It was the 20th such meeting that has taken place. They occur in different Religious Houses where there is a worshipping community that are prepared and able to host the meeting.
Fr Jonathan was sent on this course by two groups: one was the Vatican Secretariat for Religious and Consecrated Life. This body is very keen to promote inter-confessional and inter-Religious dialogue. The other was the Religious who belong to the Focolare Movement: they share the aim of the Movement that is to contribute to the fulfilment of the prayer of Jesus “That All may be One”.
In fact Fr Jonathan writing for himself says: “I had already been on another such meeting in 2015, sent also by those from the Secretariat of Rome, because it was the year for the Catholic Church of Consecrated Life and nobody else could attend from the Secretariat. That meeting took place at Mirfield where the Anglican Religious Community of the Resurrection have their home. It too was an inspiring meeting that was all for trying to heal the divisions within the Churches as members of Religious Orders.
This year the organiser, Fr Nicholas Stebbing CR wrote to me asking me to come, as there were very few Catholic Religious attending from the UK and Ireland. In the event I was the only Catholic from the UK and Ireland, although there were many Anglicans from the UK, and one from Ireland.
The 20th Interconfessional Conference of Religious took place from 24 to 29 August 2017 in Franconia, Bavaria at the Schwanberg where there is a lively community of Lutheran Nuns who live according to the spirit of St Benedict. They sing the Divine Office in Germany quite beautifully, with nobody dominating the music. The community is quite near Wurzburg.
There were roughly 60 of us present and among us men and women religious who were Lutheran, Evangelical Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic. Countries represented were USA, France, Belgium, Sweden, England, Northern Ireland, Germany, Greece, Spain, Switzerland, India, Czech Republic, Australia, Malta and Italy.
More than once it was as though a smaller version of Pentecost was taking place among us: the Spirit seemed to hang over the whole group not only in Church during the Divine Office and Eucharists, but also during our meetings. After a final gathering on the last evening, Monday 28 August when we shared a prayerful moment there was as full a silence as anyone will ever feel. It seemed as if the Holy Spirit was taking us into the life of the Trinity as many seemed to become one. The first Pentecost there was a rushing wind and tongues of fire: here, silent full contemplation, and somehow there was Mary the mother of God among the disciples.
The theme, background and context of the Conference was the 500th Anniversary of the start of the Reformation with Martin Luther. A foundation talk was given by Sister Adelheid, a Lutheran sister whose monastery in Hanover is inspired spiritually both by St Ignatius of Loyola and Luther. It was entitled surprisingly “Ignatius of Loyola and Luther – the discovery of a spiritual relationship.” But then we should not be too surprised that after 500 years we can actually see with the eyes of Love what probably could not be seen easily by Christians in the intervening centuries. Did not Jesus say in Matthew’s Gospel: “This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” (Matt 13: 13).
The conference was a joyful experience of light and love that was enhanced by the openness and straight forward goodness of the participants, we had come there to learn and share with others from other denominations in Religious Life, to get to know each other, and in so doing make a contribution to build a more united Church and world. The mystery of it all is that the denominational differences fade away when you meet the other person who follows his or her charism; and furthermore the very same experience of God is had by each one in different ways. One of the Lutheran Bruderschaft (Brotherhood), Brother Christian said in a shared summing up of it all: “It was wonderful to be among people that you can trust!”
The conference undertook an ambitious project: to explore what effect Consecrated Life has on the Church. A foundation talk was given on the first day by Fr Conrad Scibberras MSP who works at the Vatican Secretariat for Consecrated Life. His talk was synthetic and short and gave some surprising insights. Gratitude should be the mark of all consecrated people, as their charisms reflect that the Spirit is still at work in the Church, protecting her and nurturing her in her needs. Every rule of each Order is merely an expression of the Gospel and a means of living the Gospel to the full. “Furthermore Consecrated persons are called to be ‘experts of communion’. In a polarized society, where different cultures experience difficulty in living alongside one another, it is possible to live as brothers and sisters. Besides being experts of communion, Consecrated persons are called to promote the ‘spirituality of
communion’ so that, as St John Paul II affirmed, they will be in the forefront of responding to: «the great challenge facing us in this new millennium: “to make the Church the home and the school of communion»”. (Novo Millenio Ineunte, 43).
