holiness of life along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians. That is regarded as the soul of the ecumenical movement.

On March 12 last year Pope John Paul presided at a solemn act of pardon at St Peter’s Basilica. He led the Catholic Church in an act of confession and repentance so that “humbly viewing the sins of the past in an authentic purification of memory we will be committed to that path of true conversion”. I believe that this is the challenge for all of us.

I have spoke of spiritual ecumenism, which must find expression in practical ecumenism. Practical ecumenism means bringing an attitude of personal conversion to the fore as a basis for ecumenical co-operation in social and charitable areas. There are numerous examples of practical ecumenism at work in many parts of Ireland. This conference is one such example. Everyone will be able to call to mind many others. Since we are in the Diocese of Derry one comes to my mind at once. At the time of that atrocity three years ago, the Omagh Bombing, the co-operation and joint pastoral care among the clergy of all denominations, was very evident and effective. It happened because the churches in Omagh already had a Church Forum which took responsibility for the pastoral needs of the community at that time. I have seen examples of similar co-operation between chaplains of hospitals and prisons, which indicate that practical ecumenism is at work. In every diocese there are examples of joint prayer groups and study groups, cross community social actions groups, which do excellent work.


Last Easter 250 official delegates gathered for an ecumenical meeting in Strasbourg which had as its theme, “I am with you always, yes to the end of time”. They represented the Conference of European Churches (KEK) and the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE). There were also 100 young people present. The meeting was in the spirit of two previous ecumenical assemblies, Basle (1989) and Graz (1997). The message from that meeting in Strasbourg was that we are firmly resolved to preserve and develop the fellowship that has grown up among us. We give thanks to God for guiding our steps towards an ever-deeper fellowship through the Holy Spirit.

One of the main characteristics of the meeting was the presence of young people, equal in number to the Church Leaders. Because of their age they grew up in a period and atmosphere already characterised by ecumenical sensitivity. Unlike previous generations they are less liable to feel the burden and baggage of history. That’s why many of them find it difficult to understand and tolerate divisions among Christians. They enter the process of reconciliation with great reason and newness.

The high point of the meeting was the signing of an ecumenical charter. It gives guidelines for the growing co-operation of the Churches in Europe. The charter is the first historical document of this kind and was written under the joint responsibility of KEK and CCEE. The Charter begins by confessing one holy Catholic and apostolic Church and acknowledges that our one paramount task is to show forth this unity which is only the gift of God. It goes on to state that fundamental differences are still barriers to Christian unity, but that we must not be satisfied with this situation. We intend to do our utmost to overcome the problems and obstacles which still divide the churches. We committed ourselves to following the call of the Letter to the Ephesians to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you are called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all and within all” (4:36).

These are some of the signs of hope of Christina Unity. There are many others. For all of them we give thanks and praise. Let us go forward, with new enthusiasm on the path to full unity. Christ travels this road with us. To him be glory for ever and ever.