Pope Francis has decided to begin 2017 in much the same way as he did last year: praying for Christian unity.
And it's this drive for unity – not only among Christians but with
other religions as well – that's emerged as sort-of personal manifesto
from practically the moment he took office.
In his newest and first prayer video for the year, Pope Francis
prayed for Christian unity, specifically “that all Christians may be
faithful to the Lord’s teaching by striving with prayer and fraternal
charity to restore ecclesial communion and by collaborating to meet the
challenges facing humanity.”
Released Jan. 9, the video shows images of different churches and
people working together in service projects as the Pope, in his native
Spanish, notes how “many Christians from various churches work together
to serve humanity in need, to defend human life and its dignity, to
defend creation and to combat injustice.”
As the screen changes to show different hands grabbing the same rope
one at a time, Francis says the desire to walk together and collaborate
“in service and in solidarity with the weakest and with those who
suffer, is a source of joy for all of us.”
He closes his video asking viewers to “join your voice to mine in
praying for all who contribute through prayer and fraternal charity to
restoring full ecclesial communion in service of the challenges facing
At the beginning of each year the Pope’s prayer intentions for the
next 12 months are released, showing topics he wants to draw attention
to throughout the year. This year, Christian unity is setting the tone.
Similarly, last January Pope Francis kicked off 2016 with a monthly
intention for interfaith dialogue, praying that “sincere dialogue among
men and women of different faiths may produce fruits of peace and
In his first-ever video on the monthly papal prayer intentions,
Francis noted that “many think differently, feel differently, seeking
God or meeting God in different ways.”
“In this crowd, in this range of religions, there is only one
certainty that we have for all: we are all children of God,” he said,
adding that this “should lead to a dialogue among religions. We should
not stop praying for it and collaborating with those who think
Both ecumenical and interfaith dialogue have been major priorities
for Pope Francis in general. But 2016, which happened to coincide with
the Jubilee of Mercy, was especially packed with ecumenical and
interfaith meetings and encounters, some marking historic new steps.
Almost monthly, the Pope made some sort of new gesture or held a
landmark meeting. If we take a look at some of the major events from
last year, we see that from the very beginning this emphasis on dialogue
was in many ways a papal priority for the year.
In addition to praying for interfaith dialogue in January, Pope
Francis made his first visit to Rome’s synagogue that month, where he
embraced Rome’s Chief Rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, and urged Jews and
Christians to unite against war and violence.
A month later Pope Francis met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill
Feb. 12 while on his way to Mexico, marking the first-ever meeting
between a Pope and a Patriarch of Moscow.
The two signed a joint-declaration that focused at length on
anti-Christian persecution, the threat of secularism to religious
freedom and the Christian roots of Europe. While many, Greek Catholics
in particular, weren’t happy with how the document handled the Ukraine
crisis, for others it was a decent start to a nuanced yet positive
In March Pope Francis put this desire for interfaith unity into
action by washing the feet of 12 migrants during his Holy Thursday Mass
at a refugee welcome center on the outskirts of Rome. The migrants
belonged to different faiths, and included Muslims, Christians and one
April marked not only the Pope's daytrip to the Greek island of
Lesbos where he met with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of
Constantinople and Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and All
Greece to draw attention to the migration crisis, but it was also the
month Francis met with the head of the Society of Saint Pius X, Bishop
After what has been a lengthy and at many times tumultuous process of
dialogue between the SSPX and the Vatican to restore ties, recent steps
have suggested a warming in relations.
Among these steps was Pope Francis' decision in September 2015 to
allow SSPX priests to validly hear confessions during the Jubilee – a
mandate he has indefinitely extended – as well as his decision that year
to send a cardinal and three bishops to visit the seminaries of the
SSPX in order to become better acquainted with the society, and to
discuss doctrinal and theological topics in a less formal context.
These moves culminated in the Pope's meeting with Fellay in April
2016, during which “it was decided that the current exchanges would
continue,” a statement from the Vatican describing the meeting read.
While the canonical status of the society was not directly addressed,
the Pope and Bishop Fellay determined “that these exchanges ought to
continue without haste.”
In May Pope Francis made what many viewed as a quantum leap in terms
of Catholic-Muslim relations when he welcomed the rector of Egypt’s
prestigious al-Azhar University, Imam Ahmen al-Tayyeb, to the Vatican
for a private audience.
