[Warning: long read.]
Already St. Paul was faced with factions and divisions among the earliest followers of Jesus - to the point of frustration, in the face of groups declaring their allegiance to one or other leader: “[I]t has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:11-13). In other words: “Pull yourselves together!”
That there are divisions among Christians is a scandal and one that both mocks Jesus’ own call for his followers to be united and for us to love each other like ourselves. It is no wonder then that ecumenism - the desire to see all Christians reunited after centuries of divisions - is one of the most prominent themes of Pope Francis’ preaching and actions. To get a sense of how he is approaching this challenge (or “opportunity,” as it would be put using a politically-correct vocabulary), it is worth taking a look at what he has said on the subject so far. The following is, therefore, my attempt to pull all of Francis’ remarks on ecumenism together in one place (in chronological order):
- When addressing the Archbishop of Canterbury in June ’13, Francis focuses on ecumenism as a shared journey, undertaken with Jesus in our midst:
“The unity we so earnestly long for is a gift that comes from above and it is rooted in our communion of love with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As Christ himself promised, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). Let us travel the path towards unity, fraternally united in charity and with Jesus Christ as our constant point of reference.”
- Later that month, addressing the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Francis draws attention to ecumenism not being about a lowest common denominator, but instead about an exchange of riches and a seeking of truth:1
“It comforts me, knowing that Catholics and Orthodox share the same conception of dialogue that doesn’t seek a theological minimalism on which to reach a compromise, but that rather is based on the deepening of the truth that Christ has given to his Church and that we, moved by the Holy Spirit, never cease to understand better. This is why we shouldn’t be afraid of encounter and true dialogue. It doesn’t distance us from the truth but rather, through an exchange of gifts, leads us, under the guidance of the Spirit of truth, to the whole truth.”
- In his address to Baselios Marthoma Paulose II, Catholicos of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in September ’13, Francis calls for a culture of encounter instead of clashes, emphasizing both the need of individual effort and the work of the Holy Spirit:
“I believe that on the ecumenical path it is important to look with trust to the steps that have been completed, overcoming prejudices and closed attitudes which are part of a kind of “culture of clashes” and source of division, and giving way to a “culture of encounter”, which educates us for mutual understanding and for working towards unity. Alone however, this is impossible; our witnesses and poverty slow the progress. For this reason, it is important to intensify our prayer, because only the Holy Spirit with his grace, his light and his warmth can melt our coldness and guide our steps towards an ever greater brotherhood.”
- In “the” interview to Jesuit magazines later that month, Francis emphasized the mutual enrichment that is a consequence of ecumenism: “In ecumenical relations it is important not only to know each other better, but also to recognize what the Spirit has sown in the other as a gift for us.”
- During a general audience at the end of September ’13, Francis emphasized two points with regard to ecumenism: first that there is an abundance of riches that Christians already share:
“There is one body, that of Christ which we receive in the Eucharist; one Spirit, the Holy Spirit that animates and constantly recreates the Church; one hope, eternal life; one faith, one Baptism, one God, Father of us all (cf. vv. 4-6). The richness of what unites us!”second, that the work for communion among all Christians starts with each one of us - in the family, parishes, ... rather than being something removed from the lives of individuals:
“Each one should ask himself today: do I make unity grow in the family, in the parish, in the community or am I a motive of division, of hardship? Do I have the humility to heal with patience, with sacrifice, the wounds to communion?”and, finally, a reminder that Christian unity is not principally a matter of political negotiation, but a gift received from God:
“[W]ho is the motor of this unity of the Church? It is the Holy Spirit. Our unity is not primarily the fruit of our consensus, of our effort to be in agreement, but it comes from Him who makes unity in diversity, which is harmony.”
- When addressing the president of the Lutheran World Federation in October ’13, Francis positions unity among Christians as a consequence of each individual, community and church drawing closer to Jesus and as being in proportion to the sincerity with which it is asked for: “In the measure in which we draw closer to our Lord Jesus Christ in humility of spirit, we are certain to draw closer to one another. And, in the measure in which we ask the Lord for the gift of unity, we are sure that he will take us by the hand and be our guide.” In other words, both as a consequence of fidelity and as a gift.
- A week later, in a letter to the World Council of Churches, Francis effectively calls for action as one Christian community, even in the face of our existing differences:
“In fidelity to the Gospel, and in response to the urgent needs of the present time, we are called to reach out to those who find themselves in the existential peripheries of our societies and to show particular solidarity with the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters: the poor, the disabled, the unborn and the sick, migrants and refugees, the elderly and the young who lack employment.”
- In an interview for the La Stampa Italian daily in December ’13, Francis further sharpened his insistence on what Christians all have in common:
“Today there is an ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians for wearing a cross or having a Bible and before they kill them they do not ask them whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. Their blood is mixed. To those who kill we are Christians. We are united in blood, even though we have not yet managed to take necessary steps towards unity between us and perhaps the time has not yet come. Unity is a gift that we need to ask for. I knew a parish priest in Hamburg who was dealing with the beatification cause of a Catholic priest guillotined by the Nazis for teaching children the catechism. After him, in the list of condemned individuals, was a Lutheran pastor who was killed for the same reason. Their blood was mixed. The parish priest told me he had gone to the bishop and said to him: “I will continue to deal with the cause, but both of their causes, not just the Catholic priest’s.” This is what ecumenism of blood is.”
