May 2024

True ecumenism calls us to ongoing commitment and dialogue

While occasions of community grief and trauma bring us to together in prayer, I believe they fall far short of the Gospel imperative to bring us into deep dialogue and ecumenical practice, writes Congregational Leader Sister Catherine McCahill.

“The fourth commandment” (I know that, or so I thought) “honour your mother and your father.” Then I realised that my fellow student was referring to our third commandment, “Keep holy the Sabbath.”

This took place in 1993 when I was studying in an ecumenical theological college. I thought that I knew a bit, maybe enough, about other Christian churches. I had imagined that most of our beliefs were the same. Now I was being asked to re-evaluate my understandings. Even something as fundamental as the numbering of the 10 commandments was apparently different.

Over the ensuing years as we studied together, learning from our lecturers from different Christian traditions and from each other, I was deeply enriched in this ecumenical environment.

Reflecting on that experience and my current experience of my Christian Church, I am sad that ecumenical engagement and dialogue remains peripheral. For many Christians, it is simply not part of their prayer, worship, study or engagement. Most of us are content to remain secure in our own communities and there is little encouragement to engage with the other.

Of course, there are occasions of community grief or trauma, which bring us to together in prayer. In Sydney recently, we experienced that one ordinary Saturday afternoon after the stabbings in a shopping centre at Bondi Junction where seven people died. The community needed to express its grief and stand together in a commitment toward healing. The prayer vigil was ecumenical and interfaith.

Just a few days later, the Assyrian Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel was stabbed while preaching in his home church in Wakeley. The riotous response was both unexpected and unprecedented in its intensity.

Religious leaders of all churches and faiths were as nimble in their unequivocal condemnation of the anger and ideology that apparently fuelled such behaviour.

In a Facebook post on 21 April, the Bishop of the Maronites in Australia, Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay, said: “As people of faith, we respect one another’s religions and we must all ensure that no one feels intimidated when attending their places of worship”.

The New South Wales Faith Affairs Council delivered a similar message, after a gathering of many faith leaders: “As faith leaders representing the diverse religious communities of New South Wales, we stand united against all forms of hate and violence.”

Thankfully, these events and the ecumenical and interfaith response are rare in our community. As such, they are newsworthy. However, these displays of cooperation and goodwill, in my opinion, fall far short of the Gospel imperative to bring our Christian churches into deep dialogue and ecumenical practice.

Image: supplied by NCCA.

In the Australian Christian Church calendar, we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity from 12-19 May this year.

Inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan, the theme was chosen by an ecumenical working group from Burkina Faso: “You shall love the Lord your God … and your neighbour as yourself” (Lk 10:27).

A suite of resources is available on the website for the National Council of Churches in Australia. The image used is taken from the painting Good Samaritan in Tibet by artist Frank Wesley

These resources are based on the international material produced by the World Council of Churches. They have been adapted for use in Australia by Father Gerard Kelly and Rev Deacon Sandy Boyce.

Ecumenism is a source of, and nourishment for, neighbourly love. The Gospel of Jesus repeatedly invites his followers to seek out, find, and act with compassion towards the wounded and outcast members of society.

We are acutely aware of the needs of our neighbours close to home – victims of domestic violence and abuse, families and individuals trapped in the cycle of poverty and homelessness, victims of racism and prejudice – and in so many corners of the global community – wars and famines, natural disasters, to name but a few.

While our Christian churches and faith communities do respond to these situations, ecumenical and interfaith cooperation is less evident. This week, I find myself wondering about this.

Of course, there are historical reasons. Delivering the homily at the Ecumenical Vespers in Rome at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which takes place in January in Europe, Pope Francis categorically condemns such excuses: “Only love which does not appeal to the past in order to remain aloof or to point a finger, only that love which in God’s name puts our brothers and sisters before the ironclad defence of our own religious structures will unite us.”

This “love” will ensure that we pray together, and together serve our neighbours: “This is the path before us: journeying together and serving together, giving priority of place to prayer. For when Christians grow in the service of God and neighbour, we also grow in reciprocal understanding.”

For me, this week is an invitation to renew my commitment to dialogue and collaboration with other Christian and faith communities. Only then can I live what I proclaim – by God’s grace, I want to be a good neighbour.

To mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the NCCA will hold an online lunchtime prayer meeting and reflection on Thursday 16 May 2024 at 12.30pm AEST. For further details, click here 




Catherine McCahill

Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She has served on the Congregation's leadership team since 2011. Catherine has been involved in education for more than 30 years, in secondary schools and, more recently, at a tertiary level in biblical studies and religious education.

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