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from issue no. 06 - 2005

Our Lady and the path to unity

There is a new episode in the dialogue with the Anglican Communion. The united text on the Mother of Jesus, Mary: grace and hope in Christ, fruit of the work of the International Catholic-Anglican Commission, can help not only the theological and ecclesiological debate, but also a shared practice of popular piety

by Giovanni Cubeddu

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in front of Westminster Cathedral, London

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in front of Westminster Cathedral, London

In May the latest document of ARCIC (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) was presented under the title Mary: grace and hope in Christ. The document is an important step in the ecumenical dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics. We spoke about it with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminister.

Your Eminence, why a text on Mary now? What is its importan­ce in the dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics?
CORMAC MURPHY- O’CONNOR: Mary has had an important place in the life and the liturgy both of the Anglicans and of the Catholics. But the two Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, as well as some forms of Marian devotion in the Catholic Church in the past, were reasons for strong disagreement between Anglicans and Catholics. Thus, between our Churches, any sincere dialogue – which ARCIC has always promoted – would have had to look at the question sooner or later. The other reason for choosing to speak of Mary consists in the fact that, more than the disagreements about Her, the disagreement about authority in the Church emerged. I believe that we had first of all to clarify our different conceptions of authority in the Church – as we did in 1999 with the declaration The gift of Authority – before we could move on to consider the dogmas expressly. Therefore this document aims to go to the very core of the problem: in what way did the Catholic understanding of Mary develop according to Scripture and Tradition?
What reply does the text provide?
MURPHY- O’CONNOR: The part that the documents dedicates to Mary in the Scriptures is really well done and could be used for teaching. What emerges is a type of welcoming back of Mary both by the Catholics and the Anglicans, an understanding, renewed, of the different aspects of the tradition that had perhaps been forgotten. The document will help many Anglicans to recover aspects of the common tradition that they had lost and to see how the Catholic devotion to Mary, properly understood, fits together genuinely with the biblical and ecclesiastical tradition. And I believe that it will help Catholics to rediscover some of those biblical sources that concern Mary and the theological horizon within which She must be regarded, a horizon lost from sight in some forms of worship.
It’s a document that gives freshness back to both our traditions and insures that we are closer in reciprocal understanding.
ARCIC examined from close up the Marian tradition of the East (Mary the “All Holy” and the “Dormition” of Mary) to confront the problems that divided the West. Also in the text Saint Paul is amply taken up again.
MURPHY - O’CONNOR: It’s a surprise what can happen when men of faith meet in front of the Scriptures! The commission finished by working in a very extensive manner on the passage from the Epistle to the Romans 8, 28-30, which is not specifically a Marian text. But for the members of the commission it became a sort of interpretative instrument that enabled them to see in Mary a model of grace and hope, revealer to us of the way in which God Himself works with men. Both the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption reveal something about how God works on us in anticipation, to call us during our lives, and the end to which God exhorts us. Thus Mary is exemplary in the call and the response, and the devotion to Her can bring us closer to God through Jesus Christ.
Virgin with Child, Psalter by Robert de Lisle, 14th century, British Library, London

Virgin with Child, Psalter by Robert de Lisle, 14th century, British Library, London

