Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ecumenical interest sparked by Pope Francis' exhortation is Pope Francis’ recently published Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel, causing such interest and excitement far beyond the confines of the Catholic church? What new possibilities does it offer to those engaged in the search for full, visible Christian unity? And can it really usher in a new era of ecumenical springtime, half a century on from the innovations of the Second Vatican Council?

Philippa Hitchen put these questions to theologian and author Gerard Mannion, who currently holds the Amaturo Chair in Catholic Studies at Georgetown University. He’s also the founder of a group known as the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network, which promotes scholarship and dialogue across the broad spectrum of Christian traditions. Mannion begins by sharing his enthusiasm for the innovative qualities of this ground-breaking papal document.

“Each pope has their own distinctive style, going right back through the centuries, […] and this is a very distinctive and engaging style. And that’s one of the reasons everybody’s talking about this document – not just theologians, not even just Catholics, and not even just people of a religious persuasion. There have been other popes who’ve sought to stamp their own particular shape and form on their teaching style, […] but with Francis it’s even more personal. He uses the first person, which is innovative. One of the other things is, this document is full of humour: he uses humour to good effect, to make serious points, and also to disarm polarisation, not just within the Church, but within the world as well. And it’s impassioned! And the other personal dimension is he lays bare his own soul in it as well, he talks about his own moments of pessimism, […] so he shares his own journey with the people he’s trying to speak to in this document.

He draws upon not just his predecessors, he also draws upon teaching documents from various bishops’ conferences around the world, and that’s very significant as well. He also will allude to particular saints and the examples of their life, the lives of the poor, popular piety and the lessons it has for us – he even quotes Plato in one part! […] This document is a radical document, it’s not in any sense slavishly following the interpretation, the agenda, of any of his predecessors. In fact in many ways you could say it’s turning around the emphasis from many previous documents and teachings to one that’s more engaged, one that’s more praxis-oriented, and one that’s more centred upon compassion at the heart of the Gospel. […] And that’s why people are reading a papal document who normally wouldn’t even bother to read a news story about a new papal document.

In many ways, actually, there are certain dimensions to this document which are more truly conservative, in the sense that he’s getting back to the basics of the Gospel. […] If you like, there is a dimension of continuity here, but it’s continuity that picks up really important things that the Church has been trying to grapple with for a long time, and it picks them up in a constructive way.

The ecumenical and interfaith agenda within this document is enormously important and enormously positive. There are certain sections that directly address this, but in many respects it’s addressed through all the sections: […] it’s when he talks about inculturation, it’s when he talks about respect for the other, it’s when he talks about the things what unites people, rather than divide them.”

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