18/01/2011 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

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Inaugural Service for the

Homily Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland

Saint John the Baptist Church of Ireland Church, Clontarf, 18th January 2011

“You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times”.  These opening words of this evening’s Gospel reading are repeated six times in the same chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel.    Each time Jesus takes a well-known provision of the Law of Moses and radically reformulates it, not abolishing it, but transforming the threshold of its content and meaning.

The commandments say that you shall not murder, but Jesus redefines the concept of murder and extracts from the fundamental aspects of the Law of Moses further and deeper consequences.  There are many other ways in which we destroy the life of those around us, through anger, insult, neglect, disregard or pride.

Jesus’ teaching is radical. In the eyes of God there is no room for a minimalist casuistry in the interpretation of the commandments, although the Church very often in its history has fallen into that temptation, as we ourselves do often enough when looking at our own lives.

A moral code of minimal norms may be necessary to prevent the greatest abuses which can destroy our sense of human interaction and solidarity.  But deep relationships can never be built on minimalism.  The life of the Christian cannot be based on minimalist casuistry.  The type of relationship which God wishes us to have with him – and wishes to see flourish among the human family which he created – can only be constructed through a different type of moral code: a moral code built on love, which far from being minimalist asks us to travel the extra mile or turn the other cheek or love even our enemies.

There is a sense in which Jesus says to each of us every day:  “look at how you have been thinking and acting until now…  I tell you today…”  The Christian life is a response of crescendo, a response to the God who is love of ever more generous love on our part.  That response to God’s love changes the way we live and interact in our everyday life.

The quality of our loving relationships is vital and nothing can relativise that demand.   Personal authenticity in our faith is more important than outward expressions of officialdom and ritual.   The Gospel reading is clear: the offering we bring in ritual is invalidated if it is not accompanied by a profound and authentic sense of respect and love for our brothers and sisters.

On this opening day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity the Christian Churches in Dublin come together to pray for the unity of all believers in Jesus Christ.   This is not just a ritual act or a gesture of politeness that we repeat each year.  It must reflect a genuine commitment and longing to attain the full visible unity of Christians. This desire is not just about something practical or useful or simply nice.  It is the desire to fulfil the prayer of Jesus himself.  It is a path of repentance. 

Thank God that we in Dublin can register many improvements in the relationship between our Christian communities.  The Roman Catholic Church is now a full member of the Dublin Council of Churches and hopefully the Council will be able to welcome wider membership in the years to come.  The new ethnic mix in our society has brought renewal to all our Churches and we have welcomed many new African Churches into our midst.  We have thriving communities of Orthodox Christians.  We know one another better. We visit each others Churches, we share our Church buildings when needed, we address questions of the good of society together, we work together as Christians in our dialogue with believers of other faiths.

I would like to pay a special tribute this evening to the Ecumenical commitment shown by Archbishop John Neill as he draws near retirement.   It would be hard to underestimate the friendship, leadership and support which Archbishop John has shown to each of the denominations represented here.  He has been a vital link in all our ecumenical endeavours in Dublin in these years.  And let me say here in this Church of Ireland Church that Archbishop John has contributed to ecumenical renewal in a special way through his quiet yet quite extraordinary leadership in renewal within the Church of Ireland.  We have all learned from him.

As Christian Churches and communities in Dublin, we know one another better and appreciate one another.  We also recognise that as Christians and as Churches that many of the challenges we face are similar.  I was very struck by Archbishop Neill’s comments at the Synod of the United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough regarding the need for a radically renewed outreach to young people, young people who have gone to Christian schools and have been confirmed but who drift away rapidly from our worshipping communities.  It describes a reality that we in the Catholic Church face also. As Christians and as Churches we face many similar challenges and we have the common responsibility to respond to these challenges together.

There are cultural factors in Irish society which challenge all of us as Christians. In Ireland we encounter the aggressive secularism about which Pope Benedict spoke on his visit to Britain.  But there are other secularisms, perhaps more significant here in Ireland: there is the secularism of indifference and a secularism which is agreeable, pleasant and comfortable and which appeals to many in our society, there is even a secularism with a religious veneer.

The attitude of today’s Ireland to religion is marked with ambivalence. Religion is still high on the agenda of Irish society and in the Irish news headlines.  There is recognition for what Church people do.  There is certainly anger at some aspects of the life of the Churches and yet respect for Church people who are in the social vanguard.   There is still ambivalence however.  I was courted in some political sectors to speak in favour of the Lisbon Treaty but on many moral and social issues I might easily be told to keep my reflections on religion in society within the walls of my private chapel.

The Christian message is not about social acclaim. The Christian message is not there to be used when useful.   Our challenge as Christian Churches is to ensure that the message of Jesus Christ is being presented authentically and in its essentials.  Our challenge is to proclaim that message and to witness to it in our lives.   We share the same baptism, we share the same scriptures and we share the same faith; we also share a common desire for renewal of the faith and we share a common responsibility for that renewal.   Renewal is something we can learn about from each other.  Each of our traditions can bring to all something of its own particular and unique richness of understanding of the Gospel message.  Christian Unity does not mean uniformity.  Indeed uniformity is rarely if ever attained without some form of affirmation of superiority by some.

The Gospel reading reminds us that we cannot carry out a religious act when there is hatred in our hearts.  This is linked with the self-understanding of the early Church which is the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer, prepared by Christians in Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem New Testament community is a model of what it means to be the Church at any moment in history.  It is about the community which listens to the word of God and the teaching of the Apostles and which gathers to proclaim the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the breaking of the bread.  Their experience of communion with Jesus lead to a situation in which human relationships were then elevated to new level based on sharing.  This is the “Communion with Christ and with One Another” which is to be the theme of our Eucharistic Congress in 2012.

Our journey on the path towards Christian Unity is inevitably also about a common presence in the society in which we live.  In this Week of Prayer we are called to reflect on how the Church should be present in the world.  We are called as Christians to witness together to the possibility of unity in a society which is very much divided.  In a society which is marked with anger and violence, we are called to speak out against violence.  We are called to cry out together: “You shall not kill”, whether the killings are through gangland-crime, or paramilitary violence, or on our roads, or through the fruits of the drug trade.

Our Gospel reading reminds us, as I said earlier, that there are many other ways in which we destroy the life of those around us, through anger, insult, neglect, disregard or pride.  In a society which is marked with anger, we are called to help people discern that there is anger that is non-productive and destructive and which generates only  hatred, and there is anger which can be a building block to living together in solidarity.    Christians are called to be witnesses to the fact that it is possible to establish a different style of relationships between individuals and within communities.

Our journey towards Christian Unity is about a strong common presence in the society in which we live.  Some may want to limit the space for such a Christian presence.   More worrying is the fact that many Christians are unsettled and have become reticent and hesitant about speaking of their Christian identity as something valuable for the society they wish to create.  The Christian message and Christian witness have so much that we can bring to society.  The entire community of baptized believers is called together to bring this witness of a faith which generates hope and love.  The entire community of baptized believers is called in each generation to learn to renew that witness, to go beyond what we have heard and done in the past, through opening our hearts to what Jesus has to say to us today.  He is the one who transforms our lives.