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Mother Mary Ellerker’s legacy for Christian unity

FLASHBACK: Sr Antoinette Dickie O Carm, former Prioress General of the Corpus Christi Carmelites, unveils a bust of foundress Mother Mary Ellerker at the closing Mass of the Carmelites’ centenary celebrations at the Abbey Church, Mt St Benedict, on October 1, 2008.

By Neila Todd, Tertiary of Carmel

Seventy years ago on January 11, The Servant of God, Mother Mary Ellerker of the Blessed Sacrament, O Carm, Foundress of the Corpus Christi Carmelites, made her transition from this world.

This anniversary is another opportunity for reflection on the life and times of this phenomenal woman. Moreover, it encourages comparison between her earthly life and her astounding achievements for our present-day circumstances.

Corpus Christi

Her mortal journey spanned both sides of the Atlantic, from her birthplace in Birmingham, England, to her foundations in the United States of America where she would become a citizen; and also to the most southerly Caribbean islands of Trinidad & Tobago from where she would continue her diverse expansion.

Her fledgling Congregation was accorded Pontifical Institute status with her unique charism spreading as far as Liberia, northern Africa. Of note, too, is the fact that T&T is one of the few countries in the world where the great Feast of Corpus Christi is celebrated by Governmental Decree.

Trinidadians of every faith and persuasion demonstrate some level of respect for this day, a national holiday on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, the Trinity being of special significance to the naming of the island after its conquest by the Spanish.

One of the clauses in the capitulation treaty specified to the British Crown, the new colonisers, was that the Feast of Corpus Christi would always be observed as a national holiday. And so it is.

Mother Mary Ellerker’s single-minded belief in the Blessed Sacrament had consumed her entire being. She had converted from Protestantism because she had fully embraced Holy Mother Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation.

She believed that the Celebration of the Eucharist was not merely a common meal but the true Body and Blood of Christ in the transubstantiated gifts of bread and wine.

Centuries after the Reformation, historic Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals do not internalise this understanding that the Real Presence is an incontrovertible certainty.

Task for unification

Moreover, Mother Mary Ellerker believed that the meaning and awesomeness of the Eucharist ought not to be selfishly kept or shared with a privileged few. She would write in 1908, when her foundational work was being tried and tested, “Work through the power of the Holy Eucharist for Christian Unity”.

Two years later there would be the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement at the World Missionary Conference in Scotland. The Vatican decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (1964), has stated that inter alia, the restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principle concerns for Catholics.

Indeed, Jesus’ prayer for unity at the Last Supper was that His disciples be one (Jn 17:21) for it is the Holy Spirit who brings about the wonderful communion of the faithful. Christian unity is therefore God’s will and God’s own. The decree ultimately exhorts all Catholics to participate in the work of Christian unity.

The servant of God challenges the whole of Christianity to unification through the power of the Eucharist. She was quite aware of the magnitude of this task. Since the Reformation, the theology of the Eucharist continues to be a subject of heated debate, and Ecumenical convergence requires agreement on the three key issues which continue to divide the churches: Real Presence, Eucharistic sacrifice and ordained ministry.

The social significance of the Eucharist was of great concern to Mother Foundress and she sought and prayed that we would be closer to the day when obstacles to Eucharistic sharing would end.

Her quest was therefore rediscovery of the unity that Christians had demonstrated for so many centuries before the split with Rome. Since her lifetime, those churches that had formed the foundation of the present ecumenical structures are in decline and those outside of such fellowship are more often the same churches whose dramatic growth is shaping the future of Christianity.

The stunning shift in the balance of Christian populations from the north to the south further intensifies the situation.

Power of the Eucharist

The achievement of Christian unity requires space to nurture fresh and creative movements of God’s Spirit; the Spirit that always seeks to build the unity of Christ’s body for the sake of God’s transformational mission in the world.

There is a yearning for Christian unity, the need for differences to be better understood and commonalities better affirmed. God’s grace which is such a distinctive feature of Christian faith and a gift to all humanity must be sought to transform the world. St Paul speaks of “those who were all made to drink of one Spirit”(1 Cor 12:13).

The servant of God advises rigorous self-examination and would today strongly recommend self-criticism to bring Christians closer to agreement on the nature of the Eucharist and the power that it offers.

The enabling technology facilitates opportunity for private and communal knowledge about the power of the Eucharist; the manifold ways in which this truth, difficult for rational minds, have nonetheless been revealed to multitudes since its institution. The time has come for all Christians to focus on the meaning of the Eucharist, and on its power, for this is the catalyst towards unification.

Mother Foundress had recognised the complexities of globalisation and migration in the post-modern era. She believed that Christian unity would ensure a just, humane society one founded on Love for each other. The idiosyncrasies of race; ethnicity; geography; class; education and effete behaviours which bedevil us would then be consigned to the past.

The servant of God, Mother Mary Ellerker of the Blessed Sacrament, O Carm had been adversely criticised at ecclesiastical levels for having ‘Anglican’ tendencies. Snide remarks were made about her working with ‘Negroes’; her consideration and love for the First Peoples and East Indians. She was convinced of the power of the Eucharist for all to become One; that united Christians would usher in a new era of true humanitarianism.

Can we utilise the power of the Eucharist through public and private prayer to make this ideal become reality?