Ecumenical Meeting of Bishops

"The Eucharist: Mystery of Communion"

The presence of Christ amongst us, a way to grow in unity

brendan leahy

For many years, an ecumenical meeting of bishops has been taking place under the umbrella of the Bishops Friends of the Focolare Movement. Each time, all agree that it’s a unique, unforgettable meeting! A chance to deepen fraternity and dialogue, indispensable gifts that draw us closer to the 'trinitarian' and visible unity of the Church that Jesus prayed for. It might seem daring, therefore, to have chosen so delicate a subject ecumenically-speaking as The Eucharist as the theme for the 33rd meeting last November. Among the many churches present, were the Syrian-Orthodox and Armenian-Orthodox Churches and other Orthodox denominations; the Anglican Communion; the Lutheran-Evangelical Church, the Methodist and Roman Catholic Churches; a gathering of deep significance and enrichment, as the following interview with Bishop Brendan Leahy, Catholic Bishop of Limerick in Ireland will testify:

GEN'S: Above all, can you tell us your impression of this meeting of bishops from different churches? Many people today refer to the 'winter' of ecumenism? Do these meetings point to possible ways forward?

It’s the first time I have participated at this meeting since I became a Bishop. What impressed me was how solid the initiative is. We were 40 bishops from 24 countries, some who have been coming for many years and others, like me, for the first time. And yet I felt 'at home'. This was not like other ecumenical meetings that I attend. I found myself immersed in a very special reality, belonging to a family which, for many years, has provided a charismatic 'space' for the soul of ecumenism to breathe and grow. Although there were 40 of us present, in fact there were many others too. A good number of other Church Leaders and Bishops sent messages because they were unable to attend in person. In particular, our thoughts could not but go to the Syrian-Orthodox bishop from Aleppo, Monsignor Gregorias Yohanna Ibrahim, who used to attend these meetings regularly; he was kidnapped about 18 months along with the Metropolitan Orthodox Boulos Yazigi, also a friend of the Focolare Movement. We have not had any news of them since.

The impression that stays with me is that of a net spread over the world, which naturally prompts the question: how come a group of bishops are happy to spend a whole week together just for the simple purpose of creating a space for Christ to live among them through their mutual love? One Catholic bishop told me that he tries at all costs never to miss these meetings, because they are the most profound and 'mystical' experience of the whole year. It truly seems that God has a plan for this reality. Despite the inevitable difficulties, I believe that the reason there is such faithfulness to this annual appointment is because, through the atmosphere of mutual love, it’s possible to both glimpse and experience, this presence of Jesus alive in our midst, as the answer to many questions concerning ecumenism.

GEN'S: Broadly speaking, it’s how we understand the Eucharist that remains a point of division and often opposition, between the Churches. Yet, your meeting, specifically dedicated to the theme of the Eucharist, seems to have been a culminating point of unity. Can you explain how this has come about and why?

We were all well aware of the Church's suffering regarding our understanding of the Eucharist. It’s a deep wound that is a reminder to us of the deep longing for unity felt by so many Christians. On this topic, the Anglican Bishop Trevor Williams who was also taking part at this meeting for the first time, shared his experience with me. He had noticed that even though the Liturgy was celebrated by a different Church each morning, which we all attended, he did not experience the suffering he usually felt at not being able to receive communion. Asking himself, why that should be, he thought that it might be because in that atmosphere of mutual love, the suffering was wrapped in the presence of Jesus who fills the emptiness that would otherwise be felt. Deep down, we said to one another, there is a sense of 'sacramentality' in the presence of Jesus among people when they make it a priority to truly love one another. I believe this is the great contribution that Chiara Lubich has made along the road to ecumenism, and why, at this meeting centred on the Eucharist, we have experienced a deeper existential communion among us.

GEN'S: The President of the Movement, Maria Voce, highlighted key moments in the experience of Chiara Lubich relating to Jesus in the Eucharist. How was her talk received?

First of all I must say that the atmosphere in the hall while Maria Voce was speaking was one of openness and welcome. She explained that she had not come to bring us a theological talk on the Eucharist, but rather Chiara's personal experience with Jesus in the Eucharist. This helped me to understand that each one of us too has our own experience of the Eucharist and this is what we must share with one another; if it’s authentic and rooted in our own tradition, it will have much to offer theologically to our ecumenical journey. Maria Voce's talk was welcomed by everyone because she transmitted the experience of a charismatic figure through whom the Holy Spirit has something to say to the Church (and to all Churches). Everyone was able to say that they felt this experience as 'theirs'.

GEN'S: Bishops of different denominations spoke about the reality of the Eucharist within their own Churches. So the question that spontaneously comes to mind is: what contributions can our various churches bring to enrich one another in a mutual 'exchange of gifts'?

