By Fr James Murphy, Co-chairperson of the Ferns Ecumenical Committee
I would like to begin these words by congratulating Canon Arthur Minion and Fr. Aodhán Marken on completing another Christmas Fast together, and raising almost €41K for local charities. It is a remarkable achievement at a very difficult time and it is an expression of practical and real ecumenism. All who have benefited from it can credibly say, they abided in the love of God and bore much fruit – the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which, as we know is celebrated every year from 18-25 January, the 25th of January being the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This tradition has been in existence now for 113 years. It was started in 1908 by Spenser Jones an Anglican minister in England, Paul Wattson an American Episcopal priest, and a small group of Franciscan sisters and friars in New York. By 1916 Pope Benedict XV promoted its observance throughout the entire Catholic Church. After the Second Vatican Council, all the Christian Churches agreed to jointly observe “a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” Since 1968 they have worked together to help all Christians pray for unity, which was the wish of Jesus himself who prayed, “May they all be one.” In the Gospel Jesus asks, even commands all of us to “love one another.” (John 15:17). Therefore even in diversity we can be kind and caring and love one another. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a privileged moment for prayer, encounter and dialogue. It is an opportunity to recognise the richness and value that are present in other people, especially those who are different to ourselves, and to ask God for the gift of unity so that we can better fulfil his command to preach the Gospel, the good news to all the nations. Pope Francis says that “all Christians are called to witness to the good news in the midst of our daily life.” The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is also an opportunity for us to reflect on our own attitude to ecumenism. Our personal, family and community history tends to determine this. We always need to strengthen our ecumenical resolve. Again in the words of Pope Francis speaking to meeting of the World Council of Churches in Geneva in 2018: “For us as Christians, walking together is not a ploy to strengthen our own positions, but an act of obedience to the Lord and love for our world. Let us ask the Father to help us walk together all the more resolutely in the ways of the Spirit.” Strengthening our ecumenical relations is therefore not an optional extra for us, but part of our faith that we need to be sincerely committed to. Every year, the various Churches in one country, come together to provide all Christians through out the world with ceremonies to celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year the Monastic Community of Grandchamps in Switzerland provided us with the theme, “Abide in my love and you will bear much fruit” taken from chapter 15 of St. John’s Gospel. This is part of the discussion Jesus had with the Apostles at the last supper. He told them, and all of us, that if we accept his commandment to love one another and put it into practice in our daily lives “we will bear much fruit” -we will make a positive contribution to living a Christian way of life. This is the aim of all Christians, whatever Church we belong to, to be loving and kind to our family and neighbours, and also to the stranger and all who are in need. The disunity of Christians is an enormous problem, even a scandal for all the Churches. The path toward Christian unity has been testing to date, and regularly new challenges appear as others fade or are overcome. This moment is an opportune time for us to commit, in personal reflection and communal prayer, to making the prayer of Jesus “May they all be one”, even a little more of a reality in our diocese. In our own lives, even in small ways we should do our best to respect each others beliefs, and challenge one another to increase our efforts towards Christian unity. 2/4 Here in the Diocese of Ferns we have an Ecumenical Committee, which has been working reasonably well since the early 1970's. For the past nine years it has been co-chaired by Canon Arthur and myself. It has lay and clerical representatives of the four main Christian Churches: Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist. In normal times the committee meets about four times a year, and it liaises with a core group of about 50 people through out the diocese. As well as looking after the ceremonies for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the committee organises on an annual basis ecumenical Quiet Days in the Ballyvaloo retreat Centre, one during lent and another in the autumn. The Committee also organises a summer outing, a lecture in the autumn on a topical issue, and ongoing communication between the bishops and leaders of the other Churches in the diocese. For the past few years we have had an ecumenical service in Our Lady’s Island during the pilgrimage season which has been very successful. The committee is always delighted to have either new members, or people willing to go on our mailing list to receive information about the various activities throughout the year. Please God we may be in a position to have the evening at Our Lady’s Island and the Autumn Quiet Day later this year. The achievements of the Diocesan Ecumenical Committee and society are modest. But it is important that communication between the Christian Churches in the diocese continues. We need to remain fresh, adapt to the changing circumstances for all our Churches at present, and be open to new possibilities for the future. This can be best achieved through a committed and renewed membership of our Ecumenical Committee and Society. 3/4 What areas can Christians have one voice. On what subjects do we need to have one voice in Ireland right now? I respectfully suggest the following: Education; Climate Change; Religious Freedom and expression; Persecution of Christians throughout the world. It is difficult to believe but Christians are not free to practice their faith in many countries today and they need our support; Promotion of Christian Values; A discussion on the appropriate relationship between Church and State; And of course we are united in prayer and our support for one another during this challenging and difficult time as we deal with the Covid-19. This virus knows no boundaries including religion. Far more unites us than divides us, and we should speak with one voice authoritatively on important issues that concern us all. We are fortunate that ecumenism is part of our daily living in this diocese. Let us pray
God our Father help us to make Christian unity a priority in the coming year. Even in the smallest of ways may we reach out to all our sisters and brothers so that we can better understand and respect one another. Amen.