The lovely Mount Carmel Chapel in Loughrea was filled to bursting on Thursday 23rd January for a service of prayer for Christian Unity, at the invitation of the Mother Prioress and Sisters of the Carmelite Community in Loughrea, the eighth year in succession that they have done so. Most Revd. Michael Duignan, Catholic Bishop of Clonfert led the service, and Rt. Revd. Kenneth Kearon, Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick & Killaloe gave the homily.
The service was designed by churches of different Christian traditions in Malta for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and distributed by Churches Together in Britain & Ireland. The Maltese chose as readings St Luke’s gripping account in the Acts of the Apostles of a great storm on the Mediterranean Sea (Acts 27:18 – 28:10), read by the Sisters and Bishop Kenneth. We heard how the ship taking St Paul to Rome as a prisoner is tossed about by wind and wave for days and finally wrecked on the island of Malta. All 276 people aboard – sailors, soldiers and prisoners including Paul – were saved, and the Maltese treated them with ‘unusual kindness’ – the theme chosen for the Week of Prayer 2020.
Reflecting on the readings, Bishop Kenneth Kearon in his homily spoke of the ‘ecumenical boat’ we are embarked on. In it we are thrown together, our vulnerability is exposed, and we discover we must jettison historic baggage. Four years ago, when he and Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick had been jointly commissioned for ecumenical work by Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, they had each been presented with a Lampedusa Cross, rough and battered, made from the wreckage of boats washed up on the Italian island. It is a reminder of the suffering of refugees attempting to reach Europe. And it is a symbol of the way we Christians of different tradition should go forward together.
The Maltese called for eight oars to be used to represent petitions by representatives of different local congregations – hurleys were used instead as more practical in the confined space of the chapel. They were inscribed with what we prayed for together: Trust, Perseverance, Harmony, Courage, Unusual Kindness, Transformation, Generosity, and the symbol of a heart.
The service was beautiful and moving. It was made more poignant by knowing that this was the last service of prayer for Christian unity that the Sisters will host – their monastery will close and they will disperse after more than 300 years in Loughrea. But we left the chapel determined to keep sailing together on the ‘ecumenical boat’, and other venues will surely be found in future years. We owe the Sisters a great debt for their hospitality and prayers for Christian unity over the years.