So when I went to the ecumenical service at St Bernard’s Catholic Church in Glengormley on Tuesday evening, I wasn’t really expecting to be excited and encouraged by what happened there.
Neither, apparently, was the priest who officiated at the service, the second instalment of a new initiative called ‘A New Step in Eucharistic Fellowship: In Joyful Hope.’
As he surveyed the crowd of between 400 and 500 that had gathered, he admitted that he had been anxious all morning and worried that hardly anyone would show up.
I can identify with the priest’s fears. Most Christian unity services that I’ve attended attract a small, aging group of dedicated ecumenists. Such events can convey a wonderful sense of fellowship and perseverance, and I usually come away with admiration for folks’ patient dedication to the cause.
But Tuesday night, billed as an ‘inter church parish mass’ to celebrate the feast of the conversion of St Paul and mark the end of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was another matter altogether. The event had attracted a much, much larger number of people than I expected, both young and old.
The people of St Bernard’s had pulled out all the stops. The folk choir and soloists led us in a lively sung liturgy that managed both to celebrate the fellowship of those there, but at the same time to lament the differences that remain.
This was accomplished through hymns such as ‘Come on and Celebrate’ and the reading from Ezekiel 36:24-28, where God promises to remove our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. This was juxtaposed to the reading from I Corinthians 1:10-13, where Paul condemns the early Christians for the divisions among themselves.
The Gospel message was about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, a classic passage about breaking down the barriers between people who are expected to be enemies.
Clergy from the Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist churches were prominent in the service through reading scripture passages and leading prayers.
Mass was celebrated in the usual way, with the ‘non-Catholics’ encouraged to go forward and receive a blessing from the priests.
I was surprised by the numbers and energy of those participating in the service – and the architecture and atmosphere at St Bernard’s was such that it felt as if everyone in the pews, as well as around the altar, was participating in a meaningful way.
The recent lack of enthusiasm about Christian unity has been described as an ‘ecumenical winter.’ I don’t necessarily think that what happened Tuesday at St Bernard’s can be considered the first signs of a renewed, ecumenical Spring.
But I think it does demonstrate that there may be more people than we think who care deeply about the divisions between the churches, and wish to see them healed in a sensitive way that honours and respects all Christian traditions.
By focusing on the issue of shared communion/Eucharist, I think In Joyful Hope can provide people with a meaningful rallying point for further engagement with each other. If that engagement extends beyond the initial events associated with the initiative, we as yet may see more signs of an ecumenical Springtime on this island.
The next event is Monday 7 March in St Mark’s Newtownards.