The Four Hs – A Reflection by John O’Toole

John O'Toole was National Ecumenical Officer (NEO) for the Catholic Bishops' Conference from January 2015 until he stepped down at the end of January this year.

CTE’s Jenny Bond writes “John O’Toole was National Ecumenical Officer (NEO) for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference from January 2015 until he stepped down at the end of January this year.  Having served on the English Anglican-Roman Catholic Committee (English ARC) since 2001 and serving as its Roman Catholic Co-secretary at the time of his appointment as NEO, he was both aware of the great achievements of working together and of dialogue and also recognised the difficulties in the way of  full visible unity. In his role John combined honesty with compassion, as well as with humility and humour. John is now Episcopal Vicar for Kent, carrying out most of the duties of an Auxiliary Bishop until the post is filled by the Holy See.”

John’s reflection is based on his homily for the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at Beda College, Rome, and was first published in the Beda Review.

The title for my reflection is Walking Together: Honesty, Humility & Humour but the fourth and most important H is the word Hope.  Pope Francis often refers to the ecumenical task as a “walking together on the way.” The recent agreed ARCIC statement (the Anglican Roman-Catholic International Commission) is entitled ‘Walking Together on the Way: Learning to be the Church – Local, Regional and Universal.’  Like a lot of Agreed Statements, it displays a lot of honesty and humility but without much sense of humour.  One Anglican reviewer from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican church, commented that “there is precious little joy in this ARCIC world” where walking together is a long journey and a hard slog as we stumble along “through the difficult terrain of a rapidly changing world, staring at the ground footsore and out of breath.”

It is important that we are realistic and that we don’t imagine that we don’t face real problems but by taking a wider, longer and deeper view we can, I think, be more positive and even joyful.  I recall the words St John Paul II used in his message for the new millennium that we should “remember the past with gratitude, live the present with enthusiasm and look forward to the future with confidence.”  Gratitude, enthusiasm and confidence are good Spirit-filled words and they remind us of something that we can so easily forget and that it is that unity is always a gift before it is a task.  Moreover, it is God’s gift before it is our task. It is above all a gift of God’s Spirit who, as the late Fr Jim Brand used to say, is a divine anti-crowbar.  Crowbars prise things apart but the Spirit draws people together.  The word ‘apostle’ means ‘one who is sent.’ When we use the word ‘apostle’ we tend immediately to think first of the 12 apostles but the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus himself as an ‘apostle’ (Heb 3:1).  The Church is apostolic not first because the 12 were sent but because Jesus was sent. He is the Apostle with a capital A. He then sent the Spirit who in turn sent the 12 and who continues to send us. We are apostles with a small a.  It is the Spirit who reminds us that Jesus came to gather together into unity the scattered children of God. That is his mission and ours. Mission is for unity and unity is for mission.

We remember the past with gratitude.

Many of us here are of an age to remember the days when ecumenism was a matter of conflict and competition before we moved through the other cs of co-existence, co-operation and commitment on the journey to communion. Saturday 13 April 2019 marked the 190th anniversary of the Catholic Emancipation Act.  The playwright John Osborne looked back in anger and Christians of all denominations need to look back in sorrow for how we treated each other in the past following the split in the Church at the Reformation. History is a good teacher of honesty and humility – and also of hope. It is good to recall (and retell) the story of our own diocese and the lay people, religious, deacons, priests and bishops who prayed and worked for unity among the Christian family, often perhaps despite opposition, resistance or indifference and who should not be forgotten. We are reaping what others have sowed and we are called in our turn to sow seeds that others will reap in the future. As St Paul says: “it is all the same who does the sowing or the watering.  It is God who gives the increase.” (1 Cor 3:6). 

We live the present with enthusiasm. 

