‘Among Christians, unity is always greater than conflict” was the title the Vatican News Service gave the conclusion of the 47th Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I had the unforgettable privilege of attending the second vespers office for this week at St Paul’s Outside the Walls Basilica in Rome, with about 4,000 people. I accompanied Pope Francis and the Metropolitan Gennadios, the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch, and many other denominational representatives. Pope Francis said that “perfect union among brothers and sisters can only come from looking to the mind and heart of Christ, who cannot be divided, who wants to draw us to himself, to the sentiments of his heart … to his radical self-emptying for love of humanity. Christ alone can be the principle, the cause and the driving force for our unity.”
Unexpectedly, and unforgettably, the Pope took the Metropolitan and myself, alone, down to the tomb of St Paul which is in the centre of the basilica. He held us by the elbows as he beckoned us to approach the grave, and then he indicated that we should bow, which we did for some minutes, the three of us, in that sacred space. Then we continued with Vespers.
At the end he took the two of us with him again and we greeted all the other Church representatives. After we had recessed together he embraced and kissed the two of us with a holy kiss. These actions of his were said to be unprecedented in recent memory in that liturgy and left a deep impression on the two of us. Surely these dramatic demonstrations of unexpected love are at the heart of the quest for unity.
Pope Francis was also being real when he said: “We have all been damaged by these divisions. None of us wishes to be the cause of scandal. And we are all journeying together, fraternally, on the road toward unity, bringing about unity even as we walk. That unity comes from the Holy Spirit and brings us something unique which only the Holy Spirit can do, that is, reconciling our differences. The Lord waits for us all, accompanies us all, and is with us all on this path to unity.”
What else do we need to say to each other? This is our text. This is our goal, and this is the spirituality for our ecumenism, from the lips of someone who walks his own talk all the time, and invites us to do the same. Let us walk together now, in every way we can. That is what the Anglican Centre in Rome is all about.
In the ecumenical encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That they may be one”) John Paul II laid out a breathtaking vision of the way
the world could be with a reunited Church. This letter appeals to all Christians of good conscience to consider what unity might look like in the light of our diversity, and ask for help in re-creating what was lost from Christ’s own undivided presence on earth. Christ is not divided, so the closer we come to Him, and live and move and have our being in Him, the closer we come to each other. We are called to increase the degrees of communion we already share from our common baptism into the life of the triune God.
I also find in Pope Francis the witness I need to be an ecumenical and justice-seeking Christian in the world today. He has quickly become the most iconic moral authority in the world today, Why? Because he represents in himself the cumulative wisdom, experience and missiology of a Franciscan and Jesuit Christian. This is what we need as a guide to Christian living in a pluralistic, hedonist and information technology-driven world. The Pope challenges us to move out of our sanctuaries and our computer-bordered worlds into the streets with common compassion and solidarity with the poorest of the poor. He wants us to rediscover there true humanity in Christ. So this is no popularity strategy, it is not a charm offensive by the Roman Catholic Church. This is deep witness from the heart of the Gospel. This witness connects with so many because we are all made in the image of God, however marred or soiled that image may be, and the image within us from our own creation, recognises the spirit of Christ in Pope Francis. This is not a human achievement, but a work of the Holy Spirit in the Church Catholic.
Joy, mission, conversion, diversity, poor, inclusive, decentralise: these are the main words on the cover illustration from a recent copy of the Tablet, derived from Pope Francis’s latest missive to the Church and the world. These are the words he uses to speak of his faith, his hope and his love. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, also uses this kind of language and this kind of approach to being Christian in the world at this time. This synergy of spirit is surely God-given and a means of much grace. This is what God’s Incarnation is like: the “Word” made flesh, Love incarnate, looks and feels and sounds like this. Joy is the most obvious sounding here, because God’s reign of righteousness and justice is coming in, is coming among us, is born again in us, and is taking flesh among us, nearer than heartbeat, closer than breathing. And this Word comes to us as we are, where we are, gracing us with an unexpected gift to our souls and lives, even (and especially) if we don’t feel like or think we deserve it. This word is coming to us through the Bishop of Rome in these days.
It has been said that it was by a joyful generosity that the Church captured the imagination of Europe in the first place. This is what we are hearing and seeing again in these days of this remarkably transformative pontificate, building on the work and the hope of so many who came before.
The Most Rev David Moxon is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See and director of the Anglican Centre in Rome
This article is one of nine featured in this week’s Catholic Herald analysing the first anniversary of Pope Francis’s election. To subscribe to click here.