CHURCH Unity Octave will soon be with us again and little in the way of sensational new inspirations or initiatives are in prospect.
Perhaps it would be too much to expect any such developments though it is undeniable that each year that goes by with little more than lip service to the cause of ecumenism is inevitably demoralising.
This year, however, there is cause for optimism with the Pope's visit still fresh in our memory. Ecumenically speaking his day spent in Canterbury last year was the highlight of the visit.
Though Catholic reactions to this occasion were, in general, enthusiastic, there were undertones of hesitation at the emotional level. And these continued to be voiced with more prolonged insistence than anything from the other side.
The majority of English Catholics are basically very conservative. The openness to innovation and experiment, prevalent in the fifties and sixties is now hard to find.
Some attitudes hardened as a result of seeing the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury praying side by side. There was even resentment at their implied equality of status and rank and the impression given that Dr Runcie was at least the natural if not the strictly "legitimist" successor of Augustine in the Primatial See of All England. Needless to say the debate that followed got entangled with confusing technical data and the main ecumenical forest was soon abandoned in favour of tediously close attention to trees and branches.
Taken as a whole, however, the ecumenical impact of the Papal visit was almost wholly positive and hardly any of the pessimistic forebodings about backlash were justified in the event.
It is admittedly true that time for actual concrete ecumenical discussion between the Roman, Anglican and free churches was severely limited.
Such discussion as there was also took place at Canterbury but the resulting press conference was very disappointing.
Some weeks before, as may be remembered, Archbishop Marcinkus had paid a visit to England and had got into some hot water for seeming to belittle the Canterbury occasion, and even to give offence, by somewhat peremptorily shortening the duration of the Pope's Canterbury stop on security grounds.
Even this was forgiven and gorgotten in the euphoria of the actual event, blessed, as was most of the visit, by glorious sunshine.
The ecumenical press conference at Canterbury, however, was interrupted just as it seemed that some important announcement was about to be made.
It was felt by the chairman, that all present would prefer to go out into the sun-drenched courtyard behind the Cathedral to watch the Pope leaving in his, by now familiar, Popemobile.
The press conference never reconvened, and that was almost the sum total of "news" about concrete plans for the continuation of ecumenical dialogue.
We did find out, that despite the apparently disappointing and inconclusive final report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission on ecumenism, another "ARCIC" was to be brought into being.
Some would have preferred the more robust approach of an attempted answer, or at least some form of official reaction, to the original ARCIC findings.
Others found consolation in the prospect of continued discussions.
Without wishing to be cynical, however, it must in honesty be added that many Catholics have noted that progress on the ecumenical has been minimal of late — and are delighted about the fact. For them there is "only one way back" to "authentic Church Unity".
BUT WHATEVER else happens, or does not happen, Church Unity Week this year will be crowned by one particularly happy event. There will be a notable beatification in Rome and it will have an interesting, if tenuous, historical link with our own country. On January 25, on the feast of St Paul — in his Basilica Outside-the-Walls — the beatification will take place of a hitherto somewhat obscure nun called Sister Maria Gabriella Sagheddu, sometimes known as the Venerabile Gabriella dell'Unita.
She was a most remarkable woman who, rather like St Theresa of Lisieux, seemed to have done little that was momentous in life, but to have literally achieved wonders.
She offered up her life — and her considerable sufferings from galloping consumption — for the cause of Christian unity.
To have so much devotion to this cause was rare before the war. (Sr Gabriella died at the age of twenty five in 1939).
She was unusual in other respects being a female member of the Trappist (Cistercian) order. There are not all that many Trappestines in the world and their only centre in England is the very fine community at Holy Cross Abbey, near Winborne, five or six miles outside of Bournemouth. (There is also an Abbey at Glencairn, Co Waterford.) Sr Gabriella's life, however, is now becoming better known, and vocations to the Order have increased.
Something similar happened after Thomas Morton's autobiography appeared.
At the (male) Cistercians' principal British home (Mount St Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire) no less than 27 young men, I am told by their archivist, have recently asked to join the nine novices and postulants already accepted during the past year.
Sr Gabriella's link with England is an intriguing one. She was born in Sardinia and never travelled out of Italy.
She met few foreigners and probably never, in her whole life, met a non-Catholic.
All the more remarkable was her insight into the mysterious demands of ecumenism.
The convent where she lived and died was near the Papal Villa at Castel Gandolfo, in the beautiful hills around Frascati to the west of Rome.
This brought visitors to the convent, including one particular friend of the Mother Abbess, namely Abbe Courturier of Lyons.
He was a notable ecumenical pioneer and had, when visiting England, spent some time with the famous Anglican Benedictines at their monastery at Nashdom near Farnham in Buckinghamshire.
The Abbe was ever conscious that there might never have been a Trappist tradition at all had it not been for the Englishman, St Stephen Harding, Abbot of Citeaux, author of the "Charter of Charity" and Father of all Cistercians. The Nashdom tradition follows the regular rather than Trappist interpretation of the Benedictine life. But there are Anglican Cistercians not far from Nashdom (at Burnham, Slough) and also at West Mailing.
Benedictines of all traditions will be uniting with other Christians to pray that the inspiration of the simple but wonder-working Gabriella will give new impetus to the true spirit of ecumenism as we look forward — let us hope not wearily — to another Church Unity Octave,