Relations were strained under Benedict in 2011 with claims he had
“interfered” in Egypt’s affairs by condemning a bomb attack on a church,
but they made a dramatic shift after Francis and Al-Tayyeb’s meeting.
Following their May 2016 encounter, it was announced in October that the
university and the Vatican will officially resume dialogue toward the
end of April 2017.
In June Pope Francis traveled Armenia for a trip largely made to
commemorate the centenary of the Armenian Genocide and support the
country’s Christian majority. During his visit the Pope met with Karekin
II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, speaking to him
of their brotherhood and placing a strong emphasis on unity.
At an ecumenical meeting with Armenian Orthodox leaders the day
before his audience with the Patriarch, Francis prayed that they would
“race toward our full communion” with determination.
As if the events of the first half of the year weren’t enough, after
popping over to Poland for WYD in July, Francis made a quick visit to
Assisi at the beginning of August to celebrate the 800th anniversary of
the dedication of the Portiuncula chapel, the site where the Franciscan
During the visit he had a surprise meeting with Mohamed Abdel Qader,
the Imam of Perugia and Umbria, who was present with the Pope at the
30th World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi a month later.
Convoked by St. John Paul II in 1986, the gathering brings together
representatives of various other religions, both Christian and
non-Christian. During the September encounter, Francis was joined by
Patriarch Bartholomew, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby,
as well as Imam Ahmen al-Tayyeb.
At the end of September Pope Francis made his visit to the Caucasus nations of Georgia and Azerbaijan.
While in Georgia, which is a majority Orthodox nation where relations
with Catholics have traditionally been tense, the Pope met with
Catholicos and Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II, saying unity is
necessary and love for God and the Gospel must overcome “the
misunderstandings of the past” and the problems of the present and
Despite obvious tensions felt during the visit, demonstrated by the
visible presence of members of the Orthodox Church protesting the Pope’s
visit as well as the failure of the Orthodox delegation to show up at
the only public Mass the Pope celebrated, Francis has on several
occasions spoken highly of Ilia, calling him “a man of prayer.”
In Azerbaijan, which marked the first time Francis has traveled to a
majority Shi’ite Muslim nation, he praised the peaceful coexistence of
Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox and Jews the country enjoys. Only 600-700
Catholics live in the country.
Then in October Pope Francis made his historic visit to Sweden for a
joint commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The
event also marks 50 years of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic
Church and the Lutheran World Federation.
During a large ecumenical encounter Pope Francis and Lutheran Bishop
Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, signed a joint
statement together. In a separate event later that day, Francis
stressed that “we remember this anniversary with a renewed spirit and in
the recognition that Christian unity is a priority, because we realize
that much more unites us than separates us.”
Pope Francis gave an interview in November ahead of the close of the
Jubilee of Mercy that focused heavily on the rapid progress ecumenical
and interfaith relations seem to be making during his pontificate.
In the interview, Francis credited this pace to his predecessors,
saying the “small and large steps” that have been taken during his
tenure are not of his own doing, but are rather indicative of the path
of dialogue outlined during the Second Vatican Council “which moves
“I have met the primates and those responsible, it’s true,” he said
in the interview, “but my predecessors have also had their encounters.”
While John Paul II was the first Pope to do make many of the signs
Francis is known for now, such as visiting synagogues and mosques,
Francis noted that “the measure in which we go forward the path seems to
So while it has always been fairly obvious that ecumenical and
interfaith dialogue have had a front row seat in Francis’ pontificate,
taking a look back puts into perspective just how much of a priority
In addition to highlighting this priority, the Pope’s prayer video
this month is also a clear reflection of his preference to focus on
shared areas of interest and collaboration in ecumenical and interfaith
discussions, rather than points of theological division, as a means of
providing both sides the common ground on which to move forward.
For Francis, while questions of theology and doctrine are important,
working together to serve the poor and vulnerable is the privileged
place where ecclesial unity is expressed, even if the theological
wrinkles have yet to be ironed out.
And if his prayer intention this month is any indication, as we look
ahead to 2017 we can anticipate that the type of events and encounters
we saw in 2016 won’t slow down, but will likely continue to gain steam.