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Healing and hope: memories of an Irish ecumenist

30 November, 1999

Michael Hurley SJ, renowned Irish ecumenist and co-founder of the Irish School of Ecumenics, looks back over forty years of ecumenical experience.

136 pp, Columba Press, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie


Author’s Preface and Acknowledgements
Foreword by Dennis Cooke
Foreword by Adrian Empey
Foreword by Brian Grogan
Foreword by J. Patton Taylor
1. Introduction 
2. A Jesuit Ecumenical Journey
3. Anglican Memories 
4. Methodist Memories
5. Presbyterian Memories
6. Catholic memories: Part I Pre-1970
7. Catholic memories: Part II Post 1970
8. Orthodox/Mount Athos Memories
9. China Memories
10. Ecumenism: Forty Years in the Desert?
Michael Hurley SJ: A Bibliography


In this book Michael Hurley SJ reflects on his forty years and more of ecumenical experience. An early chapter reviews his boyhood in Ardmore, Co Waterford, his Jesuit studies in Louvain and Rome as well as here at home – in a search for the possible seeds of his ecumenical vocation. In this chapter he also sketches in outline some of the highlights of his ecumenical apostolate or ministry.

The rest of the book follows no chronological order and the chapters can be read in any sequence. Three chapters are devoted to Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian ‘Memories’, two chapters to ‘Catholic Memories’. These are followed by ‘Memories’, from the author’s stay on Mount Athos in September 1980 and from his visit to China in March of the following year.

The title of the book, Healing and Hope, is clarified in the opening chapter. This recalls how Christian Unity is now widely recognised as requiring not only doctrinal agreements, but above all a healing of memories at all levels. Not all the author’s memories are happy but his reminiscing, he states, has been for himself a healing exercise and is meant to be such for his readers also.


The title of this little volume may be somewhat misleading. For those who are involved in the study of the movement for Christian unity, it will recall the modern emphasis on seeing our goal in the movement as more than merely doctrinal. Ecumenism, many now emphasise, has as its aim and hope not only to reach some common understanding of our differences but also, if not principally, to reach some coming together, some reconciliation of the people who hold these different doctrinal positions. These people have become separated, segregated and estranged because of the differences; their memories, their identities, individual and social, have been shaped by them; their memories therefore need to be healed by a process of contact, conversation and co-operation leading gradually to repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE) , especially in the person of Alan D. Falconer – its Director before going to Faith and Order at the World Council of Churches in Geneva – has since the late 80s taken a particular interest in this theme. The first edition of his Reconciling Memories was published in 1988.(1) My choice of title does, I hope, owe more than a little to this important, pioneering work but it is also indebted, I think, to my discovery of ‘Reminiscence Therapy’ during my years in Belfast. This is promoted by, among others, Faith Gibson and the University of Ulster in order to stimulate and energise the elderly, and it is widely used in hospitals and nursing homes.(2) It is also promoted by some spiritual guides in order to help not only the elderly but people of all ages to pray, to arouse in them a spirit of gratitude, of repentance, of forgiveness, of hope. And remembering others is of course the basis for prayer of intercession.

For both of these reasons much of the wall space in my study-bedroom is covered with photographs of people, events and places that have been significant in my life. The photographs lift up my heart: they energise me and help me to pray. It is for both these reasons also that the following pages have been written. Faith Gibson encouraged writers’ workshops for the elderly and got the university to set up special courses to teach them how to manage wordprocessing; that scheme was called ‘Teaching Older Dogs New Tricks’!

It is sometimes objected that what all of us, especially the churches and especially in Ireland, really need is ‘a good dose of amnesia’, that it is better to forget than to remember. And indeed ‘Acts of Oblivion’ as a way of closing a chapter have in fact been a feature not only of secular history but of church history. In 1965 Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I together solemnly consigned to oblivion the excommunications of 1054, ‘the memory of which has been, right down to our time, an obstacle to a coming together in charity’. Recent studies, however, seem to agree that in general it is better to remember than to forget, to remember the past so that it never recurs. The influence of the human rights movement is evident in this but, in general and in principle, the aim and hope is not only to obtain justice for past wrongs but also to enable the parties to reach some new modus vivendi in peace and harmony. To our great disappointment resistance to Agreed Statements, various forms of sectarianism and general ecumenical apathy have shown only too clearly that, contrary to expectations, bitter memories of the past have not really been forgotten in the churches but only lie hidden waiting to be healed.

We all have unhappy memories and some of mine surface in the following pages. For instance, my failure in the 70s and 80s to maintain good relations with the Catholic hierarchy here in Ireland, the failure involved in the recent closing of the Columbanus Community of Reconciliation. But what matters surely is how, in what spirit we remember: not wisely but too well? not trying to see the past steadily and to see it whole but only partially, in a sectarian spirit? not remembering with the sweetness and strength of the Spirit (suaviter sed fortiter) but with the bitterness and weakness of our unregenerate selves?

Reminiscence therapy suggests that older people – and I have now reached the four score – are generally more expert at coping with any grief and pain which unhappy memories may cause. Is it that time is a great healer or that with age we become more open to the healing power of the Spirit? We do know that the anamnesis, the memorial which is the eucharist, depends on an epiclesis, a special invocation of the Spirit. Might it be that in some analagous way all healing of memories, whether social and ecclesial in the case of ecumenical activity or individual and personal in the case of ordinary reminiscence therapy, is dependent on the invocation and presence of the Spirit? Indeed, according to the fourth gospel (Jn 20:19-23) forgiveness is par excellence an activity of the Spirit and – more than coincidentally perhaps – the fourth gospel (Jn 14:25, 26) might also allow us to see the Spirit as the Great Remembrancer for all the followers of Jesus and not just for the original twelve. It is my hope that the reminiscing involved in the following pages has been for myself, and will be for my readers, blessed by the Spirit in whom we remember, repent and forgive, by whom we are healed and filled with hope.

