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Homilies - Bishop Brendan Leahy

Speaking Notes - Week of Prayer 2015 - 22 January 2015 -  Cathedral of the Assumption, Tuam


When Pope Francis was four years old he was walking along a street with his grandmolther. Two women of the Salvation Army were walking on the other side of the pavement. And he remembers, as if it were today he says, that he said to his grandmother: "What are they? Nuns, Sisters?" And his grandmother said: "No, they are Protestants, but they are good."  And so his grandmother, because of their good witness, opened the door for him to ecumenism.

This episode captures the simplicity of what I want to say this evening based on the Gospel reading that inspires this year’s theme for the Week of Prayer. Encounters, no matter how simple, are important. Meaningful conversations, carried out in a spirit of true love, open doors. It’s one of the aspects that the Brazilian churches who prepared this year’s Week of Prayer materials help us to recognise in proposing a contextual approach to reading the biblical episode of Jesus meeting the woman at the well.

So let’s take the Gospel scene. Jesus was tired, sitting at the well. Along came the woman at midday – an unusual time for a woman to be out in that culture, probably a sign that because of her lifestyle she was ostracised. They strike up a deep conversation. Jesus, the One who is Love Incarnate, knew how to recognize something in the woman that he could not do, namely, draw the water. He makes of his need an opportunity to ask for help. It opens up the conversation. And the woman replies with her needs, her life, her questions. In this conversation Jesus brings the woman to a new level of honesty, insight and conversion. Out of that conversation came a whole new evangelisation in her town as she went back spreading the news. How much more happened afterwards… We don’t know but we can image. We are told many came to believe in the Good News becauser of her testimony.

A simple encounter. Rich fruits.

In this episode, Jesus teaches us something important also for ecumenism. Let’s not complicate things too much! In each of our encounters, no matter how spontaneous or simple, by taking advantage above all of the potential of the person before us, of that person’s value, even if hidden, we can discover wisdom and direction. And that is the heart of ecumenism.

A contemporary episode of this. On his visit to Pope Francis in May 2013, Archbishop Justin Welby raised the challenge of human trafficking as an issue for the churches and for him personally. The Pope listened and then spontaneously agreed, having initiated this challenge within the Roman Catholic Church some months before. A “Global Freedom Network” to help eradicate modern slavery from a faith base was established.

From my own story, I recall meeting the late Rev. Denis Cooke, Methodist, at annual gatherings for theology colleges. We always struck up interesting conversation that involved sharing of our lives of the Gospel. Gradually that developed into an initiative in Belfast called “Studying Theology Together”.

The point is that the Church is the Body of Christ. All of us here truly are that Body! It is the great gift that we receive on the day of our Baptism! Like any body, it is made up of many cells. A healthy body will be made up of healthly living cells. Perhaps the greatest challenge to us in ecumenism is to constantly renew the cells of the body of Christ that is the relationships we have with one another. The more we revive our relationships in Christ, the more healthy the whole Church is, the more it is united.

Of course, we need also to make time to pause and share together, particularly on the basis of the Word of God. A few months ago I attended an ecumenical gathering of bishops in Rome. Each day was very special. The morning began with a liturgy organised by one of the churches. The theme was “Eucharist, mystery of Communion”. That might seem a contentious topic but through our sharing we appreciated how each church has its own history and experience of the Eucharist and it is important now to share that experience in view of the desire for unity that we all share.

One afternoon, we all gathered in San Nilo basilica in Grottaferrata to make a pact of mutual love together – to share each other’s joys and sufferings, including those of each other’s dioceses. It was a very moving moment, done in the context of the Orthodox Evening Prayer.

Recently, in Ireland, the Inter-Church Meeting reflected on the new World Council of Churches document on Mission Together Towards Life. It was a wonderful gathering but a phrase that struck me is that what we have to do is tune into the work of the Spirit. It’s not that ecumenism is all our work, our effort. The Spirit is at work. It was the Spirit that was at work in the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. We too can let the Spirit be at work among us in our conversations that build unity.

The secret is the love we have for one another in the simplest of ways, the love that is creative, the love that is imaginative, the love that builds the Church united in Christ.

Going back to the episode of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Jesus was able to make himself “need” the help of the Samaritan woman (and let’s remember it was highlihly unusual for a Gaililean to be speaking to a Samaritan – they were considered enemies or at least coming from very different backgrounds). And the Samaritan knew how to listen to Jesus.

Humility in our relationships is important. During a pilgrimage to Rome a few months ago, our group from Limerick Diocese attended an audience with Pope Francis. He spoke about the Body of Christ. He referred to the advice which the Apostle Paul gave the Corinthians and which we, too, must give one another: no one consider him/herself superior to the others. Francis continued: ‘How many people feel superior to others! We, too, often say as did that Pharisee in the parable: “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like that one, I am superior”. But this is bad, it should never be done! And when you are about to do it, remember your sins, those that no one knows, feel shame before God and say: “You, Lord, you know who is superior, I’ll keep my mouth shut”. And this is good. And always in charity consider ourselves each others’ limbs, that are alive, giving ourselves for the benefit of all (cf. 1 Cor 12:14).’

Let’s take away for this year’s Week of Prayer the simple invitation in every encounter to see ourselves as people who can learn from others, who “metaphorically” can offer a drink to each other, that see each other as a candidate for the unity that Jesus wanted to bring on earth.