Anniversary of Reformation an opportunity to heal divisions

Denis Bradley

Denis Bradley

Denis Bradley is a columnist for The Irish News and former vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Mary McAleese and her husband take Communion. 
Mary McAleese and her husband take Communion.  Mary McAleese and her husband take Communion. 

THE elephant in the Church is seldom even noticed these days. But apart from the elephant, Bishop Eddie Daly’s funeral was a very uplifting experience.

Every aspect of the liturgy was prayerful and consoling; the music, the readings, the sermon. It was solemn but not pompous, it was sad but not maudlin. It was attended by a scattering of the great and the good from Church and state but the atmosphere was of a well loved man being commended to God by a very diverse congregation of people amongst whom he had lived and worked.

The most poignant moment was when Bishop James Mehaffey was wheeled to the front of the church, accompanied by his wife and a nurse. He has been in hospital for some time but his frailness was not going to stop him being at the funeral of a long time friend. They had sojourned together in life, a familiar twosome during some of the worst years and horrific occasions of the ‘troubles’. There were other members of Protestant churches in the sanctuary. Amongst them were Archbishop Robin Eames and Rev William Morton now dean of St Patrick’s in Dublin. The Catholic bishop of Derry extended a very warm welcome to all those called ‘separated brethren’.

Most Catholics don’t notice or, if they do, don’t absorb the weight of the theological and political significance that on that day and on all such occasions, when it comes to communion time, to that moment when the communion host is offered to all those present, these clergy and whatever Protestant men and women present, are not recognised as full members of the Church of Christ. They are not offered the communion host.

Leaving aside the subtle and sometimes obscure theological differences, and walking in the shoes of the excluded communicant – is to feel and be treated as a less than authentic Christian, insulted and demeaned in the house of the Lord. At a time when most of the differences between Catholicism and the Reformed churches have either faded away or have been watered down into insignificance, this is the elephant that still stalks the altars.

It is even more significant in that it is not a quid pro quo. Protestant churches do not disbar Catholics from partaking of their Eucharists. When Mary McAleese, then president of Ireland, took communion in a protestant church in Dublin, it was the Catholics who were surprised or scandalised. And yet in any vox pop or study of theological definitions of ‘Eucharist’, there would be far more diversity and range of understanding among Catholics than between Catholic and Protestant.

This is the issue that will bring deep and lasting change or keep us entrenched in our differences – this is the issue that will bring an end to the centuries old fracture that has kept Christians apart or it will continue to be the bridge that we cannot get across. This is the issue that has been a scandal to the world. This is where the healing needs to take place.

In this small corner of the world, where we fought and killed each other, it would be crass to think anyone went out to kill over a theological definition and yet those differences informed and formed some of the atmosphere, tension, bitterness and hatred. We are perplexed and saddened by the seemingly intractable and worsening violence between Shia and Sunni across the Arab world and yet we are told that some of the hatred arises from theological differences that arose many centuries ago.

Which makes what happened in Germany recently all the more welcome. Next year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, has been welcomed by the German Catholic Bishops as an opportunity to heal the divisions and ‘the errors of the past, admitting our guilt and repenting on both sides for the past 500 years’. They also said that Martin Luther, the reformer who was excommunicated by Pope Leo X, should now be seen as ‘a religious pathfinder, Gospel witness and teacher of the faith’. The Bishops said that the Catholic Church had changed its view of the Reformation after having long seen its protagonists ‘in a negative, derogatory light’.

The German initiative, where the Reformation began, has not quite shot the elephant. But the Germans are a powerful people with a considerable amount of influence, so it might be a half decent start that they have admitted that churches are no places for elephants.