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Faith Matters

Edward O'Donnell: Journeying the pilgrim path, together

Christians need to be concerned about those who have not heard the Gospel, says Edward O'Donnell

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the leader of the Church of England, and Pope Francis have struck up a strong relationship, including agreeing a 'Common Declaration' in October 2016.

OCTOBER last, Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis signed a 'Common Declaration' which stated: "Wider and deeper than our differences are the faith that we share and our common joy in the Gospel. Christ prayed that his disciples may all be one, so that the world may believe."

For both our traditions - Catholic and Anglican - our being here together, united in praise and prayer to God, would, not that long ago, have been absolutely unthinkable.

While there is no escaping the fact that Christians of different denominations interpret Christ's message with varying emphases, yet today we can rejoice in recognising the unity that already exists - we believe in the same Christ.

Would that these words be inscribed on the hearts of all: "What unites us is greater than what divides us."

In the Acts of the Apostles we read of the martyrdom of St Stephen. Stephen is the Church's first martyr and we cannot think of him without thinking of today's many martyrs.

It is said that at no other time in the Church's history have there been so many martyrs. Their blood cries out to us. All of them Christians - Orthodox, Copts, Protestants and Catholics - and all confessed the one Christ.

Doesn't the witness of those who die for Christ urge us on to greater fidelity to him? Does not their 'ecumenism of blood' challenge us to have a greater 'ecumenism of spirit'?

While there is no escaping the fact that Christians of different denominations interpret Christ's message with varying emphases, yet today we can rejoice in recognising the unity that already exists - we believe in the same Christ

In one of the Roman catacombs there is a tombstone on which is carved a Christian image. It dates from about the year 300, a date which coincides with the persecution of Christians ordered by the Emperor Diocletian.

The carving is of a shepherd, with his staff, sitting in the shade of a tree, a lamb at his feet. This pastoral scene recalls the Lord as the Good Shepherd who leads and protects his faithful flock, "even though they walk through the darkest valley" (Psalm 23:4).

The staff, a symbol of the Lord's pastoral care, and the tree, a symbol of the Cross. The Gospel tells us that on that first Good Friday the friends of Jesus stood beneath the Cross, a scene recalling words from Psalm 57: "In the shadow of your wings I take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by" - beneath the wings of the cross all of us find shelter.

There is, however, an interesting detail in that carving which could easily go unnoticed; the shepherd is playing the panpipes.

The person who carved the image is seeking to suggest that the shepherd not only leads his flock, but he draws them with melodious music to follow him. His melody is truth. With the sweet music of truth he guides them to the life-giving "fresh and green... pastures... near restful waters" (Psalm 23:2).

The message, which is music to the ears of each of us, is that God has revealed his immense love in the crucified and risen Christ; this love saves us, and is at our side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free us.

The image of the shepherd, staff in hand, gives us an insight into the words of Jesus: "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6).

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows the way through the wilderness, he guides us with the melodious message of the Gospel, and leads us on through "the valley of darkness", the valley of death, to "the Lord's own house".

Jesus really is "the way". This realisation made such an impression on the first generation of Christians that they simply referred to themselves as "followers of the Way".

Whatever our particular denomination, we are pilgrims journeying, on a common path, alongside one another.

It was the reality of Resurrection that assured the early Christians, as it should us, that Jesus gave life a decisive direction; after his Resurrection he was like the scout returning to a group of lost and weary travellers with the good news: "I have found the way, follow me."

Of course there are those who say that to believe in Jesus as a Saviour is quite simply an act of desperation; they claim that to believe in a future beyond this world, to believe in eternal life is just 'pie in the sky'.

But we have heard the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ. "Trust in me", he says. Our trust is in a person.

Jesus invites us to trust "him", and reminds us that our faith is not in a collection of dogmas to which we merely consent, nor commandments which we just obey, nor in traditions that we slavishly hold on to.

Whatever our particular denomination, we are pilgrims journeying, on a common path, alongside one another.

Can we accept one another as journeying in good faith and leave aside suspicion and mistrust? Will we finally accept the seriousness of the counter-witness of division among Christians?

If there is one reality that should trouble our consciences, it is the immense number of people who have not received the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and who live without a community of faith to support them, without meaning or a goal in life; as "followers of the Way" we cannot be indifferent to this.

  • Fr Edward O'Donnell is parish priest of St Brigid's in Belfast and an ecumenical canon at St Anne's Cathedral in the city. This is abridged from his first sermon in the Church of Ireland cathedral as an ecumenical canon. He is the first Catholic to be appointed to the role.
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