Sunday, February 02, 2014

Pope Francis’ ecumenism Bishop of Rome’s messages and gestures to promote Christian unity.

Almost a year after Francis’ election and with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at an end, it is now possible to give a first overview of the Pope’s initiatives to promote ecumenism. 

“For me ecumenism is a priority” Francis told Vatican Insider and Italian newspaper La Stampa in last December’s interview.

Some of the choices he made even at the very start of his pontificate had a very positive impact of ecumenism.

Bishop of Rome
Francis has given a special emphasis to his role as Bishop of Rome ever since he made his first appearance on the central Loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica after his election and wanted his Cardinal Vicar by his side; the morning after his election he went to pay tribute to the icon of Mary Salus Populi Romani in the Basilica of St. Mary Major (where he returned on a number of other occasions) and entrust the City of Rome to her; he has given great importance to his ties with his local diocese, the poor and his parishes, with visits to parishes on the outskirts of the city on various Sunday afternoons – a new practice introduced by Francis. 

These visits allow him to devote more time to meeting people who want to approach him. 

This is not such a new thing: The Pope is Pope because he is Bishop of the Church of Rome who “presides in charity over all the other Churches” as Ignatius of Antioch wrote. 

The fact that Francis has made this a priority and the willingness to convert the papacy – expressed in the Evangelii Gaudium and proven in his everyday ministry – are aspects that have been greatly welcomed by the Orthodox world.

St. Martha’s House
Francis’ decision not to live in the papal apartment but to remain in suite 201 in St. Martha’s House, has had a practical consequence for ecumenical relations too. 

Delegations of Churches and religious communities visiting Rome stay in the very same residence as him so the Pope is able to welcome these figures at the doorstep of his home, away from the public spotlight and share moments of friendship and conviviality with them under the same roof. 

One of these occasions was the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I’s visit to attend the mass for the inauguration of Francis’ pontificate.
At the time, the Patriarch said: “When we met there, the fact we were both living in the Domus Sanctae Marthae meant we had the chance to have a few brotherly chats and sit down to table together. As you know, the Pope took the suite I usually stay in when I come to the Vatican. At one point he said to me: “I stole your room...” to which I replied: “You’re welcome to have it!”.”
“Over the course of these first nine months, I have received visits from many Orthodox brothers: Bartholomew, Hilarion, the theologian Zizioulas, the Copt Tawadros. The latter is a mystic, he would enter the chapel, remove his shoes and go and pray. I felt like their brother. They have the apostolic succession; I received them as brother bishops. It is painful that we are not yet able to celebrate the Eucharist together, but there is friendship. I believe that the way forward is this: friendship, common work and prayer for unity. We blessed each other; one brother blesses the other, one brother is called Peter and the other Andrew, Mark, Thomas…”. 

The Synod and the G8
One of the first decisions the new Pope took was to set up a group of eight cardinal advisors who were entrusted with carrying the plans for the reform of the Roman Curia forward and help in the government of the universal Church. 

Francis’ intention was to reform the way the Synod works in order to ensure more collegial and far-reaching consultations across the Church. Bartholomew said: “We are very glad he has given such focus to his role as “Bishop of Rome”. And we are also glad about his decision to nominate eight cardinals as advisors: this is similar to the synod system in our Church.”

Together towards Jerusalem
At the end of his homily at the Vesper celebration in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Francis said: “Unity will not come about as a miracle at the very end,” he said. 

“Rather unity comes about in journeying. 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,” the Pope said, “then unity will not come about.” 

Unity will not be the result of human effort, “but rather of the Holy Spirit, who sees our good will.” 

One leg of this journey will be completed next May when Francis will take up Bartholomew I’s invitation and visit the Holy Land for a brief pilgrimage of prayer. He will thus commemorate Paul VI’s historical meeting and embrace with the Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras fifty years ago. 

Paul VI was the first successor of Peter to set foot again on the land where Jesus once lived.

Ecumenism of blood
Finally, there is another kind of ecumenism Francis has spoken of. The 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. It still exists today; you just need to read the newspapers. Those who kill Christians don’t ask for your identity card to see which Church you were baptised in. We need to take these facts into consideration.”

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