I really like something that the Rumanian-Orthodox Metropolitan, Serafim Joanta said: he said that in the mystery of the Eucharist "there exist different aspects of a unique reality, seen from many different viewpoints". Our task is to learn "inclusion" rather than 'exclusion". As Maria Voce traced the journey Chiara Lubich made through her relationship with the Eucharist, I became aware that every Church has walked its own path, as it were, with Jesus in the Eucharist

For many centuries now, each Church has gone ahead on their own. Undoubtedly, there have been moments of light and shadow, of gain and loss in understanding the mystery of the Eucharist. Now, however - as we are doing, for example, with the ARCIC document on Mary - the time has come for each Church to "re-receive" the Eucharist according to its own tradition. The Church today is characterised by openness towards each other and the tension towards the ut omnes unum sint so it’s time to help one another reciprocally to discover the treasures hidden within each Church for the good of Christianity as a whole.

Anglican Bishop, David Murray, when speaking of the Eucharist in the faith and liturgy of the Anglican Communion, explained that everything they believe about the Eucharist is defined by the Liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer of 1662. He quoted verses attributed to Queen Elizabeth I, which sound beautifully lyrical in the English language; they put the Word into relief, and its role in the transformation of the elements of bread and wine in the Eucharist: "Twas God the word that spake it, He took the bread and brake it; And what the word did make it; That I believe, and take it
Over the centuries, the Bishop explained, an over individualistic understanding of the Eucharist and its ministry had developed and that it took the Liturgical renewal of the twentieth century to regain the communitarian sense that belongs to the concept of ministry and mission that is linked to the Eucharist.

GEN'S: The bishops were able to meet Pope Francis. Can you tell us something about this audience, the rapport you built, and some of the impressions of those who were there?

It was a wonderful because it was the first time he had met us as the ecumenical group of bishop friends of the Focolare. In his address, he wanted to reaffirm what had been said in the initial presentation by three representatives of our group. He wished to emphasize the value of seeing a clear witness of unity among Christians, an outward expression of deep mutual esteem and respect and, above all, fraternity amongst us, in our way of dealing with problematic issues. He encouraged us to think of the rich experience we had lived together as a treasure, urging us to go ahead along this path. When he had finished, instead of lining up to greet him, he came over to be with us, and took his time speaking to each one of us. When we finally thanked him with our applause at the end, with great simplicity he applauded us too, almost like a sign of the fraternity between us. Afterwards, the bishops were full of enthusiasm. They had found in Francis a true brother with whom they could immediately build a relationship.

GEN'S: During your meeting there was a sense of anticipation towards the forthcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Can you tell us about any thoughts and suggestions that emerged?

You may be aware that in 2013, the Lutheran-Catholic Commission on Unity published a document entitled: From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017. In a brief presentation during the audience with Pope Francis, Bishop Kreuse, who as President of the Lutheran World Federation had signed The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999, said to the Pope: "As you once reminded us … whoever does not go forwards stands still, so we too want and must continue to make progress, towards each other along the road to unity". He gave us a foretaste of the forthcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation as the opportunity to manifest together to the world with greater clarity and impact, our unity in Christ. Greeting him personally, the Pope then engaged in warm conversation with him.

We look forward to all that is ahead. More recently, representatives from the German Evangelical-Lutheran Church and the Ecumenical Commission of the Catholic Bishops' Conference in Germany, also made a visit to Rome. They were invited to an Audience with Pope Francis on 18th December. Concerning the Commemoration of 5 centuries since the Reformation, the Pope said: "it will be an occasion for Lutherans and Catholics to share for the first time in the same ecumenical commemoration throughout the world, not so much in a triumphalist way, but as a profession of our common faith in God One and Three. The heart of the event will be the prayer in common and the intimate request for forgiveness from the Lord Jesus Christ, for our sins towards each other, as well as the joy of walking the path of ecumenism together [...] May this commemoration of the Reformation encourage us, with God's help and sustained by His Spirit, to achieve further steps towards unity without simply limiting ourselves to the point we have reached so far."

GEN'S: Can you tell us what you are taking away with you from these days at Castelgandolfo for life in your own Diocese and for the Catholic Church in your country, given the current situation?

I am taking away the desire to give priority to remaining in contact with my fellow bishops of other Churches. It’s all too easy to get lost in urgent matters that arise in the portion of the Church assigned to us. I still remember the words of Bishop Klaus Hemmerle many years ago who observed that there was a risk of becoming ever busier, ever a flock that was growing 'smaller'. Participating in this ecumenical meeting has reminded me how essential it is to be in touch with people of other Churches, to go out, to see the world from their perspective, to allow myself to travel on the road to conversion with others who are different to me.

Something else I will take away is the 'pact' of mutual love that we made together near the end of our meeting at the Greek Monastery of St. Nilo at Grottaferrata. The words of the pact are a programme that can be lived out at every level of the Church: "United in the name of Jesus we promise for the whole of our lives to seek first and foremost to love one another as Jesus has loved us. Give us, Father, your Spirit so that we might know how to make ourselves one to the point of bearing one another's crosses, sharing one another's joys and yearning, so that the world may believe".

Interview by Enrique Cambón