Hope is, of course, of the essence of the healing of memories and of any reminiscence therapy. We know from our own experience and that of the human race that success is beyond us here below; we know from the bible that Christianity is not a religion of optimism; that it is signed with the sign of the cross, that pain and suffering and failure remain our lot as they were the lot of Jesus, ‘pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Heb 12:2) and especially perhaps the lot of those who work to change the structures of society, religious as well as secular. So I have had to conclude that there is no cheap hope, as there is no cheap grace; that paradoxically to hope is ‘to hope against hope’ (cf Rom 4:18) yet with ‘the hope that does not disappoint’ (cf Rom 5:5).

As a result, I sometimes reason with myself to the effect that the aim of the ecumenical movement is more to promote Christian unity than to establish church union and that, while it is true that the latter is now so remote as to be quite fanciful, the ‘stuff as dreams are made on’, the former au contraire has made extraordinary progress. To adapt the famous or infamous words of Arius in the fourth century: ‘there was a time when the movement did not exist’.(3) A fortiori there was a time when it did not exist in the Catholic Church. If therefore in these days events are happening which would have been unthinkable even five years ago – for instance Pope John Paul II’s remarkable visits in March and May 2001 to Jerusalem and to Athens – then surely other events ‘greater than these’ will be taking place five and fifty years hence which to us now are equally unthinkable.

This distinction between promoting Christian unity and establishing church union smacks, however, of the distinction between primary and secondary aims. This, for Catholics at least and specially in the theology of marriage, has fallen into disrepute since Vatican II. The two aims of ecumenism are indeed related but not as primary and secondary. This distinction can lead and indeed has led to a demoting of the ‘secondary’ aim; it can lead to an acquiescence in the status quo, to making ‘reconciled diversity’ an end rather than a means. And I sometimes wonder uneasily if, making physical tiredness an excuse for ecumenical tiredness, I have not just done that in my years of retirement since leaving Belfast in 1993.

Because a boat, a ship is a traditional symbol of the church (as well as of the state), and also probably because the sea is so very much part of my own childhood background, the walls of my study-bedroom display not only personal photographs but also a few prints of ships on the seas of the world. One of the prints is of Paul Henry’s ‘Launching the Currach’. The seas are rough and it meant a lot to me when in the early 80s we were launching the Columbanus Community of Reconciliation on the stormy seas of Northern Ireland – although it was an embarrassment that all five engaged in Paul Henry’s launching were males whereas without women the Columbanus Community would never have been launched.

Another print is that of Hokusai’s woodcut, ‘The Hollow of the Deep Sea Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa’. This was reproduced on the cover of my collection of essays Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Second Spring? in 1998. The mountainous waves which Hokusai represents as threatening the Holy Mount Fuji I see as threatening God’s kingdom and its values, especially those of unity and peace. It is the boatmen who encourage me: their serenity and the courage with which they ride the waves. One boat shows a Shinto shrine in the stern. All of us, I reflect, but not least ecumenists, must in the power of the Spirit have the Christian courage to go on hoping against hope. We must be ‘aglow with the Spirit’ if we are to be ‘buoyed up by hope’ (cf Rom 12:11, 12)

A third of these prints is of the famous painting which, I gather, launched the whole impressionist movement or at least gave it its name: Monet’s ‘Impression: Soleil Levant’. It gives us the artist’s impression of a harbour scene at sunrise, viewed from the window of his studio in Le Havre. The scene suggested is quiet and still: the sun breaking through the morning mists. The background is dark providing glimpses of what look like large vessels, tall masts and perhaps the cranes and gantries I associate with Belfast – all shrouded in mist. The sea, however, is not rough as it is in Paul Henry and Hokusai. It is calm. The few small boats in the foreground are not battling the waves; they lie there idly for the moment but expectantly. The crews have their backs turned to us, their faces to the rising sun, they are waiting for first light, waiting expectantly with one crew member standing in readiness, oar or scull in hand. The orb of the sun is shown making its first appearance and the whole sky is suffused with an orange red glow which is being reflected in the calm waters of the harbour. The light has begun to shine in the darkness but has not yet overcome the darkness.

The quiet and stillness of Monet balance nicely the struggle and stress of Hokusai and of Paul Henry. Can it be true that the mists like the poor we shall always have with us, and that our vocation, especially as ecumenists in the healing of memories, is to wait patiently, in grey areas for the most part , hoping against hope, but with the hope that does not disappoint? The sun must rise? Hope and history must finally rhyme?

To keep on hoping against hope, we need encouragement: encouragement from the life of Jesus himself, especially perhaps as portrayed by Luke, and encouragement from the followers of Jesus, especially in our own day. That is why I humbly and gratefully dedicate this volume of ‘memories’ to all those who have so generously and faithfully encouraged me in my ecumenical vocation down the years.

1. Columba Press. The second edition appeared in 1998; in its preparation Joseph Liechy, of the staff of ISE, joined Alan Falconer.

2. I got to know Faith Gibson through her husband, Dr Norman Gibson, who down the years has been a good friend of the ecumenical movement and of the Irish School of Ecumenics and through Margaret Wilson, a friend of theirs, who was one of the founder members of the Columbanus Community of Reconciliation. I have also used an article by Sylvia Thompson entitled ‘Memories are made of this’ which appeared in The Irish Times 4 February 1992 p. 9.

3. Arius was denying the pre-existence of the Word, the second person of the Trinity, in this simple almost monosyllabic dictum: en pote hote ouk en, ‘there was a time when the Word did not exist’.

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