Is this joint document a step ahead toward the sharing of the Eucharist with the Anglicans?
MURPHY - O’CONNOR: It was of enormous help in removing the umpteenth obstacle to understanding between Catholics and Anglicans. Does it bring us closer to sharing the Eucharist? I would say in the same way both yes and no. No, because the way in which ARCIC proceeded aims at clarifying the differences and not necessarily at resolving them. It occupied itself with re-cleaning the street to insure that the two Churches can once again walk more closely. And this because – and here I would answer yes to your question – the more we know how to walk together, the more we can construct that unity from which the sharing of the Eucharist springs.
Regarding the path to be shared, what is the reality of the Catholic Church in a country with an Anglican majority such as Great Britain?
MURPHY - O’CONNOR: To be sincere, I consider daily life today in Great Britain, for a Catholic bishop or cardinal, to be very fascinating. On the one side there is a rapid process of dechristianization of the country that truly preoccupies me: the crisis of the family, the lack of respect for human life – abortion, euthanasia, experiment with human embryos – as also the little or non-existent generosity toward immigrants, and a generalized egoism. On the other side, however, I see a possibility for the Catholic Church and its cardinal, a possibility unknown up until a short time ago of getting their voices heard.
In what way?
MURPHY - O’CONNOR: Today, for many reasons, when I and other bishops speak about matters of life, about abortion, about euthanasia, about the family, about the reform of prisons, or care for the poor, somehow now we have got a voice and are listened to, in a way that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. When I was young, the Catholic Church was on the periphery of society, people were suspicious of us. Now we are at the center of questions and what we say is distinctly heard. The reason for that is partly because Catholics are no longer merely immigrants just landed from Ireland, but are instead English citizens and want and need to have their voices heard. And so you have Catholics in many social positions, in all walks of daily life, in government too.
A new pontificate has just begun. What support can the Church in England offer to Pope Benedict XVI?
MURPHY - O’CONNOR: The great gift made to the English Church is that of its strong faith in times of trial. I was rector of the Venerable English College for years, and remember for example that forty-four of the students were martyred during the Reformation. Now out of that experience came the rebirth of Church in the 19th century and it has been developing ever since. So what the English Church possesses is an inheritance of fidelity, of great fidelity to the Pope, to the Universal Church. And the experience of the British Church can offer much to the universal Church in its way of being present in modern Europe. Concretely, we support the Pope through the advice that we can give him, with the unity of our Church, of our bishops, in collegiality together. We can in that way, therefore, offer to the Pope an example certainly of a hierarchy that’s united, that’s endeavoring in every way to insure that the Church becomes stronger and more evangelizing within today’s culture.
In recent times the Anglican Primate has had to confront strong internal crises in the Anglican Communion. Were you able to help him in some way?
MURPHY- O’CONNOR: The Archbishop knows that he can count not only on my friendship, but also on that of Cardinal Kasper and of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in Rome. He knows that he will always get a sympathetic hearing from us, which is of course what a friendship is made of. We talk regularly about the matters with which he has internal battles in the Anglican Community, also because these clashes affect Christian unity. We try to help him in every way possible.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, with Pope Benedict XVI, 25 April 2005 in the Vatican

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, with Pope Benedict XVI, 25 April 2005 in the Vatican

How possible do you think unity among Christians can be on Anglican soil?
MURPHY - O’CONNOR: Saint Augustine asked for unity in essentials, freedom in inessentials and charity in all things. A very good principle. We’re still searching for ways in which the essentials of faith can be agreed upon, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, are the three great mysteries that we share in the Credo. Then we have the fundamental doctrines of the Church, on which the majority of Anglicans could agree. Let’s put it like this: what we have to offer to the Anglican Communion is the gift we have received, our understanding and our experience of what it means to be Church. These months just passed have shown the ecclesiology of Catholicism in a unique way: the Pope, the bishops, the People of God, and the incredible unity that sustains all this. I think that other Churches need this also, as they need to deepen collegiality as well, to see how this unity operates, in charity, freedom, as well as in the sharing of faith.
And what can the Anglican communion teach us?
MURPHY - O’CONNOR: For instance listening more to lay people in the diocese. The bishop is the one with the care of his diocese, he’s got to listen to his priests and religious and lay people, and this means that he depends on a kind of government in the Church that is largely synodal. That’s perhaps something we can learn from the Anglicans, bringing it however within the whole ecclesiology of the Church. And so then the papacy, in its role that consists in serving the communion of Christians throughout the world. John Paul II in Ut unum sint asked Christian leaders for answers as to how the See of Peter could best serve the cause of this communion, and I believe that we must still carry this dialogue forward.

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