- At the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the end of January ’14, Francis highlighted that Christian unity won’t be something that suddenly happens at the end of a process, but that it is instead a journey that we share already now:
“We have all been damaged by these divisions. None of us wishes to become a cause of scandal. And so we are all journeying together, fraternally, on the road towards unity, bringing about unity even as we walk. [...] Unity will not come about as a miracle at the very end. Rather, unity comes about in journeying; the Holy Spirit does this on the journey. If we do not walk together, if we do not pray for one another, if we do not collaborate in the many ways that we can in this world for the People of God, then unity will not come about! But it will happen on this journey, in each step we take. And it is not we who are doing this, but rather the Holy Spirit, who sees our goodwill.”
- On 18th February Pope Francis then addressed the attendees of a Evangelical Christians, via a video recorded by his friend - the Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer on his iPhone. Not only was the form of the message refreshingly friendly and informal, but its content too is significant in the completely fraternal level at which Francis places himself and the gathering he addresses. The very direct identification of past disagreements as sins on both side, the acknowledgement of God’s action among the gathering he addresses and his emphasis on the need for encounter and the recognition of each other as brothers further underline where he is coming from:2
“Dear brothers and sisters, excuse me because I speak in Italian, but I am not speaking English. But, I will speak no Italian, no English, but heartfully. It is a simpler and more authentic language and this language of the heart has a special style and and a special grammar. A simple grammar. Two rules: Love God above all else, and love the other because they are your brother and sister. With these two things we go ahead. I am here with my brother, with my brother bishop, Tony Palmer. We have been friends for years. [...] It is a pleasure to greet you. A joyful and wishful greeting. Joyful, because it fills me with joy to know that you are together to give praise to Jesus Christ, the only Lord. And to pray to the Father and receive the Spirit. This gives joy, because it can be seen that the Lord works all over the world.
And wishful because ... Well, what happens with us is what also happens in some neighborhoods where there are some families who love each other and other families who don’t. Families who come together and families who separate and we are a bit - I’ll use the word - a bit separated. Separated because sins have separated us, our sins. The misunderstandings throughout history. It has been a long road of communitarian sin. But who is to blame? We all are to blame. We are all sinners. Only one is just - the Lord.
I am wishful for this separation to end and for communion to come. I am wishful for that embrace that Holy Scripture speaks about when Joseph’s brothers, starving, went to Egypt so that they could buy food to eat. They went to buy, they had money, but they couldn’t eat the money! And there they found something more than food, they found their brother. All of us have “currency.” The currency of culture, the currency of our history, and lots of cultural riches and religious ones, of diverse traditions. But we have to come together as brothers. And we must cry together like Joseph did. This crying will unite us - the crying of love. I am talking to you as your brother. And I speak to you like this, simply. With joy and wishfulness. Let us make our wishfulness grow, because this will push us to find each other, to embrace each other and to praise Jesus Christ as the only Lord of history. [...] I ask you to bless me and I bless you - from brother to brother.”
- That emphasis on Jesus being the center of Christian life is then taken further in Francis’ Angelus message3 last Sunday, where he insisted that :
“Saint Paul explains that [...] the community does not belong to the apostles, but it is them - the apostles - who belong to the community; but the community, in its entirety, belongs to Christ!
From this belonging derives the fact that in Christian communities - dioceses, parishes, associations, movements - differences mustn’t contradict the fact that we all, through Baptism, have the same dignity: we are all all, in Jesus Christ, sons and daughters of God. And this is our dignity: in Jesus Christ we are sons and daughters of God! Those who have received a ministry of leadership, of preaching, of administering the Sacraments, mustn’t consider themselves to in possession of special powers, masters, but place themselves at the service of the community, helping it along the journey of holiness with joy. [...]
May the Lord give us the grace to work for the unity of the Church, of building this unity, because unity is more important than conflicts! The unity of the Church is of Christ, conflicts are problems that are not always of Christ. [...]
Pray for us [the new Cardinals, made the previous day, and the pope], that we may be good servants: good servants, not good masters! All together, bishops, priests, consecrated persons and faithful laity, we have to give witness of a Church faithful to Christ, animated by the desire to serve brothers and sisters and ready to reach out with prophetic courage towards the spiritual expectations and needs of men and women of our times.”
1 Echoing one of Pope Benedict XVI’s most daring statements on the subject: “[T]he search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing closer to the truth. Both sides in this piece-by-piece approach to truth are therefore on the path that leads forward and towards greater commonality, brought about by the oneness of the truth. As far as preserving identity is concerned, it would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in a such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth. Then his Christianity would appear as something arbitrary, merely propositional. He would seem not to reckon with the possibility that religion has to do with truth. On the contrary, I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.”
2 The following is my translation of the original Italian - except for the first few sentences (transcribed in italics), which Francis speaks in (broken) English - another great gesture :).
3 Since the English version of the full text is not available yet, the following is my own, crude rendition. 4 “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:20-22)