In the language groups that met after this talk, the one point that everyone focussed on was “Being experts in Communion”, “The Spirituality of Communion”, and “Community” in general.
Visiting Wurzburg together on the Saturday bonded us together. It is the city of the Prince Bishop, and it was explained how this came about by our guides. As far as the Christian evangelisation of this area was concerned it all began with three Irish Monks Saints Kilian, Colman and Totnan, eventually martyred in 685. They are venerated to this day in the city. The city was ravaged during the 30 years’ war and the Swedish soldiers were the only enemy every to break into the castle. This area in Franconia is famous for its wine, and the vineyards are everywhere, beautifully cultivated. The city centre was also destroyed on 16 March 1945 by the British, just 5½ months before the 2nd world war ended. There were three waves of warplanes, and to perfection they performed their deadly task: the first lit up the whole area, high explosives (1,000 tons of bombs) blew off all the roofs of the buildings, and 300,000 incendiary bombs set up a hellish fire which could be seen 120 miles away. 4,000 were killed in 20 minutes and countless others wounded and traumatized for life. War is undeniably shocking, the innocent are slaughtered, and God must weep in heaven at the folly of humankind.
Later on we gathered in a large building run by a ‘kind of house Church’ called the Vineyard, with exceptionally good facilities. There we had a talk from Sr. Anna-Maria, the Lutheran Provincial of “Christ’s Brotherhood” or “Christusbruderschaft”, which simply echoed the talk given by Fr Conrad in many ways. The title was “The Contribution of the Religious Life to the Renewal of the Church” and she began by saying Religious are called to live the gospel authentically and then developed the theme. “The heart of it is that we must ask more deeply about our roots i.e. about the Gospel itself. The message of Jesus Christ is the source of renewal for us religious and for the whole church. Christ says in the Gospel: You are the salt of the earth. “What saltiness has he given us in our Religious Life in the past, and gives today?
Have we the freedom to strip off the ingrained conventions and live the original Gospel today? Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount that salt may lose its saltiness. No part of the Gospel is more under attack in our society than the message of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. And so our Society needs precisely this advice: that we can live as free men who are reconciled with God, with ourselves and with each other through the surrender of Jesus Christ on the Cross…We can do the Church no greater service than to listen to God and obey in the power of the Gospel. Religious orders are the original echo chambers of the Gospel.”
It was a bit like playing a game from the Sunday onwards. We had a whole day of silence, punctuated by three talks that were entitled “Devotional” talks. The silence was appreciated by some and not by others, but being true Religious we remained obedient: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). These talks were given by three different sisters.
• The first by Sister Ruth, superior of the Schwanberg Community; she spoke on the Present Moment as the essential to live the spiritual life of union with God. She based her talk on Psalm 34: 8 “Taste and see that the Lord is good. He is happy who seeks refuge in him”. Both St Benedict and Ignatius of Loyola emphasise how important it is to recognise the reality of God in the here and now with all our senses and to savour, celebrate and enjoy the awareness of God, his reality.”
• The second talk was given by Sister Paula Coulbois of Bouzey-la Forêt, a French Benedictine Sister of the Benedictine nuns of Our Lady of Calvary. She spoke of the Trinitarian Life: “We have, of course, all understood that ecumenism is absolutely not a question of absorption or uniformity, but more like training to play a huge musical score together, where everyone must give their own personal and irreplaceable note for the symphony to achieve its final beauty. Blessed be Thou, O Holy Spirit; you are at once our inner breath and the conductor of our orchestra.”
