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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 97 (Suppl.), April 2005 


“Ecumenism of Holiness” 

Pilgrimage at the beginning of the Third Millennium 


H.E. Msgr. Séamus HEGARTY

Bishop of Derry, Ireland


It is important to note at the beginning of this presentation that when I speak about ecumenism in Ireland I make a distinction between the ecumenical experience in the Republic of Ireland and the experience in Northern Ireland. These experiences are different because of the predominant religious, social, historical, political and cultural circumstances which prevail in both places.

The second introductory point is that it seems to me from many visits to Germany that ecumenical relations are much more developed here than they are in Ireland, either North or South. I venture to suggest that one reason for this is that, here, two main churches predominate, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church. In Ireland, by contrast, we have the Catholic Church and a fragmented grouping in the Protestant Church – Church of Ireland (Anglican), Presbyterian, Methodist and some smaller, non-aligned denominations. Openness to ecumenical outreach or joint participation varies significantly from one group to the other. Consequently, my experience as a priest and as a bishop in the area of ecumenism may be significantly different from yours.

In the relatively short time available to me I must confine myself to very broad and general observations. I shall be pleased to respond to any questions, further clarifying matters for you.

The Republic of Ireland experience

In the Republic of Ireland, in excess of 90% of the total population is Catholic. On an ecumenical level relationships are good, in particular with the main non-Roman Catholic denomination being the Church of Ireland (= Anglicans). There is positive interaction between the leaders of both churches, joint initiatives of a social and cultural nature are undertaken, regular meetings are held to discuss issues of common interest, including Scripture, theology and pastoral issues. Joint meetings for prayer together also take place, but attendance at Catholic liturgical celebrations, especially Mass, is infrequent, and when this does occur, a certain discomfort is sometimes evident.

Efforts to advance the ecumenical experience in the Republic must address a number of issues which continue to be problematic. Eucharistic theology, spirituality and practice continue to be serious issues, which can lead to considerable polarisation. The Church of Ireland (Anglican) is open to extending ‘Eucharistic hospitality’ to communicants of other Christian denominations who attend their services. Catholics do not reciprocate this practice which Anglicans find difficult to accept and disappointing. A second problem which was much more contentious in the past arises from mixed marriages. In more recent times the Catholic Church has modified its position on a) the form of marriage and b) the Catholic upbringing of children. The latter included, in the past, an obligation on the Catholic party to a mixed marriage; now it is a strong exhortation and a promise to do what is possible within the unity of the marriage relationship. This change has gone some distance towards easing tensions and creating more positive relationships. The third issue which continues to cause discomfort is the denominational nature of education. Formerly, the vast majority of schools in the Republic at primary and post-primary level were Catholic. Protestants had their own schools, owned and managed by them. While occasionally there was mixed attendance at these schools it was exceptional and small. The State sector schools, formerly very few, at post primary level, catered for all denominations but the vast majority of pupils were Catholic. In more recent times, with the provision of more State schools, there is a greater denominational mix in these schools. In summary, ecumenical relationships in the Republic of Ireland are good. Specifically on the issue of pilgrimages, ecumenical co-operation is generally not in evidence. Where it exists, it is on the most modest of scales. Pilgrimages do not constitute a significant component in the faith expression of the non-Catholic community. There is little common ground or potential for ecumenism in pilgrimages.

The Northern Ireland experience

So far, I have given you a general overview of the state of ecumenism in the Republic of Ireland. I do so from the perspective of having served as a diocesan bishop for 13 years in one of the border dioceses in the Republic of Ireland (1982-1994). In 1994 I was transferred to the diocese of Derry in Northern Ireland. Politically, culturally, socially and ecumenically, the circumstances are very different and it took me some time to adjust to what is a very challenging assignment. What I have said about the Republic of Ireland applies to a greater or more often to a lesser extent in Northern Ireland. Ecumenism is not nearly as well developed in the North – in fact, quite the contrary.

When one reflects on the ecumenical experience in Northern Ireland, one must understand that very often the alignment between politics and religion is close among certain sectors of the population. Considering that Presbyterians constitute the majority Protestant grouping in Northern Ireland, they exercise an important political and religious influence. Even within Presbyterianism there is considerable variation. The attitude to Catholicism among Presbyterians varies from a tolerant understanding and Christian perspective on one hand, to belief that the Catholic Church is not Christian on the other. In such a situation the development of ecumenical relationships is at best difficult and often unsuccessful.

The Ecumenism of Holiness is, on occasions, perceptible at different levels among the churches but, generally, to a minimal extent. At the individual level, or, in a local community, relationships can be good and positive but, even there, prayer in common may be problematic. Some non-Roman Catholic ministers are zealous in this regard and give exemplary witness. They often encounter significant impediments over which they have not control. When it comes to attending a Catholic liturgy, a significant number of Presbyterians have particular difficulty and will not attend.

On 10 October 1989 the Holy Father John Paul II addressed the leaders of different religious groupings in Jakarta on his visit to Indonesia. In that address he emphasised the absolute necessity of dialogue. He elaborated on this point by outlining the incremental stages or gradations of dialogue.

Before all else, dialogue is a manner of acting, an attitude and a spirit which guides one’s conduct. It implies concerns, respect and hospitality towards the other. This includes:

- dialogue of life – where people try to live in an open and

neighbourly spirit, sharing their joys and concerns, their

human problems and preoccupations.

- dialogue of deeds – collaboration for integral development of

all citizens.

- dialogue of theological exchange – partners aim to grow

in understanding of their respective religious heritages

and to appreciate each other’s spiritual values.

 - dialogue of religious experience – people rooted in their

own religious traditions share their spiritual riches such as

prayer and contemplation.

In Ireland, north and south, we are still struggling with the lower stages of the Holy Father’s schema. Since the concept of pilgrimage is relevant in the context of this Congress any ecumenical experience in Ireland in this regard is extremely limited. It is worth noting that the political uncertainty in Ireland over the past three decades has resulted, in significant part at any rate, in the polarisation of the religious denominations. Precisely because politics and religion were and often remain closely aligned, this has made difficult the effort to reach a political solution which would cherish all the people of Northern Ireland equally, with justice and with human, civil and political rights. Not least do we have to cope with the phenomenon that some people in public life come to power and retain power by exploiting suspicions arising from ecumenical engagement. To overcome this is a challenge with which we continue to struggle from the Christian perspective. The Catholic people do not have to defend attending ecumenical engagements – many Protestants do. By contrast, many Catholics might require a defensive position if they attend an engagement regarding policing – Protestants would not.


Finally, specifically, on the theme of Ecumenism of Holiness in the context of pilgrimage, if this is to be advanced at the beginning of the third Millennium we are entering virgin territory. This has not been widespread practice at community or on an inter-church level. Initially, perhaps relatively few, even among the mainstream churches, may wish to engage. There are many other steps to be gone through in the ecumenical process according to the Holy Father’s incremental stages, outlined in Jakarta, before we can hope to have a meaningful ecumenical encounter on pilgrimage together in Ireland, North or South.