The root of the word enthusiasm means ‘in God’ or ‘God is within’ and so it is the Spirit of God who gives us the gifts of life, energy and enthusiasm.  It is the same Spirit who gives us the gifts of honesty, humility and humour as we walk together on the way with our Christian brothers and sisters.  Pope Francis’s rich ecumenical (and indeed interreligious) experience when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires taught him to value friendships not structures and partnerships not rivalries.  It is where relationships have built up trust that the fruits of honesty, humility and humour grow and flourish.  I was privileged to work for five years very closely with my colleagues from the other main Christian denominations who served as National Ecumenical Officers and I can honesty say that the relationships between us was so strong that any one of us could represent all of us.  That is a great compliment to our predecessors who established and developed close and strong relationships over the years. When I asked my colleagues about what part humour plays in their own tradition. Major David Evans, from the Salvation Army, replied that we couldn’t do this ministry if we didn’t laugh, both about ourselves and with others.  He added a true story.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, when meeting Fred Coutts, the then General of the Salvation Army, said he had never met an unhappy Salvationist, to which the General replied, “You can’t have met the ones I’ve met.”  Humour is able to put things context, to be able to laugh at ourselves and not to take ourselves too seriously.  We should take the serious things lightly and the light things seriously, as Oscar Wilde wisely reminded us.   Jesus himself used a lot of irony in his teaching – although I think it is a shame that, though the Gospels tells us that Jesus wept they don’t say so explicitly that Jesus laughed. He would have grown up learning the wisdom and humour of his Jewish tradition where humour plays a key part in teaching and learning.  My favourite line which I heard many years ago from a lady rabbi was: “you can make a fool of me once.  The second time I am a fool.”

During the ecumenical commemoration of the Lutheran Reformation in 2017, I was struck by a phrase used by Bishop Martin Lind, the Lutheran bishop in the UK, who co-preached with Archbishop Bernard Longley, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham in a memorable service at St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, where I was once fortunate to be the Dean.  He said we Christians should cultivate a ‘holy jealousy’ for what we admire in another Christian tradition that we do not see so clearly in our own.  It is a jealousy for holiness – and just as the walls of division do not rise up to heaven so holiness cuts across all denominations and traditions.  Today this recognition of the gifts of other traditions is increasingly referred to as ‘receptive ecumenism’ – where the emphasis has shifted from the instinctive question “what do I have the others lack, that they need from me if I am to have unity with them?” to the better question “what do I lack that others have and that, with honesty and in faithfulness to my own tradition, I can learn and receive if I am to have unity with them?”  St Paul encouraged the early Christians to “always consider the other person to be better than yourself” (Rom 12:10) and St Benedict, in Chapter 72 his Rule, encourages his monks not to compete against each other but to compete in showing obedience to one another – outdoing each other in mutual esteem.

We look forward to the future with confidence. 

It is always wise when we are on a journey to keep our eyes on the destination.  So, what is the ecumenical destination we are journeying to?  Pope Francis spoke a while ago about three false models of communion which we must resist.  The first, he says, is to imagine that unity is something that we can achieve by our own efforts.  Rather, he says, it is instead a gift that comes from on high and always the work of the Spirit.  We are not able to achieve unity by ourselves, nor can we decide its forms and timing.  and it will come in the Spirit’s way and in the Spirit’s time.  Rather, our task is that of receiving this gift and making it visible to others. Secondly, unity is not uniformity.  Our different traditions, he said, are a wealth for and not a threat to the unity of the Church. Seeking to suppress this diversity is to counter the Holy Spirit who acts by enriching the community of believers with a variety of gifts. Thirdly, unity is not absorption – or being swallowed up and lost in one big blob, as somebody said to me recently.  Rather, no one would have to deny their own history of faith and the gifts of each traditions will be riches to be shared with all.  St John Paul II famously said in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That they may be One) on the Catholic Church’s commitment to Christian Unity that dialogue towards unity is “not simply an exchange of ideas ..[but] always an ‘exchange of gifts’” (par 28).  Having identified three false models of communion Pope Francis wisely doesn’t give a true model of communion since he says the destination is in God’s hands.  Our task is to walk the journey with trust and hope (the fourth and most important H). 

What gives you hope on the ecumenical journey? Which brings me finally to my lamp.  In October 2019 we celebrated the canonisation of Blessed John Henry Newman – with a strong ecumenical presence and flavour.  St John Henry Newman was a leading Anglican in the nineteenth century who did much to promote the Catholic tradition within the Church of England he was received into full communion with the Catholic Church on 9 October 1845.  He always dated his own conversion to his acceptance of evangelical Christianity when he was a fifteen-year old and was always grateful for all he had received within the Anglican Church. In one of his famous hymns, Lead kindly light, he speaks of faith not as a leap in the dark but as a step into the light.  But, for Newman, faith is a lumen not a lux, a lamp rather than a blinding light.   Because it is a lamp, none of us are able to see the distant scene but God gives us just enough light to take the next step on the journey of faith – and if we take that step then there is light for the next step.  I like this spirituality of ‘one step enough for me’ and I find it a very good image for our ecumenical journey and for our journey of faith as a whole.

Keep thou my feet, I do not ask to see the distant scene, 
one step enough for me.  

 John O’Toole will be succeeded in September 2020 by Fr Jan Nowotnik, a priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, who has been appointed by The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales as their National Ecumenical Officer.