• The third was an Anglican Franciscan, Sister Gina Pizzey CSF, who gave a talk linked to the two famous icons of the Trinity: the coloured one of Andrei Rublev and a second version in which all the figures are dressed in white, written by a member of the Ecumenical community of Bosé in Italy. Sister Gina invited us to do a meditative exercise gazing at the icons (we were all given a coloured copy of each icon) “during which you would discover that someone else had entered the Trinitarian life in which you are engrossed; someone living or departed who reflects or has reflected in their life something of the humility and love you see before you …Recognise that as you make that prayer you are being caught up in a prayer that has reverberated within the Holy Trinity from all eternity: ‘May they all be one as we are one’. And ‘they’ are not just you and the brother or sister you find difficult, nor the Church, nor even just humankind, but all that has been created as the fruit of this circle of loving exchange – angels and archangels and all the powers of heaven, things animate and apparently inanimate, in time and eternity.”
These three talks were much appreciated in various ways: the last by Sister Gina was particularly welcomed, linked as it was to the other two.
That evening we had a barbecue with the sisters of the Schwanberg. The picture shows something of the event.
Afterwards we had Orthodox Vespers in Church with the two German Greek Orthodox sisters who in fact live in Greece.
On the final day it was the turn of Brother Jacob of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield to share with us something of the Anglican perspective of Religious life.
He was one of the youngest present along with Brother Aidan of Mucknell Abbey, an Anglican Benedictine.
Brother Jacob spoke about Tradition, wrestling with how it can remain authentic and supportive even in our confusing times.
There was a kaleidoscope of prayer, events, meetings, conversations, joy, and laughter as we mixed with each other and built relationships. I have memories of the sisters and brothers from Switzerland, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and the Benedictine
Brother Timotheus from Münsterschwarzach Abbey very close to the Schwanberg who has been coming to the C I R meetings for many years. These more casual encounters may have been the most valuable aspect of these 5 days together. Also it was good to meet my German friend Fr Paul Waldmüller OFM who I have known for many years as we meet at meetings of Religious who have discovered the Focolare Movement; the aim of the Focolare is “that all may be one”. His friend is Brother Timotheus who I discovered has been a monk since 1956 and has known the Focolare Movement and shared in its spirituality for most of his monastic life.
The whole conference was one in which we lived the pain of not being able fully to share our Eucharists with each other. Blessings were given and received both at the Lutheran Eucharist and the Catholic Masses. The suffering we share at this moment is the more acute as we formed day by day a living community of hope. The conference was in fact a prophetic experience. We really did feel this presence of the Holy Spirit of God, felt very sad to leave each other, and yet in the down to earth world in which we live, we must move forward on the journey of life as each finds it for himself or herself. The five days together was a foretaste of a future unity to which we Religious men and women will make our contribution.
It was poignant talking to Brother Thomas Durr of the difficulties he had with this issue. We recognised that somehow the pain would link us to the crucified and forsaken Christ on the Cross, and in that we would remain united in the resurrection because we are gathered in the name of Jesus and so truly have Jesus the Word of God among us. There is the Resurrection especially when we move on to love in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. I found the establishing of that relationship of mutual love with him one which will remain with me forever.
Finally we had a celebration on the Monday night, 28th August, our final evening together. There we learned that Fr Nicholas Stebbing CR who has been the successful and wise President of C I R for many years has decided to step down, though not completely. Alongside him was a splendid young, talented German Evangelical sister Miriam Zahn who has been involved for 20 years. She too will step down from the organising committee; these C I R meetings take place every two years and this year was the 19th such gathering. Presentations were made and congratulations and thanks passed to them both for all they have done for the cause of Unity, which is so close to the heart of Christ, for Unity reflects the first aspect of God as we proclaim in the Creed. Fr Nicholas confessed that being on C I R was one of the best jobs his superior had given him; and Sister Miriam told us that she felt belong to C I R and working for unity was “a vocation within a vocation” and that “I feel at home in every Christian Church”.