Homily by Rev. Denis J. Hanly, M.M.
The subject of this heart-warming homily is Christian Unity. This homily was delivered on 18th January 2009 during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
This is a very important feast for me, personally, because I remember my first ecumenical adventure was with Grandpa Gunther.
Now, when I was very, very little, a little boy, we moved out of Brooklyn into a little town. It was all German. In fact, the main language of this little town at the time was German, and not English, among the old people. And Grandpa Gunther was not my Grandpa, but, because my parents had no relatives in the United States, they assembled a whole group of relatives for us, and my favourite was Grandpa Gunther.
He was from Germany and he had those long moustachios, you know, and he looked kind of fearsome, but he was really very kind and very gentle, but he could be a little bit gruff.
He decided that my mother didn’t know how to raise children, which was common in those days, and he decided to come on Sunday morning and take me to his church, instead of my mother taking me with my father to the Catholic church.
It was the Lutheran church. Now it was a Lutheran town, a German Lutheran town, so they had lots and lots of churches. And Grandpa would say, “Your mother knows nothing about this now. You come along with me.” And so we’d go walking off and he’d take me to the first Lutheran church. And most of the Lutheran pastors, lovely men that they were, were all kind of young, so Grandpa would bring me in, and we’d sit in the front row, and then the young pastor would get up and deliver himself of a sermon.
But Grandpa was a man of the old school and, when he heard the new school from this poor pastor, he would get internally outraged that there were new messages coming in this great old Lutheran church, so he’d say to me, “Denis, we get up.” And we’d get up. And he’d say, “And we get out.” And we’d walk out of the church.
Well, after about six weeks or so, I’d walked in and out of every Lutheran church in Hicksville and, finally, he decided maybe that maybe this education wasn’t helping me. In fact, it was a kind of a negative approach to informing him of the wonders of this Lutheran church and how much better it was than if my mother took me to the Catholic church.
Grandpa, also, though, as a little reward on the way home, he would buy me a lollipop. But these were wonderful lollipops. I don’t think they make them anymore. They had the sticky part on both ends of the stick, so that you could hold it in the middle and you could lick both ends, you see.
This was a great thing for a kid, but it was terrible for mothers, because you’d put it in your hair, and then you’d drop it on the ground and you’d lick off the dirt, and I was just So I’d come back, all nice and clean on the going out and on the coming back I’d be full of this kind of chocolate juice. And my mother would look up to heaven and look at Grandpa and he would look a little sheepish and he would say, “I think you’d better take care of him from now on.”
That was a great relief for my mother, so I went back from my Lutheran beginning to the Catholic Church.
It’s a life story. But thinking about it now, whenever we have this Christian unity octave, I think of Grandpa Gunther and how kind he was. And the thing that I admired about him was he really believed with his whole heart. He had a belief that you could touch and feel, and you knew when he said the prayers, they were coming out of him with all the pain of leaving his homeland and his people, and praying for them. And then his son was my father’s best friend, Uncle Fred. And Uncle Fred went off to the First World War, came back and he found out that his own mother had died in the First World War before he could come home and it was very sad.
So old Grandpa, he used to come out and sit on the porch and tell me stories. And I admired him and I admired his faith. He was able to go through those terrible times in the war, the loss of his wife, great faith in his son, and he was a good man up to the end.
I don’t know why we’re so separated from Protestants. It’s another people’s time, and another people’s war, and another people’s problem. And yet it keeps being handed down, and handed down, and handed down, despite the words of Jesus, despite the words of popes, despite everything. For some reason, there seems to be, still existing among us, between one family, after all everybody that’s baptized is Christian. And we’re supposed to work at it.
Certainly there’s problems in families. People in ordinary families have fights. I knew, in Hicksville, one family where the two sons didn’t talk to each other for thirty years. And they didn’t even know why they’d stopped talking to each other.
It’s a natural human thing, but it should not exist in the heads of clear minded, healthy minded, good people. And yet there is something about it, we find bringing our broken church together, putting it together piece by piece once again to become the church that Jesus prayed for and longed for.
The best positive experience after Grandpa, was when I was sent to Taiwan. And, in Taiwan, there was a doctor, Dr Landsborough. Dr Landsborough and his wife were doctors, but they were Presbyterian missionaries as well. He was a medical missionary from England. And he was born and raised in Taiwan.
And in those days (this is the 1940s and 50s) Taiwan was quite different from what it is today. But I was assigned to the same area. He had a hospital in Changhua and I was assigned as the assistant parish priest in Changhua. And whenever I had someone who was very, very sick, I used to go to ask Dr Landsborough if he’d come and look at him, because he was probably the best doctor in the whole area.
And, of course, one night, one of our parishioners got very sick, an old man. And I hated to do it, but I knocked at his door, and he came in slippers and a bathrobe, got dressed and came down. It was in the village next to the city and he looked at the man and he said, “We’ve got to find medicine for him.”
So we went and we woke up the Chinese medicine store doctor. And, naturally, while he was preparing the medicine, he said, the great question in Asia has always been (Father says something in Chinese). It means, “What’s the difference between the God of Heaven religion and the Christian religion?” Because the name in Chinese is not Protestant, but (Father says something in Chinese). It means “the religion of Christ.” And this thing is always asked.
So I look at the doctor, and he looks at me, and I look at him, and I said, “You tell him,” because I got tired of trying to explain the difference between the Reformation, and it goes back to 1066 and the invasion of…
Anyhow, he looks at the Chinese doctor and he says, very quietly he says, “Once, we were one family. And then something happened and we became separated. And, now, we pray, that with God’s help, someday, we will be one family again.”
That’s it. That’s the answer.
In the meantime, we reach out to our brothers and sisters every opportunity to work with them together, every opportunity to take advantage of friendship, of association, of family, and become one, not in the feelings, and in the history, and in overcoming all those problems that come down, but one in the heart.
Because, my feeling was I had become one already, because of Grandpa. Grandpa and I, there was nothing that separated us. We both loved Jesus. We both cared about God. We were people who were made one by the Holy Spirit. This is what we have to do. And let the organizational part fall in line. Because once the heart is won, then the rest will follow.
I’d like to read finally to end this. You must remember this now. Jesus is in Gethsemane. He is facing his death. He has asked his Father to take the chalice away. The one prayer that he asked was not answered positively. And he said, “Well then Thy will be done.” And, then, as he was about to be arrested, his final prayer in this world, his final prayer in this life, was recorded by John.
Jesus looked up to Heaven and he prayed:
“Holy Father, I ask not only on behalf of these (my disciples), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may know that you have sent me. The identity that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
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