During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Benedictine monks at Holy Cross Monastery in Rostrevor, Co. Down, regularly shared short reflections or quotations on Facebook and Twitter. They also posted the full text of homilies preached at the monastery on the two Sundays framing the week: 18 and 25 January.
I watched the 25th January service on the Holy Cross webcam, and listened to Br Thierry emphasise the importance of repentance not only as a means to growth in an individual’s life, but also as a means to Christian unity.
Crucially, Br Thierry spoke about repentance in one’s own tradition. He did not advocate a self-righteous position that implies we sit back and wait for Christians from other traditions to repent of their sins.
In my own studies of religion on the island of Ireland, I have discovered that it is rare for Christians to engage in self-critique, self-criticism, and most of all – repentance for the sins of their own tradition.
As I have written previously, Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) has been one of the exceptions to this rule. And while I think their work in this area was tremendously helpful, it was not always accepted or appreciated by others within Northern Irish evangelicalism.
So I appreciated the way Br Thierry spoke about repentance as a positive action:
Allow me to say that in our spiritual traditions, the call to repent has rarely been seen as a cause of rejoicing. When we hear the words repentance, penance, conversion, we do not think first of good news but more of sackcloth and ashes, of humiliation and shame.
… Like the prodigal son in St Luke’s Gospel, repentance happens when we realise that because of our words, deeds and decisions we have strayed from the path of life. Repentance is the result of our awareness that shame, guilt, isolation, disconnection from God, from others and from ourselves are not our homeland but a place of exile and death. Repentance is precisely the decision which leads us back to where we belong, to God who waits for us with hope and love.
Finally, his words on why repentance is a ‘sign of hope’ for Christian unity should give us plenty to think about in the year ahead:
Since today is the last day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it is important for us to remember that the call to repentance and conversion is addressed to all Christian denominations, ours included. The visible unity of all Christians will not be the result of all others repenting and joining the Catholic Church. We all have to repent and we are all engaged – we should be all engaged – in an on-going conversion to Christ and his Gospel.
In his Encyclical Letter on Commitment to Ecumenism, St John Paul II reminds us that the Second Vatican Council “calls for personal as well as communal conversion”, adding: “there is an increased sense of the need for repentance: an awareness of certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusal to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence of condemning the ‘other side’, of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption (…). No Christian community can exempt itself from” the call to continual reformation (UUS 15-16). In our lives and in the lives of our Churches, there are many attitudes and actions which need to be evangelised, to be converted to the Gospel. For us to continue to cling to them is to condemn ourselves to whither away and to die.
The call to repentance, conversion and reformation is a sign of our hope that with God everything is possible.