One of the highlights of the West Belfast religious calendar is undoubtedly the Clonard Novena, which ends this Thursday. One of the highlights for me is the ecumenical day at the Novena, where Protestant ministers are invited to deliver the homilies.
As a Protestant in a mixed marriage, living in West Belfast, I appreciate the sentiment behind the day. Protestant ministers are invited to preach, a gracious acknowledgement of their own ministries as fellow Christians. For me, this emphasises the point that Protestants and Catholics have a lot to learn from each other.
In addition, it perhaps goes without saying that a novena – a session of nine days of petitions to the Virgin Mary – isn’t exactly the type of service that a lot of Protestants would be comfortable with. I think that these Protestant ministers’ willingness to accept the invitation also says a lot about respecting and honouring difference.
The theme of this year’s Novena is ‘Eucharist: Food for Life.’ The Novena booklet explains that the theme was chosen in light of the 2012 Eucharistic Congress, which will be held in Dublin.
For me, the Catholic prohibition on shared Eucharist makes ecumenical day at the Novena all the more poignant.
The ministers delivering the homilies look like full participants in the service, up until the time the Eucharist is distributed. Then, they receive a blessing from one of the Clonard priests, but must refrain from the bread and wine.
That said, I appreciated that during yesterday’s ‘ecumenical’ mass, the Clonard priests prayed not just for the Catholic Church but for all the churches. They also prayed that the day would come when all Christians could share the Eucharist.
Such specific prayers for the ‘other’ churches aren’t said every time I go to Clonard, although they have been said every time I have attended mass at Holy Cross, the Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor. Of course, Holy Cross has an explicitly ecumenical mission, so it is natural for them to pray in this way.
For me, these prayers are a simple way not just of respecting any Protestants who may be in attendance, but signalling to the Catholics who are present that Christian unity – however it might be defined – is important.
I think the practice of praying for ‘other’ churches should be extended more widely, to other Catholic and Protestant congregations. Pulpit exchanges, modelled so brilliantly at ecumenical day at the Novena, can also produce some important insights, as illustrated yesterday by Dennis Cooke’s sermon on forgiveness. Cooke, the retired principal of Edgehill Methodist College, also served as a minister in Woodvale during the early days of the Troubles.
Dennis Cooke on Forgiveness
Thanks to Clonard’s web operation, you can view the homilies from most of the Novena sessions online. Cooke’s sermon has not yet been posted on the Clonard site, but it has been posted to Clonard’s facebook page. You can access Cooke’s sermon through this page.
Cooke says that the Eucharist ‘proclaims the central truth of the gospel … it proclaims that Jesus died for us … and it proclaims true forgiveness … which we are called to show other people.’
Cooke hones in on forgiveness, illustrating his point by telling a story about the sentencing of the Shankill Butchers. He was a minister at Woodvale during that time, and on the afternoon of their sentencing he received a call that two of the prisoners had requested him for pastoral care.
Cooke says that he asked himself, ‘How was I to deal with this?’ He says that he still asks himself this. He says that while he couldn’t minimise the seriousness of their crimes, he also ‘strongly believed that God’s forgiveness is for all.’
Cooke’s point was not a wider political one about who should forgive atrocities committed during the Troubles, nor was it a point about how forgiveness should happen for everybody. Rather, his point was that God extends mercy and grace to all, and that every Christian is likewise called to practice this.
Cooke recognises that forgiveness will look different for different people. He says that it will be more ‘costly’ for some than for others. It will happen in different realms for different people – in families, workplaces, communities, and between the churches.
He concludes by telling those assembled at Clonard that:
‘By your invitation this morning, by reaching out to some of us in the Protestant churches – you are showing forgiveness.’
Like Cooke, I think that Clonard’s ‘reaching out’ is a good place to start.